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Behind The Scenes: Mixing Monitors On A Late-Night TV Show

The author shares his expertise on the day-to-day portions of mixing a late night TV house band and navigating the role that music plays in reinforcing the comedy portions of the show. He discusses various talkback systems and using IEMs for program feeds.

Editor’s Note: This article is provided by the In-Ear Monitor International Trade Organization (IEMITO).

A reputable industry colleague rang me up while I was in the midst of production rehearsals for a U.S tour. He went on to tell me about a new late night show, or as he called it “this new thing that’s going on over at 30 Rock.”

With a string of good years of growth, a bit of mixing chops, and knowing just the right people, there was no doubt I was excited to take on a new challenge. It’d be only a slight exaggeration to say I jumped off the tour bus at the chance to meet the audio crew of Saturday Night Live at NBC Studios in Manhattan (a.k.a., 30 Rock), the first step on a journey that led to me serving as the monitor engineer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (now The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon).

I remember scanning my guest pass, stepping through the security stanchion, and boarding an elevator speeding towards the 7th floor. I believe it’s when the door opened that I slipped into total mind-meld because the next few hours became a complete blur.

Having been on that floor so many times since, I can now only imagine what the uninitiated, non-TV-life civilian might feel. People with headsets and clipboards were moving about expeditiously; set pieces staged in the elevator lobby; extras being led to their starting spots to stand by for their cue; security guards giving every strange face a once over; the din of hallway TVs broadcasting the live feed; groups of twos and threes huddled discussing how a sketch went over or how the Yankees are doing.

Then. . . the roar of a live audience billowed down the hallway from the studio floor and surrounded me in a life-giving cloud of euphoria. Over the ceiling intercom a woman’s voice announces, “Up next, Bill and Tina in the llama sketch.” I was excited to witness some amazing green screen magic but then I see a real live llama — it’s just standing there in the hallway with its handler and the local ASPCA representative taking notes on its care.

I was ushered into Mix 1, a room where there was probably a tape op (Pro Tools), a mixer, an assistant, and the person I was there to meet, the late Stacey Foster. The mix room was always very calm, dark, and operated with decorum. Immediately after introductions, my resume was set aside.

The energy leans more mob meeting and less job interview. I was definitely standing in the most important moment of my life. I can only imagine how big my eyes were as I scanned the control room full of the gear, the large console, and the screens that showed the next sketch being prepared on the floor.

I’m sure I bumbled through some words. No — I’m positive that I did. Eventually, the graciousness of my hosts put me at ease. A portal opened, and I was transported to the 8th floor. A Yamaha PM1D mixing console came into view. I had seen one of these before. A bit of calm returned to my left pinky toe.

The monitor world, while usually stage left, sits high above the studio floor behind the audience in the far house-left corner. The view felt like being in the ivory tower with the entire earth spread out for my viewing pleasure.

Deals were being made between the camera op who needed to move his large HD camera rig a bit left and the props master who needed to drop off freshly filled water balloons for the llama sketch. The boom microphone op was moving their cherry picker contraption into position to pick up the dialog. Wardrobe and makeup were performing last looks on the talent, making sure he or she was accurately groomed. Said talent was skimming through his/her cue cards one last time.

The stage manager started to count down from five. And yes . . . just like Wayne’s World, they didn’t audibly say the numbers “2” or “1,” only indicating with a raised right hand the last two numbers followed by a feverously wagging index finger toward the first cue card that was now floating over Camera 1. The red light went on and the rest, they say, is history.

What I had witnessed so far that day and what I was about to experience the rest of that night gave me a taste of the crazy world that I would be a part of for the next seven years.

Running monitors (foldback, as they call it in TV) is very different than mixing monitors for a typical live music act. Communication is critical. I needed to cue the console while listening to the comm panel for cues, talking back and forth with the sound team, all the while not interrupting the show that was going on in front of a live studio audience not five feet away.

In the first iteration of Late Night, the PM1D I was using was on the floor in between The Roots and the audience. My gaze crossed directly over the monologue mark straight to home base where the host’s desk sat. I was new to the whole NBC scene but managed to get a 9-pin to XLR male cable custom-made from the electrical shop. This lovely little tail was my best friend. It attached to the back of the BTS comm panel, and the house comm programmer routed whatever audio was coming out of the speaker on the comm panel to the 9 pin cable and which fed the communication section of the PM1D. This enabled me to have comms in my IEMs where it bothered no one.

Once the PM1D was done with its service, the show moved on to Avid Profiles and eventually landed on DiGiCo SD7s. During the Profile days, I routed the cue, the comm, the monitor talkback and a wireless switched shout mic to a small Mackie mixer so that I could set a level and panning position on each of these elements.

This exercise has become increasingly easier over the years with updated matrix routing on the new consoles. But back on version 1 of this listening system, we used what we had readily available.

So now that I could hear the director, the stage manager, my A2 (who roamed the floor on a wireless headset), and the other three mixers in the audio department, I had to solve the problem of being able to communicate with the band.

The musical director — MD for short — of TV bands usually talks to three different categories of people: the band, the air/audience/host, and the booth. This is accomplished with a few mics and logistical use of interrupt switches, otherwise known as talkback pedals. The MD has a lapel mic pinned on them as well as a microphone for singing in front of them on a stand. These are used for any material that is to go to air, whether it’s singing or talking.

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