THE TOUGHEST GIG IN THE WORLD
Three hours of non-stop fader throwing, eight performances a week and audiences hanging on every word. Is Les Miserables the toughest live gig in town?
Story: Christopher Holder
Photos: James Brereton
Mixing top-draw musical theatre requires meticulous preparation and an OCD attention to performance detail. You may have as many as 40 omnidirectional miniature mics open on stage at once. What’s more you will have dozens of mics open in the orchestra pit. There’s a lot that could go crazy-wrong.
I caught up with Les Mis head of sound Al Lugger and associate sound designer, System Sound’s Shelly Lee. Al has been mixing the current Australian incarnation, while Les Mis is part of Shelly’s DNA having mixed the show for years in its previous Australian run.
I wanted to get a sense of the ‘day-in-the-life’ demands of mixing musical theatre. I discovered that the mix engineer not only needs to fastidiously, without fail, ensure every word uttered on stage is conveyed to a knowledgeable audience; but more than that, he or she needs to ride the tumultuous emotion of the performance. It’s not unlike requiring a micro-surgeon to recite tear-jerking poetry while re-attaching someone’s finger.
The intensity is only matched by the regularity. There are eight performances a week. Al tag teams with Evan Drill on mixing duties. Both engineers attend every performance as there’s plenty to be done other than having your mixing fingers ready come curtain rise.
Having two mix engineers may be essential to avoid burnout (as well as having some built-in dual-human-redundancy) but the need for consistency reigns supreme and it makes it difficult to guarantee a daily near-as-dammit-to-a-benchmark performance, month in, month out; year in, year out.
“We have 27 mics on percussion alone and around 65 all up. All the strings are bugged and we also have a DPA as an ambient mic (DPA 4011C) above so there’s what we call a String High and a String Low. All the DPA bugs are 4061s, which are exactly the same mics the cast wears, and they just bridge-clip onto the instrument. Then the microphone above tends to feed the dozens of d&b E Series ‘surround’ speakers.” — Al Lugger
Shelly Lee: As we prepared for this run, I said to Al, if you can mix Les Mis, you can mix anything. Not because it’s necessarily the most complex show (although it has its moments) but because it’s so intense — three hours of 100% mental dedication. So apart from the demands of the technical preparations, the show itself is very draining.
Al Lugger: The orchestra never stops: there’s virtually no dialogue, it’s all sung. So if you switch off during Les Mis everyone in the audience hears that. And that’s the tough part about the show: maintaining consistency. If you vague out for five minutes, or if you miss a cue then it’s very difficult to catch up.
Shelly Lee: Most shows afford you the chance to have a moment of repose after a number. Press ‘stop’, wait for the applause to die down, cue up the next scene and switch on again. That doesn’t happen on Les Mis. It’s constant. Even when people are applauding there’s something going on underneath — there’s not that opportunity to take just a two-second breather and go, “Okay, where am I?”
Al Lugger: For example, the end of Act One is very tricky. There’s eight to 10 minutes of constant fader throwing, constant orchestra moves and you’ve really got to be on your game.
SHOW TIME CHECKLIST
Full system and pit check: Ensure all lines are going back to the consoles (Digico SD7 at FOH and an unmanned SD8 at monitors, which feeds lines to Aviom mixers in the pit). All 40 radio mics are checked.
Radio mic quality check: All the sets are given to radio technician, Que Nguyen, who takes them on stage and checks them for quality control.
Mics fitted: Que fits the lavs to the principals. One person does the job for consistency’s sake. The non-mixing engineer then fits the others to the ensemble. Wig department will get involved where necessary, and chaperones will get involved when children are concerned. Will take 30-40 minutes for all the lavs to be fitted.
Five-minute call: Performers clock in for another mic check to ensure the FOH mixer is happy: lav positioned okay? The right pack is on the right person? Is the wig covering the mic? Another five-minute call also happens prior to second act. Without final sign-off of the engineer, the show won’t start.
MINDING P’S & CUES
AT: How many cues are there?
Al Lugger: Around 120. We’ve got a QLab show control system which fires the Digico SD7 console.
Shelly Lee: Getting out of one scene and into the next is tricky. You’re often transitioning from one mood into another very different mood, so you’re required to seamlessly crossfade out of something that might be hard and loud into something small and delicate. Trying to get that absolute balance as you work through those scene changes to effect those mood changes… well, it requires constant focus.
AT: How long does it take to feel like you’re ‘all over’ the mix?
