Folks with a background in mixing live music are often surprised when they learn how professional musical theater productions are mixed: extensive console automation is used to bring the active character inputs onto the console VCAs, which are then adjusted “line by line,” which minimizes the audibility of bleed and phase issues, and keeps open inputs to a minimum.
It’s a far cry from the gentle rudder adjustments necessary to mix many music shows, and until recently, was a difficult prospect for smaller productions due to the unique demands on mixing console automation.
Theatrical sound engineer James Holt, based in Australia, has developed a free software tool called X32 Theater Control (X32TC) that brings the current best practices of Broadway and West End console automation to users of Behringer X32 and Midas M32 consoles.
The software runs on an external computer, completely independent of the console’s onboard automation system, and greatly streamlines the programming process as well as enabling more granularity in the recall parameters useful for theatrical mixing (automate VCA membership and scribble name/color independent of fader position, or input delay independent of preamp level, etc.).
It also provides a large number of additional useful features, and you can learn more about it at jamesholt.audio. In the meantime, enjoy this recent discussion with James.
Michael Lawrence: Before we get to the software tool you’ve created, can we start with your background in audio?
James Holt: Like a lot of sound people, my background is in music. I’m a classically trained pianist. From a young age I was always interested in lighting/sound at performances, probably more than the music I was supposed to be performing. When I started high school, the main student tech introduced me to the local youth theatre company which had a sort of unofficial technical stream – basically we’d attend some acting classes but spend a lot of the time doing (mostly unsupervised) technical things in the 250-seat theatre.
For a few years I ran sound for the youth theatre company’s productions (concerts, revues, a musical) but had to give it up in my penultimate year of high school to concentrate on studies. I was accepted into my (second) high school on a music scholarship – it was a rewarding experience but ultimately led to burn out. After high school I still enjoyed music but wanted to take a break from performing (and practicing and rehearsing and practicing…).
So in my first year of university I decided to get back into theatre, partly as something to complement the highly technical double degree I had chosen to study. At the time the senior arm of the theatre company needed a sound tech for their shows as the previous one had moved on, so I put my hand up, joined the volunteer committee, and have been technical manager of the company ever since (recently awarded life membership).
Slowly over time I was able to upgrade the theatre’s equipment: I’m now mixing on dual Behringer X32s (with Midas stage boxes), and the system also has Meyer Sound UPJ/UPJunior/UPM loudspeakers as well as 32 wireless systems. Fortunately my day job allows flexible work hours and locations so I’m able to continue my theatre interests alongside a career in telecommunications engineering.
ML: So it sounds like you really learned a lot by just doing it over and over.
JH: I’ll be the first to admit that my early mixes were not great; at the time there wasn’t a lot of useful reference material available for mixing musicals, so my guidance came from listening to original cast recordings and the occasional professional show I’d see in the city. Over time I learned largely through failure – mixing musicals is not the sort of thing to do if you need constant positive reinforcement in your life.
I’d like to think my music background helped with cueing microphones and understanding the dynamics of scores, but for me mixing a musical is a completely different mental state to performing as you’re simultaneously completely in control (of the faders) and completely not in control (of the actors, band, wireless mics, audience, etc.). When it all works though, I find the flow state more rewarding than performing because there are so many variables in play, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often in community productions.
A big turning point for me was five years ago when I attended a couple of useful industry seminars. The first was Bob McCarthy’s design/optimization course – learning his applied physics approach to sound reinforcement really helped me analyze what I was trying to achieve, and it also created a bridge between my engineering mind (generally focused on my day job) and my creative mind (generally focused on theatre).
The second was a class run by Andrew Bruce on theatre software and sound design. At the time I was looking to move from analog to the X32 (which I’d bought out of curiosity), but I didn’t have a good idea of how professional shows were mixed nor (more importantly) how their sound designs were created, and how digital console features were used in that design process.