Mixing Monitors on a Late Night TV Show

Paul Klimson shares his expertise on the day-to-day portions of mixing a late night TV house band and navigating the role that music plays in reinforcing the comedy portions of the show. He discusses various talkback systems and using IEMs for program feeds.

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April 15, 2020

Paul brings twenty highly-credited years of technical experience to the details of audio, staging, video, and lighting arrangement in the areas of television broadcasts, arena performances, international music festivals, and top-tier special events production. This is the second part of an installation that he wrote about his experiences working with NBC on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show.

HOW I STARTED MIXING FOR LATE NIGHT

A reputable industry colleague rang me up while I was in the midst of production rehearsals for a US tour. He went on to tell me about a new late night show, or as he called it “this new thing that’s going on over at 30 Rock."

With a string of good years of growth, a bit of mixing chops, and knowing just the right people, there was no doubt I was excited to take on a new challenge. It’d be only a slight exaggeration to say I jumped off the tour bus at the chance to meet the audio crew of SNL.  

THE SET FOR THE UNINITIATED

I remember scanning my guest pass, stepping through the security stanchion, and boarding an elevator speeding towards the 7th floor. I believe it’s when the door opened that I slipped into total mind-meld because the next few hours became a complete blur.

Having been on that floor so many times since, I can now only imagine what the uninitiated, non-TV-life civilian might feel. People with headsets and clipboards were moving about expeditiously; set pieces staged in the elevator lobby; extras being led to their starting spots to stand by for their cue; security guards giving every strange face a once over; the din of hallway TVs broadcasting the live feed; groups of twos and threes huddled discussing how a sketch went over or how the Yankees are doing.

Then. . . the roar of a live audience billowed down the hallway from the studio floor and surrounded me in a life-giving cloud of euphoria. Over the ceiling intercom a woman’s voice announces, “Up next, Bill and Tina in the llama sketch.” I was excited to witness some amazing green screen magic but then I see a real live llama - it’s just standing there in the hallway with its handler and the local ASPCA representative taking notes on its care.

MIX 1

I was ushered into Mix 1, a room where there was probably a tape op (Protools), a mixer, an assistant, and the person I was there to meet, the late Stacey Foster.  The mix room was always very calm, dark, and operated with decorum. Immediately after introductions, my resume was set aside.

The energy leans more mob meeting and less job interview. I was definitely standing in the most important moment of my life. I can only imagine how big my eyes were as I scanned the control room full of the gear, the large console, and the screens that showed the next sketch being prepared on the floor.

I’m sure I bumbled through some words. No — I’m positive that I did. Eventually, the graciousness of my hosts put me at ease. A portal opened, and I was transported to the 8th floor. A PM1D mixing console came into view. I had seen one of these before. A bit of calm returned to my left pinky toe.

The monitor world, while usually stage left, sits high above the studio floor behind the audience in the far house-left corner. The view felt like being in the ivory tower with the entire earth spread out for my viewing pleasure.

Deals were being made between the camera op who needed to move his large HD camera rig a bit left and the props master who needed to drop off freshly filled water balloons for the llama sketch. The boom microphone op was moving their cherry picker contraption into position to pick up the dialog. Wardrobe and makeup were performing last looks on the talent, making sure he or she was accurately groomed. Said talent was skimming through his/her cue cards one last time.  The stage manager started to count down from five. And yes . . . just like Wayne’s World, they didn’t audibly say the numbers “2” or “1,” only indicating with a raised right hand the last two numbers followed by a feverously wagging index finger toward the first cue card that was now floating over Camera 1.  The red light went on and the rest, they say, is history.

What I had witnessed so far that day and what I was about to experience the rest of that night gave me a taste of the crazy world that I would be a part of for the next seven years.

COMMS IN MY IEMS

Running monitors (foldback, as they call it in TV) is very different than mixing monitors for a typical live music act. Communication is critical. I needed to cue the console while listening to the comm panel for cues, talking back and forth with the sound team, all the while not interrupting the show that was going on in front of a live studio audience not five feet away.

