Mixing: Vocals First

My first blog covered a lot about line-by-line mixing: what it is, how it’s done, and why we do it. One thing I never addressed was how you learn to do it. This video of me mixing Miss Saigon is after years of practice and certainly not what I was doing when I sat in front of my first sound console.

So, time to go back to the beginning! In high school, when our TD put me in front of that board for the first time I knew what the mute buttons did and that was about it. So that’s what I used, muting people when they went offstage and unmuting them when they came back on. I didn’t do much (if anything) with the faders, but you heard all the lines and that was really all they were looking for when we did one show with microphones per year.

As I started doing more shows, I learned what the faders did and could focus more on how everything came together: adjusting levels so dialogue sounded more consistent from person to person and blending vocals better so duets actually sounded like two people in harmony and not one person at full throttle while the other was a whisper.

Then I went to college and was taught that using faders instead of mute buttons made mixing much easier. The concept is still the same, but when you don’t have to take your hands off the faders to hit the mutes, it makes things far more efficient. Wherever you think you are when you’re first learning how to mix, always start with the vocals and do whatever you need to so you don’t miss a line. During tech, the job of designers and directors is to nitpick, find problems, and tweak them before the show gets in front of an audience, so it’s doubly important to make sure they hear every line. First, so they can hear the show and can find what doesn’t work and revamp it. Secondly, if they can hear everything, they won’t nitpick sound. Tech is stressful enough without a design team breathing down your neck asking why lines got dropped. So vocals are your number one. Even if you have all the mics onstage up at the beginning, that gives you a point to work from as you get more familiar with the show.

In July I got thrown into an emergency situation on Peter Pan Goes Wrong where the mixer got Covid and the A2 was away on vacation for the week. A phone call that started my day with, “Can you get on a train now to be at the theatre and watch the mix, just in case.” turned into “Think you can mix the show in an hour?” by the time I walked into the theatre. Since it’s a straight play and a comedy, most of the mix is dialogue and sound effects with a song thrown in to start act two just for fun. But comedy relies heavily on the audience being able to actually hear and understand the setup and punchlines, so that was the priority, with the rest of my focus going toward making sure the sound effects were in the right place.

Through absolute chance, I’d seen the show a couple of weeks prior with a friend, so I at least knew the general plot and characters. Other than that I was sight-reading the script as I mixed the show for the first time in front of a paying audience. This is the point where the ego takes a backseat. I know how to mix line by line and I have over a decade of practice, so there was no doubt that I could do it. However, even a 90% accuracy rating would mean that I’d mess something up on every tenth line, and the audience couldn’t care less if the mix was an ode to line-by-line technique, but they would definitely care that they couldn’t understand the jokes because I was dropping lines.

So I went back to basics, keeping mics up a few lines ahead of where the actors were and following the helpful notes in the A2’s script of when I could take mics out because they were done for a while. It wasn’t perfect, but the crew and management were thrilled that the show had gone well and the audience had no idea that I was flying by the seat of my pants on pure adrenaline.

In that scenario, I made a conscious choice not to mix line by line and there are reasons not to: like me, you might not be familiar with the show and the audience’s experience takes priority over technique. Maybe you’re still learning how to mix in general and worried you’ll miss pick-ups. Or it could be something with the show itself: a sequence that’s too complicated, or people are talking over each other without a good way to pull them out, or quiet scenes where you’ll have an audible change in noise that’s distracting to you and the audience as you bring the faders in and out quickly (thank you HVAC systems). In any case, there should always be a reason you choose not to mix line by line, and that reason should never be that you just don’t want to.

Learning to mix is the best reason to take the time and go slow. First, you start with everyone in a scene up. Once you have a grasp on that, you can start to break it down into manageable chunks that progressively get smaller. Mark when someone doesn’t have lines for a bit: if actors 1, 2, and 5 are the only ones talking for a page or two, you can pull 3, 4, and 6 out until they’re needed. Maybe you start with everyone in a scene up. Once you feel comfortable with that, you move to only have the people you need for a couple of pages, then just one page, then the next four lines, the next three, etc. Eventually, you get used to the flow of bringing faders up and down for one line at a time.

The beginning stages of learning to mix feel backward because, instead of focusing on who you need to have up, you’re looking for people you can pull out of the mix who don’t have lines for a bit. From there, you keep making the chunks of the show smaller and smaller. Once you feel like you’re ready to go line by line, take a look at the script and see what each scene looks like. If there are scenes that only have two or three people, start with those. Larger group scenes have more variables and skipping around on faders and are therefore harder to do. Once you get into it, there are several common mistakes mixers make as they’re learning line by line. The biggest one is that they try to be overly precise about having only ONE mic up at a time. This usually looks like sliding faders past each other so one person is fading out as the other’s line fades in, which means the audience loses the first and last parts of the lines. Or snapping faders up on the first word and slamming them down on the last of a line, again, cutting off the very first and last bits of the words. Treat every line as its own individual entity. I usually bring a mic up on the last word of the previous line and then don’t take it out until the next person starts talking. As I figure out the pacing of the actors, I can get tighter with the pick-ups or learn where I have to throw mics even earlier, say if someone’s going to interrupt mid-line.

When you’re learning to mix, ironically listening is one of the hardest things to do. We get so wrapped up in the mechanics that we don’t even realize we’re cutting off bits of lines in an effort to be as tight and efficient as possible. If you start slow and work your way to line-byline gradually, it helps you develop your ear as well as your motor function so you’re less likely to fall into that trap. Another common pitfall for mixers is the concept of “fader creep” which is when a scene gets progressively louder as it goes on because you keep throwing faders slightly further and further trying to match the previous levels without realizing that everything just keeps getting bigger and bigger. There are still times I’ll put a note in my script of “Watch Fader Creep!” especially if someone is supposed to be loud in a scene, it reminds me to bring things back a bit after that moment is done or when a big musical number has just ended and you’re bringing the level back to dialogue.

When you feel like you’ve got a good grasp on line by line, the next step is testing out your single-handed dexterity. The mix video from Miss Saigon at the beginning of this blog is a rather extreme example. I do almost all of the vocals with my left hand so my right can stay on the orchestra faders (11 and 12), the vocal verb (9), the band verb (10), and take cues (the small button on the right). That ended up being my solution for this sequence where there were a lot of band moves or verb changes that happened at the same time as dialogue. In most cases, both hands will share vocal faders, but sometimes your left will have to do a little more of the heavy lifting so your right can manage the other faders. Mean Girls is a better example of this during New Kid.

Learning to mix is a process that can feel like two steps forward and one step back. When you are ready to step into the next phase of tightening up pickups, you’ll make mistakes. We’ve all been there, many of us with spectacular stories of misfired cues or agonizing moments of silence as we fumbled for the right fader. These are the moments when you start to learn the kind of brutal honesty a mixer has to have with themselves. If you’re trying to move too far too fast, you’ll miss pickups. When that happens, you have to acknowledge it and go back to your comfort zone. When I got thrown into mixing Peter Pan, I took that step back, and it was the best thing to keep the show running and the audience happy. In each show, I worked to get a little better, and that’s how the process happens.

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