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?