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Planning is important

I’ve been snowed under, still trying to find my way out of the turmoil. During these periods, planning is even more important, it can be the ticket for success or the lack of it can be the recipe for disaster.

Symphonic live

Recently I was asked to mix a huge live show which had a pop band, a symphonic orchestra, a huge choir and 22 lead singers. I was responsible for the symphonic orchestra and the choir. With a show like this, it is mandatory to plan everything ahead, improvisation here can easily be disastrous.

The whole things starts with rehearsals and a pen and a clean sheet of paper. Yes, even in this modern computerised age, the early stage of planning is still easier and faster on paper. Sketching up the proper sitting positions in the orchestra, the number of players, the different instruments and their corresponding microphones, preliminary channel lists all done on paper. Later on obviously this whole thing will end up in Excel, but for the start when you sit there at the rehearsal, good old paper is much more convenient.

This is also the best time to make some notes on the different arrangements. Later on I’ll have the score, but it is a good idea to make general notes on the different songs. It can personalise the information and in my experience these early notes can trigger your memory later on so you’ll remember much more minute detail while you’ll mix the show. These notes don’t have to be really detailed professional remarks about the song or the arrangement but they must have meaning to the note taker. Write down anything comes to mind, even different moods or feelings. Later it can really help you to remember.

After numerous rehearsals I could make a final channel list:
(V=violin, VA=viola)

  1. V1
  2. V2
  3. V3
  4. V4
  5. V5
  6. V6
  7. V7
  8. V8
  9. V9
  10. V10
  11. V11
  12. V12
  13. V13
  14. V14
  15. V2/1
  16. V2/2
  17. V2/3
  18. V2/4
  19. V2/5
  20. V2/6
  21. V2/7
  22. V2/8
  23. V2/9
  24. V2/10
  25. V2/11
  26. V2/12
  27. V2/13
  28. V2/14
  29. VA1
  30. VA2
  31. VA3
  32. VA4
  33. VA5
  34. VA6
  35. VA7
  36. VA8
  37. VA9
  38. VA10
  39. CELLO1
  40. CELLO2
  41. CELLO3
  42. CELLO4
  43. DBASS1
  44. DBASS2
  45. FLUTE1
  46. FLUTE2
  47. OBOE1
  48. OBOE2
  49. CLARINET1
  50. CLARINET2
  51. BASSOON1
  52. BASSOON2
  53. TRUMPET1
  54. TRUMPET2
  55. TROMBONE1
  56. TROMBONE2
  57. HORN1
  58. HORN2
  59. TUBA
  60. TIMPANI1
  61. TIMPANI2
  62. MARIMBA L
  63. MARIMBA R
  64. XYLOPHONE L
  65. XYLOPHONE R
  66. VIBRAPHONE L
  67. VIBRAPHONE R
  68. PERCUSSION 1
  69. PERCUSSION 2
  70. PERCUSSION 3

Microphones

In a live situation like this, gain before feedback is the priority. Of course we want good sound quality too, but as we need to produce concert volume with a pop band and singers in front of the orchestra, somehow we must have pop SPL from a symphonic orchestra. I know it may sound strange but believe me that without this “rock volume” type preparation the live sound would fail miserably.

So, all strings miced with DPA4099, woodwinds were Rode NT5s, brass had Sennheiser md421s, and all the timpanis and other percussions had Rode NT5s. That’s it. No big secrets, no special magic. We had very short time to do everything and in a situation like this, in my experience, the simpler is the better. I agree that with more time maybe I could select different mics for certain positions, but as with any live production I had to make some compromises as not all kind and type of microphone is available everytime.

We had two consoles at FOH, an analogue Soundcraft and a digital DiGiCo. The DiGiCo handled the symphonic orchestra and the choir, the analogue side had the pop part and the lead singers. Although I generally don’t have any problem with digital consoles, frankly I hate the built-in effects in DiGiCo. Because of this I used external reverbs on the orchestra, two R2 (Exponential audio) provided the beautiful, lush effect connected through Pro Tools.

The outcome

Considering that we didn’t have enough rehearsal, the show was very successful both technically and artistically. The short time frame urged everyone in the production to really pay attention, focus and do as good job as he/she can.

On the monitoring side we had an interesting solution which worked remarkably well. We didn’t have enough budget and engineer for a completely separate monitor mix, so the whole symphonic orchestra received the monitor mix from my FOH console through matrix. At first I thought it is more than optimistic to think that it will work, but it was perfect. The musicians heard themselves well, and they loved the full mix with reverbs on it. Because I was skeptical at first, I sent a few submixes to the monitor mixer in case he need to add more from a certain group, but this time he only used the main mix.

The experience

The process was a brilliant learning experience too. I constantly compared the methods, sounds and necessary mix tricks needed to make full but loud mix, which is not the original nature of a symphonic orchestra. The final mix was an interesting blend of some well known pop/rock method with a good amount of classical treatment. It is a real challenge to make everything sound like a big classical orchestra while still providing enough volume and power. Compensate the extremely close micing but only for a degree because in the next minute I needed a more modern sound. All in all it was great fun.