Line by line mixing musicals and plays has been a passion of mine for many years and I’ve been very lucky to be one of the few musical theatre sound operators able to mix musicals on both an analog board and a digital board, and even though the technology has changed, the style of mixing hasn’t.
It’s this style of mixing that people ask me about the most.
The style I’m talking about is line by line mixing. This is very different from what they do in a recording studio.
Simply put, it’s when the sound operator turns on a mic and off when a line is said.
Line by line mixing in musicals is a unique approach that sets it apart from other forms of audio and music production. This style of mixing involves turning on a microphone precisely when a line is spoken and turning it off immediately afterward.
There are 3 different ways I’ve seen sound engineers or a production engineer mix line by line, but before I get into that, what is the difference between mixing your favourite band and mixing a musical?
Band vs Musical
Audio and music production
Mixing a musical and mixing a band or other audio and music production are different because of 6 main factors. These factors are, Vocalists, Dynamics, Time Delay, Desk Cues, Mics and Mixing Style.
A band normally has a lead singer, with the bass player and drummer joining in and a few backing singers for good measure.
A musical could have 40 to 50 singers singing at one time, all singing different lines in the song.
In a musical the dynamics of a song can change a number of times, this could be due to dialogue within the song or because the director and sound designers want to create a certain emotion for the audience.
A band doesn’t normally have that many dynamic changes.
There isn’t normally much need to change the delay time on the lead singer of a band unless they move from the front of the stage.
In theatre, the singers get everywhere, front, back, and sides, and this can be a nightmare. To cope with that, some designers change the delay time on the singers. This can be done via the singer’s desk channel or via a vocal group. The designer could allocate 3 groups for each vocal zone and have different delay times. (see diagram) The operator would watch the actors and change the desk cue when the actors moved from zone to zone.
Musical songs have more desk scene changes than band songs as there are more dialogue bits, time delay changes and reverb changes. A band may have a scene recall for each song in the song set or a list of backing tracks. That could be 15 to 17 cues for an entire show. A musical could have over 300 desk cues and lots of sound effects.
Most bands use the good old SM 58 microphone or other similar handheld microphones. Musicals use hairline, boom, and handhelds microphones. This changes the way the show is mixed.
For a band, you normally push all the microphones up and do small tweaks for each song.
For a musical, you mix each line as it’s said. Over the years I have come across three styles of mixing.
Mutes, Automation and Fader.
Mutes, Automation or Faders.
Using Mute Groups
Some engineers use the mute groups. This method is a bit harsh and I don’t really consider it as mixing.
The professional audio operator unmutes the mic just before the line is spoken and muted again once the line is said.
This way of mixing could be used on a small show that doesn’t have a sound engineer and uses a stage manager to fire the lighting and sound desks at the same time. This style doesn’t work well as it relies heavily on the actor saying the line at exactly the same level every time.
A similar way of mixing uses an automation system on a modern digital desk. This works well for pre-recorded tracks as the tracks are the same level every show. Again, it doesn’t work that well with real-life actors, only because they aren’t as consistent as recorded tracks.
This is the most common way sound engineers use to mix. The operator pushes or pulls the faders as each line is said to balance the actors or singers. This is great for live shows as the sound engineer has more control and can adjust the volume quickly.
Why are musicals mixed line by line.
Theatrical Sound design can be slightly different to plays, TV or films, as they normally use hairline microphones or microphones attached to ear hangers.
Plays, TV and Films
Plays usually use microphones attached to the front of the stage called float microphones and TV and films use boom microphones which are held over the actors, just out of shot.
In a musical, the microphones that are used are small personal ones that are normally the size of the nail on your little finger. They are normally placed either in the hairline or on a boom as shown.
These microphones are attached to transmitters and are called radio, wireless mics or body packs.
They are normally are fitted before the show and are constantly checked and monitored by a mic runner who would also do any mic swaps.
Large musicals can have as many as 70 radio mics in the production and a scene might have 20 actors saying or singing a line, that means there are 20 mics being used.
Having 20 mics up at the same time would create certain acoustic problems like feed back and would reduce clarity, so mixing every line when it happens helps with reducing these problems.
I recently worked with an American producer who was putting on a brand new show and after the first tech run, they said they had trouble hearing voices and asked why a couple of lines were missed. I explained that the lines were missed because I hadn’t seen the show before and I was a little slow on the fader.
They were confused and asked why were the mics off when the actors were on stage.
I explained and demonstrated as it was an unfamiliar mixing style to them and it blew their minds. They told me that in the last show they had produced, every mic was live and the actors were told not to talk.
What effects line by line mixing?
Direction, hats, EQ, and compressors can all affect how you mix each line.
Where the actors are placed on stage matters. The closer the actors the tighter your mixing has to be.
Sometimes the actors are so close for example, during a fight or love scene, it’s best to use just one mic and adjust it accordingly.
Hats and EQ
When an actor wears a hat, the sound designer may decide that actor needs a different EQ.
This new EQ may now sound great for the actor wearing the hat but not so great for anyone else speaking close to that mic.
Mixing each line separately will help reduce the time the hat mic is live and picking up other actors.
With the more advanced digital console comes the capability of having a compressor across everything, (which in my opinion isn’t always a good thing.)
That means you can have two singers in a scene singing the same song but at different levels. When they are placed at different ends of the stage this isn’t a problem.
The problem arises when again they are close and “screaming down each other’s mics” as I like to say.
The louder singer could trigger the compressor of the softer singer which could mean the sound engineer loses one of the singers.
To be honest, there isn’t much you can do in the situation other than speaking with the director and actors either to cheat the positions or sing quieter.
The main benefit is because each actor has their own mic and channel, the sound designer can EQ and compress them separately, leading to a smoother and nicer sound.
Another benefit is the sound engineer has more control over each mic and line. This can be really important when you have two or more actors who speak or sing at different levels or if the orchestra is close.
The sound operator can push or pull the faders to balance the actors.
This way will always sound tighter and clearer than leaving all the mics up and hoping for the best which is better for the sound design especially if there is an emotional moment.
The main downside is when you are new to the show and have to read the script and you can make more mistakes and miss lines.
Also, when you are reading the script, you are not really listening to the show as much as you should, meaning it could be a bit choppy and louder or quieter than the sound designer or producers would like.
In conclusion, mixing a musical is like trying to herd cats, but with microphones and sound effects. But don’t worry, I’ve got this under control. If you want to know how to become a musical theatre sound engineer in 2022, check out my other posts. If you want to be taught how to mix musicals by me then check out Mixing for Musicals course, held over a two-day period at Orbital Sound in south London.
How if you are ready to hear your musical come to life? Contact me and let’s make some beautiful noise together!