GRAMMY SoundTables Goes After Hours With The Music Mixers for New York TV Nighthawks
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Big sound on the small tube has never been easy. The smoke and mirrors of television entertainment camouflage what are by necessity small, tight stages in studios that are acoustically dodgy and designed foremost with the camera in mind. But what ties that all together is the sound — the right mixer can make even the smallest of television speakers sound almost hi-fi. More importantly, they need to be able to get what the music artist intended to convey across the ether or the cable, in some cases live in the moment and in any case with very little in the way of a musical safety margin, especially when they’re mixing a new band every night.
A rapt audience at the Audio Engineering Show in New York on Halloween learned this and more at the “GRAMMY SoundTables: After Hours—Mixing for Late Night New York,” a panel moderated, appropriately, by Will Lee, long-time bassist and bon vivant with all of David Letterman’s late-night bands. The panel was made up, appropriately, of mixers for the three major late-night shows that originate from New York.
“As Good As It Looks”
“The big concern is always, how is the show going to look, and they set that first,” said Lawrence Manchester, music mixer (aka in broadcast as the A1), who mixes The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “Our job is to make it sound as good as it looks.”
Manchester began working with the comedian on his Late Night With Jimmy Fallon talk show prior to The Tonight Show and followed him there when he made the move to what had once been Johnny Carson’s and Jay Leno’s hallowed seat, after he had already spent years of recording orchestral and film scores and doing some audio work on Saturday Night Live.
SNL has been Josiah Gluck’s home since 1988, where he worked on music cues and other incidental audio before the show’s coordinating producer Stacey Foster asked him to take on the live mix of the show’s musical guests in 1992. By late-night standards, Gluck has an almost luxurious amount of time with guest music artists, with rehearsals beginning the Thursday before the show and that run straight through early evening dress rehearsal. “I’ve got the moves pretty well rehearsed at that point,” he says, but adds that the huge number of wireless microphones used by SNL’s populous and protean cast can be a challenge when combined with those on the musicians themselves, all in an RF-dense environment like New York City. The big challenge? “When the music star is in the [opening] monologue with the cast,” he said without hesitation. “There’s lots of wireless.”
Arguably, the dean of the A1s on that AES stage was Harvey Goldberg, who like Will Lee had been a constant presence with Letterman, first as the A1 on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman and then on CBS’ The Late Show With David Letterman, and most recently for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in the same Ed Sullivan Theater that Letterman had occupied. Goldberg came to mixing music on television after already spending 20 years making records for artists like Barry Manilow, ‘Til Tuesday, Bronski Beat and Peter Frampton in Manhattan recording studios. Not surprisingly, he’s made his television control rooms look and feel more like those he worked in at classic palaces of sound like Media Sound Studios, including running a vintage Otari RADAR hard-disc recording system in addition to the ubiquitous Pro Tools systems because, he says, “It feels like a tape recorder.”
“[Mixing] music for television you’re not working in the best rooms, acoustically,” he observes. “They’re smaller than they look on television and the musicians are much closer together than they’d be on stage or in the studio. Plus, there’s a lot of metal in there, which can interfere with the wireless microphone systems. You learn to develop a lot of defensive measures.”
Some of those lie in the choice of microphones. “In the studio, you go for high-fidelity microphones so you can capture the entire spectrum of the music,” he explains. “In the studio you can keep drums and guitar amps very well separated, but on television everyone is very closer together and you’d be capturing drums in the vocal mics with really sensitive microphones. So we tend to use more directional microphone types that are good at rejecting the sounds you don’t want even if they do so with a bit less fidelity. You find ways to make it work.”
That encapsulates the television music mixer’s nightly challenge: take an incredibly diverse array of music artists, most of whom you’ve just met for the first time, and make them sound like their record on television, a medium whose heavily dynamically compressed sound is inherently inhospitable to music.
“Experience is what you rely on in lieu of time,” is Lawrence Manchester’s equation. “You’re forced to come up with a plan of attack but you also have to have a Plan B just in case.” Josiah Gluck calls their accumulated know-how “tribal knowledge” that can refer instantly to “a mental playbook” of tricks and strategies that have kept the music playing uninterrupted for decades.
Music is not constrained to the last 4 minutes of the late shows these days. Hosts like Jimmy Fallon routinely work up musical skits, like the one where he channeled Neil Young next to a very real Bruce Springsteen. “It uses up a lot of wireless,” said Manchester, noting that in addition to Fallon and his peripatetic guests roaming the stage during skits, house band The Roots are also using over two dozen channels of wireless systems, including microphones, in-ear monitors and guitar transmitters. “We began the show with forty channels of wireless and I though we’d never use them all,” he recalled. “Then we used them all on the very first show.”
Fallon seems to be the most obsessed with music and sound. His show emanates from NBC’s Studio 6B, which got a full makeover by leading acoustical consultants and also sports a Meyer Sound Constellation electro-acoustical system, which can add additional ambience as needed. SNL’s Studio 8H was originally furbished for the NBC Symphony Orchestra maestro Arturo Toscanini, including a floating floor to isolate it from the elevated subway line that ran along Sixth Avenue years ago. However, all that was eliminated when SNL’s space requirements came along in 1975.
When Harvey Goldberg came back to the Ed Sullivan Theatre to work on Stephen Colbert’s show, he found its original architectural dome had been revealed and is now splendiferously illuminated with projection mapping. Its acoustics, however, were less then amazing.
“The theater goes back to the early 1900s, and the stage was designed to project sound,” he says. “I’d put the same microphone in the same place I used to [for the Letterman show] but it would sound completely different.” He said it was an ongoing process to learn the room’s acoustical nuances.
Three different shows, three different hosts, three different music mixers; but all shared the sentiment that Jay-Z gave us in “Empire State Of Mind”: “There's nothin' you can't do, Now you're in New York.”