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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.

Just off to the side of them is a third microphone. This mic can be switched at the mic or via a talkback pedal wired inline but sitting on the floor. When they need to talk to the band in order to direct them as to what’s coming up next, they can easily slip a foot over and relay that message to the bands’ IEMs. This is also the way they can get in touch with the monitor engineer for changes.

An additional pedal is utilized with a “Y” split from the MD’s talkback mic so they can communicate with the truck or the booth. The booth A1 creates a signal path that allows the director to talk to the MD. The cable path to connect the booth with monitors is ran by the booth A2.

This system allows the MD to discuss with the director or show producer any changes during the show that would require music changes as well. The director can cue the band when to start and stop the music. It’s typical for the show to ebb and flow in time and space. Getting that message to the band clearly helps the MD decide on the most appropriate music to play next or whether he should jump to different song cues.

Version two of the Mackie mixer matrix was to build the cue bus comm system on the onboard console matrixes. I routed all of the talkbacks to a dedicated stereo aux bus. This aux was routed to a set of input channels on a pair of matrix output channels along with the solo L/R bus and the mono comm input from our lovely 9-pin to XLRM cable.

The beauty of the stereo talkback aux is that all the talkback mics can be heard comfortably as well as panned so that the center of your cue buss isn’t muddled with a many talking voices all trying to get your attention.

EQ and gating is required to cleaning up extraneous noise from these utilitarian inputs and allow for musical decisions to be made on the other inputs. It takes a bit of time to identify all of the new noises that may be heard in the cue bus from dirty comm signals or talkbacks bringing in room tone. I try to get my in-ear-monitors in as soon as possible on TV show builds, so as things come online, I can hear their noise signatures and address any problems before my attention is required for show production.

Creating a talkback matrix takes some time to map out and a bit of care to implement. Thinking about what person needs be able to communicate to all the other options within your audio system’s reach, how loud, and when will determine routing, panning and levels. As always when setting levels; make sure to set proper gain and limiting for all signals coming into the console that are from sources outside of your control. Protecting the mixer’s hearing and the band’s hearing is of the upmost importance.

Another element in the band’s ears is the program feed. This feed is all the other audio channels used during a TV show that aren’t musical. These include inputs such as podium mics, video playback, talent mics, and sound effects. Any input the band doesn’t play comes from the booth A1 or a dedicated sound effects operator. During setup, the booth A2 will stop by with a cable in some flavor of digital or analog. They will want to trade some audio with you. Trust me, what they are giving to you is way better than what they are getting from you, so it’s a pretty good deal. This will usually contain the following.

Program — the sum of all the production mics mixed down to one post fader feed. Once you set a level, the signal will appear as the A1 mixes the show.

Video Tape L/R: Post fader videotape feed that I leave fairly low so the band has a bit of continuity in their ears but doesn’t interrupt and business they need to do while not playing.

Music L/R: anything the band isn’t playing live that gets triggered from the booth.

Audience L/R: All of the audience mics mixed down to a left-right feed. I ask for this pre-fader from the A1 since they will be pushing and pulling to grab laughs during the show. Not typically put in the house band’s ears, but nice to have on the desk if needed quickly.

Director Feed: Routed to the MD and possibly to the band if there is a cue that is timely that the MD can’t relay quick enough — EQ taste and limit for hearing safety.

Clicks & Counts: Any elements that the band’s playing must be in sync with, i.e., videos, fireworks, and sound effects

MD talk to booth channel. This goes out of a local output pre-mute, pre-fader so that when the MD presses the pedal to talk to the booth, the monitor desk is just a pass through.

After all the mechanics are laid in, we can start the mix. The monitor mixes going out to the band will have a player-appropriate mix of music, a touch of the production elements so they aren’t left in the blind during non-musical segments, and the MD’s talkback mic.

A switched talkback mic is setup for each band member or section of similar musicians. It is highly recommended that these are a foot pedal setup so they can talk while keeping both hands free to play music. This will also lessen the chances of the switch being left on, which will allow stage bleed to build up in the talkback bus as well as the player’s mixes. Each player gets their corresponding talkback loudest in their mix. Checking each station beforehand with an assistant is crucial to ensure confidence before the band shows up.

One of the techniques used to aid in communication is to have all the program elements on an interrupt switch. For my purposes, I programmed a non-latching macro that would duck the appropriate program channels -10db when pressed. When my finger was on the button, the program material lowered in the band’s IEMs and they could quietly communicate amongst each other with their talkback mics. When they were done discussing the matters at hand, I would take my finger off the button and the program material would return to the normal level in their ears.

I never would have guessed that day at SNL would take me down the road to mixing in so many different broadcast situations. I’ve had the pleasure to watch hockey outside in a football stadium; mix Justin Timberlake as he slayed the Pepsi halftime show at the Super Bowl; mix Chris Stapleton and JT at the CMAs and knowing the music world had been changed; being side stage at the Oscars, The Grammys, The Brit Awards, Cannes Film Festival, The Latin Grammys, Ellen, Letterman, Leno, The View, Today Show, Good Morning America, Graham Norton, Al Murray the Pub Landlord, Eurovision, being a part of all the crazy sketches we championed at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon over its 5-year run. Lastly, being able to honor Kobe Bryant last month while supporting Alicia Keyes while she performed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” so beautifully. I’m always excited when the phone rings for that next adventure.

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