In the first iteration of Late Night, the PM1D I was using was on the floor in between The Roots and the audience. My gaze crossed directly over the monologue mark straight to home base where the host’s desk sat. I was new to the whole NBC scene but managed to get a 9pin to XLR male cable custom-made from the electrical shop. This lovely little tail was my best friend. It attached to the back of the BTS comm panel, and the house comm programmer routed whatever audio was coming out of the speaker on the comm panel to the 9 pin cable and which fed the communication section of the PM1D.  This enabled me to have comms in my IEMs where it bothered no one.

Once the PM1D was done with its service, the show moved on to Profiles and eventually landed on SD7s. During the Profile days, I routed the cue, the comm, the monitor talkback and a wireless switched shout mic to a small Mackie mixer so that I could set a level and panning position on each of these elements.

This exercise has become increasingly easier over the years with updated matrix routing on the new consoles. But back on version 1 of this listening system, we used what we had readily available.

TALKBACK

So now that I could hear the director, the stage manager, my A2 (who roamed the floor on a wireless headset), and the other three mixers in the audio department, I had to solve the problem of being able to communicate with the band.

The musical director — MD for short — of TV bands usually talks to three different categories of people: the band, the air/audience/host, and the booth. This is accomplished with a few mics and logistical use of interrupt switches, otherwise known as talkback pedals. The MD has a lapel mic pinned on them as well as a microphone for singing in front of them on a stand. These are used for any material that is to go to air, whether it’s singing or talking.  

Just off to the side of them is a third microphone. This mic can be switched at the mic or via a talkback pedal wired inline but sitting on the floor. When they need to talk to the band in order to direct them as to what’s coming up next, they can easily slip a foot over and relay that message to the bands’ IEMs. This is also the way they can get in touch with the monitor engineer for changes.

An additional pedal is utilized with a “y” split from the MD’s talkback mic so they can communicate with the truck or the booth. The booth A1 creates a signal path that allows the director to talk to the MD. The cable path to connect the booth with monitors is ran by the booth A2.  

This system allows the MD to discuss with the director or show producer any changes during the show that would require music changes as well. The director can cue the band when to start and stop the music. It’s typical for the show to ebb and flow in time and space. Getting that message to the band clearly helps the MD decide on the most appropriate music to play next or whether he should jump to different song cues.

STEREO TALKBACK

Version two of the Mackie mixer matrix was to build the cue bus comm system on the onboard console matrixes. I routed all of the talkbacks to a dedicated stereo aux bus. This aux was routed to a set of input channels on a pair of matrix output channels along with the solo L/R bus and the mono comm input from our lovely 9pin to XLRM cable.

The beauty of the stereo talkback aux is that all the talkback mics can be heard comfortably as well as panned so that the center of your cue buss isn’t muddled with a many talking voices all trying to get your attention.

EQ and gating is required to cleaning up extraneous noise from these utilitarian inputs and allow for musical decisions to be made on the other inputs. It takes a bit of time to identify all of the new noises that may be heard in the cue bus from dirty comm signals or talkbacks bringing in room tone. I try to get my in-ear-monitors in as soon as possible on TV show builds, so as things come online, I can hear their noise signatures and address any problems before my attention is required for show production.

Creating a talkback matrix takes some time to map out and a bit of care to implement. Thinking about what person needs be able to communicate to all the other options within your audio system’s reach, how loud, and when will determine routing, panning and levels. As always when setting levels; make sure to set proper gain and limiting for all signals coming into the console that are from sources outside of your control. Protecting the mixer’s hearing and the band’s hearing is of the upmost importance.

IEM PROGRAM FEED

Another element in the band’s ears is the program feed. This feed is all the other audio channels used during a TV show that aren’t musical. These include inputs such as podium mics, video playback, talent mics, and sound effects. Any input the band doesn’t play comes from the booth A1 or a dedicated sound effects operator. During setup, the booth A2 will stop by with a cable in some flavor of digital or analog. They will want to trade some audio with you. Trust me, what they are giving to you is way better than what they are getting from you, so it’s a pretty good deal. This will usually contain the following.