Al Lugger: We did two weeks of technical rehearsals and then 10 previews and I didn’t feel confident until probably the fifteenth show. So even through Press Night I was still very edgy and you’re really holding on for dear life because you don’t want to drop a line — people have paid good money and there’s a technical team around you that are expecting great things, so you really do try and keep your head down, to really live and breathe Les Mis.
Shelly Lee: You simply can’t drop lines; the faders have got to be up, you’ve gotta be in the right cue. All those things have got to happen. But more than that, you’ve gotta feel it. You’ve got to ride the ebbs and flows of emotion coming from stage.
In my experience there was a three-month period after which the show becomes part of your DNA and from there you discover and explore more of the emotion.
AT: What are some of the biggest dangers to a mix blowing up?
Al Lugger: There’s one big production number where 20 ensemble guys are on stage doing a ‘woo-hoo’ drinking-buddy song — Master of the House it’s called, for those who know the show. Every show is different and you never know when someone is going to sing straight at someone else’s head.
As you can imagine, if you bellow into someone else’s lavalier mic that will pop out of the mix. So we rely on a good communication with our directorial team and they’ll provide direction at rehearsals, “Hey guys, you maintain consistency here.”
AT: Have directors’ attitudes to audio changed much as these stage shows get bigger and more ambitious?
Al Lugger: Audio has traditionally not been high priority in the lead up to a show but it’s the first thing they’ll comment on come opening night.
Shelly Lee: Sound isn’t tangible. People find it very hard to get their head around it, including us at times. It is not uncommon to have unexpected parameters enter into the equation because of the nature of the environment and all the variables that exist. Also translating the interpretation of the director’s vision into something technical is a challenge unto itself. Taking on sound engineering as a career is not for the faint hearted and will be constantly challenging as it is rewarding.
The rubber sleeve, called Hellerman, is placed over the mic capsule as shown via a specialist Hellerman tool. For the principal’s double miking, the darker lav sits just in the hairline while the flesh-toned lav is one capsule length underneath on the forehead. The heavy sweaters get more layers of Hellerman, to raise the capsule from the actor’s skin a little more.
The lav cable is then run up and over the middle of the actor’s head (men mostly use toupee clips while the ladies’ cable clip directly to the stocking cap of their wigs) then taped to the back of their neck with Blenderm surgical tape.
LAV SWEAT OUT
Sweat is the single biggest enemy of the lavalier mic. On a show like this where there’s quite a lot of activity, running from scene to scene, and plenty of hat changes, sweat can be a big problem. “Sometimes a mic can get stuck under the lace of a wig. Sometimes we might get holes put through the wig to prevent the mic getting sweated out. Sometimes if there’s a generous portion of fringe you can tuck the mic up in the fringe to prevent that happening.” — Al Lugger
Spray-on shoe leather protector (may void warranty!).
Place mic in the fringe of a wig rather than in the lace of a wig.
Lavs do sometimes come back to life — you can dry them out by putting them away with silica satchets for a while. Unfortunately after they dry out a film of salt can collect on the diaphragm, which quickly soaks up moisture again.
Que Nguyen: “I’ll use gaff to clean the grille. It can help to extract makeup and other buildup.”
TELLTALE SIGNS OF A LAV THAT’S SWEATED OUT?
Al Lugger: We test and hear a lot of lavs every day, so it takes us a split second to diagnose a problem. They sound thin, with a loss of frequencies between 300 and 600Hz. Saying that, we’ve only lost three lavs in the three months since opening and that’s pretty phenomenal.
Shelly Lee: Normally we lose a heap in the production period because the performers are tense and they’re not used to the physicality of the show, so they sweat a lot more.
Hats (and wigs) off to DPA!
Top of the forehead: centred and one capsule length down from hair line. For double-packed principals the backup lav sits slightly higher than the primary. From there, Que Nguyen, the radio mic technician will disguise the cable in the back of the head so it’s all-but invisible.
Keep the position consistent. If everyone’s in the same position, then the team knows it’s easier to reproduce it 40 times than it is to remember the individual idiosyncracies of performers’ hair, wig, hats and costuming.
Hairspray: “Fit the lav once hair and wigs have been fixed.”
Vapour from smoke machines: “Unavoidable on some shows.”
Makeup: “Seems to get into the capsule, around the diaphragm and they never sound the same.”
Boozy After-Parties: “If performers are backing up after a big night, the alcohol sweating through the system can be a killer. You can always tell who the big drinkers are by how many microphones they lose!”