Notes on Mixing Live Sound for Theatre

February 23, 2011 | 9 Comments


Photo courtesy of John Bell

February 23rd, 2011 – Lately, I’ve been working on mixing a small musical that will debut this Friday. It’s definitely a step outside of my comfort zone as mixing live is very different from mixing in a studio, and mixing a musical is very different from mixing a band. Here’s a compilation of some of the things I’ve learned and things that are different from studio work.

For one, there’s a lot of waiting around, but when the show is live, it’s very stressful. In fact, I don’t sit down for the entire performance, constantly monitoring levels and riding the faders. I am communicating constantly with the stage manager, a partner that cues music, and another that cues multimedia portions. Great communication between all of us makes the job flow a lot smoother.

One of the things that makes mixing theatre particularly difficult is different actors coming on and off scene at different times in each act which requires muting and un-muting their wireless microphones on the fly. This requires learning the scripts very well to know who needs what at any given time. Additionally, the actors have very different levels when singing versus speaking. This can be partially combated by subtle compression, but to remain dynamically interesting I prefer to manually adjust levels as the situation requires.

Occasionally all twelve of the main actors sing together. We have the use of stage monitors but not in-ear monitors. This means that for the actors to hear enough of themselves to work out their sometimes complex harmonies, the monitor mix must be loud enough for them to hear, but quiet enough to not feedback into their sensitive wireless microphones. Because they’re dancing and moving around quite a bit, there is no ideal position for the monitors. I must EQ out the natural feedback tones of the space to reduce the occurrences of feedback, but I cannot eliminate it.

This musical moves pretty quickly between acts and scenes with no intermission. This means that I have very little time to set up audio for the next scene. Luckily, the venue I’m mixing in has a digital mixer which allows me to save mix settings. I’ve found that saving presets for each significantly different scene helps a great deal. I can set up default mutes for actors that aren’t onstage at the beginning of a scene, and I can also set mutes and un-mutes for the monitors for when the actors are just speaking and not singing. The downside of this is that if I want to adjust say the pre-amp setting of an actor’s microphone, I must do it across all preset scenes which can’t exactly be done on the fly. If I need to adjust more than one actor’s settings, that multiplies the work. Take the amount of changes you need to do across the board, and multiply it by the number of presets. You can see how one small change could be a big problem.

For this particular musical which lasts just an hour and a half, I have 19 different scene presets. Even with the presets, I have a copy of the script beside me that I’ve written all over that includes my own scripted movements. For example, when one actor goes into a whisper, I have a note to myself to raise the gain on his channel and bring it back down again after that short section. As well as I think I know to make certain changes, I write everything down because when it’s showtime, I can get caught up in the moment and forget. I never want my mistakes to kill the actors’ flow.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to let things out of my control go. In a studio setting, you can control almost everything in the environment down to the performances that are recorded for posterity. In live situations, anything can and does happen. Sometimes an actor will position their microphone in a position that pops when they move in a certain situation. There’s nothing you can do during the performance except compress their channel so that pops don’t feedback into their microphones and maybe ride the mutes along with their dialogue.

Coming from a studio background, the “in the moment”-ness of live sound mixing is a refreshing change. It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience. I was a bit apprehensive when I first took on the project, but I’m glad I had a chance to be a part of it. And then there are great moments when I can forget about what needs to be done, and just lose myself in mixing the music; it’s fantastic.

If you’ve mixed live sound, do you have any tips to share?

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Comments

  1. Tom Harvey says: May 6, 2011

    Great article! I’ve been looking for articles like this to share with the students in our technical theater program as I expose them to the audio segment of our program. They often think that they know how to run sound just because they know how to turn on the board and put batteries in the mics. Many have a good beginning but don’t understand what else they can learn to be better at their craft, I hope this article helps open their minds and their ears.

  2. Ethan Hedgecock says: September 2, 2011

    Great explanation of exactly what goes into mixing theatre. I share your situation in that I usually operate in the studio, and mixing in any live situation is a great challenge that keeps you fresh and on your toes.
    I agree that a performance should be dynamic, but I use a limiter to catch any unexpected loudness, as hearing protection, and will use single compressors on actors who do not have good dynamics so I don’t have to worry about constant adjustments every line, but only during the dialog.
    One trick I have for feedback prone monitors is to turn down the full monitor mix slightly every time you increase one person’s signal. This will keep your levels in check, and it will cause a bigger perceived change in level to the actors, so less adjustment will be needed. Also, adding a limiter to the monitor signal is a nice safety net in case they do begin to feedback, or can prevent feedback by limiting how loud they can become in the first place.

  3. Sean says: September 7, 2011

    Good tips! I should have probably said that I had a limiter on the mics as well.

  4. mike says: April 30, 2012

    Incredible article on theater mixing. I had no idea how involved the process was. Thanks for eye opening knowledge. Well written.

    Cheers,
    Mike

  5. Ryan Bleaken says: May 28, 2013

    Hello! I just had my first live sound for theater gig tonight and it went pretty well until the last little bit of the show. I was using body mics, wireless handhelds and 3 boundary mics at the front of the stage. It was a simple PA set up but I realized at this point when there were 2 very quiet children speaking and I had to ride the fader real hot. It started to feedback so i dropped it back down a bit but the kids were still too quiet so I lowered my pre amp and raised my fader but still it kept feeding back. After, I realized that the boundary mics were infront of the speakers. I realize the problem has to be dealt with on the fly when something like this occurs but do you feel it would be more effective to move the speakers infront of the boundary mics or to EQ it out. Thanks for the article by the way. Also what kind of limiter and compression hardware are you guys using?

  6. Sean says: June 4, 2013

    Hi Ryan, thanks for the support! If I understand your set up, I would suggest trying the boundary mics beside the speakers. If the mics were to be placed behind the speakers, they might block the quiet voices of the children. We were using the onboard compressors and limiters on our Roland digital mixer. Cheers!

  7. Ryan Arscott says: February 17, 2014

    Hey, great article i am 15 and i am about to start live Sound mixing in live theatre, so i have been looking for a great article, This gives me some tips about what i would need to do, so thanks, I am begging anyone, that has any digital copies of articles or books to help me mix live theatre.
    Thanks,
    Ryan

  8. Lewis says: October 29, 2014

    Depending on the desk you have you can set the HA/Gain to “recall safe”. This means that when you recall a scene your settings for this parameter are not altered.

  9. Sullivan says: April 20, 2016

    I found myself in theater after 4 years of mixing in DAWs, and I used to mix just like you, and basically everyone else who is a beginner in musical theater, but I want to share with you what was passed down to me from a Broadway engineer. If your board has VCAs or DCAs (or even subgroups would work, I think) assign those to characters in the order that they speak in a scene, with your 8th DCA always being the band (everyone not assigned to a DCA is unassigned from stereo) then when you get to the 8th person to speak, make a new scene with them on DCA 1. Often, you’ll take a scene in a more logical place, like during black outs. When I first was told to mix like this, I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world, now I will never mix on a board that doesn’t have DCAs or VCAs.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_d–J8z92I

    Also, while mixing, you’re mixing, tell everyone to leave you alone, you should not be talking to anyone else, your focus needs to be on mixing, anyone who thinks differently can bug off. The stage manager or an audio technician should take care of all cues. And don’t bother monitoring anything. Pit and stage monitors should be set and programmed during tech. Follow the script, listen to the show, and keep your fingers on the faders, anything else is an unnecessary distraction.

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