FROM THE BOOTH

  • Program - the sum of all the production mics mixed down to one post fader feed.  Once you set a level, the signal will appear as the A1 mixes the show.
  • Video Tape L/R: Post fader videotape feed that I leave fairly low so the band has a bit of continuity in their ears but doesn’t interrupt and business they need to do while not playing.
  • Music L/R: anything the band isn’t playing live that gets triggered from the booth.
  • Audience L/R: All of the audience mics mixed down to a left-right feed.  I ask for this pre-fader from the A1 since they will be pushing and pulling to grab laughs during the show. Not typically put in the house band’s ears, but nice to have on the desk if needed quickly.
  • Director feed - routed to the MD and possibly to the band if there is a cue that is timely that the MD can’t relay quick enough - EQ taste and limit for hearing safety.
  • Clicks and Counts - if there are any elements that the band’s playing must be in sync gvccc     with, i.e. videos, fireworks, or sound effects

TO THE BOOTH

  • MD talk to booth channel. This goes out of a local output pre-mute, pre-fader so that when the MD presses the pedal to talk to the booth, the monitor desk is just a pass through.

MONITOR MIXING

After all the mechanics are laid in, we can start the mix. The monitor mixes going out to the band will have a player-appropriate mix of music, a touch of the production elements so they aren’t left in the blind during non-musical segments, and the MD’s talkback mic.

A switched talkback mic is setup for each band member or section of similar musicians. It is highly recommended that these are a foot pedal setup so they can talk while keeping both hands free to play music. This will also lessen the chances of the switch being left on, which will allow stage bleed to build up in the talkback bus as well as the player’s mixes. Each player gets their corresponding talkback loudest in their mix. Checking each station beforehand with an assistant is crucial to ensure confidence before the band shows up.

One of the techniques used to aid in communication is to have all the program elements on an interrupt switch.  For my purposes, I programmed a non-latching macro that would duck the appropriate program channels -10db when pressed. When my finger was on the button, the program material lowered in the band’s IEMs and they could quietly communicate amongst each other with their talkback mics. When they were done discussing the matters at hand, I would take my finger off the button and the program material would return to the normal level in their ears.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I never would have guessed that day at SNL would take me down the road to mixing in so many different broadcast situations. I’ve had the pleasure to watch hockey outside in a football stadium; mix Justin Timberlake as he slayed the Pepsi half time show at the Super Bowl; mix Chris Stapleton and JT at the CMAs and knowing the music world had been changed; being side stage at the Oscars, The Grammy’s, The Brit Awards, Cannes Film Festival, The Latin Grammy’s, Ellen, Letterman, Leno, The View, Today Show, Good Morning America, Graham Norton, Al Murray the Pub Landlord, Eurovision, being a part of all the crazy sketches we championed at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon over its five year run. Lastly, being able to honor Kobe Bryant last month while supporting Alicia Keyes while she performed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata so beautifully. I’m always excited when the phone rings for that next adventure.

WRITTEN BY PAUL KLIMSON

Along with running The Clinic — A Roadie Advocacy Group — with his wife Courtney, Paul designs, creates, and implements the technical foundation upon which the most resonating musical performances of the day exist. In 2008, Paul was plucked out John Legend’s ‘Evolver Tour’  to audition (at SNL) for what was to become the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon television show. Over the course of 6 years (and 965+ episodes), he worked in every music production element of the NBC nightly broadcast, in direct support of The Roots, and in full collaboration with an enviable guest list of top acts which include Kanye West, Radiohead, Drake, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Lauryn Hill, and The XX among many others. In 2013, Paul designed and built the monitor package for the famous Studio 6B set at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and saw the show through its memorable transition into The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Learn more about Paul Klimson's contributions to the audio world.

Learn more about The Clinic

Work with Theory One Productions for your next event or world tour.

Photo by Okwa Andrews @rawimagesolutions

READ PART ONE || IN-EAR MONITORS ON PRIME TIME TV

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