Saturday, March 23, 2013

To Mix or Not to Mix? That is the Question

In the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life, there is an unforgettable scene in an upscale French restaurant featuring this exchange between John Cleese’s fawning waiter and Terry Jones’ more-than-morbidly obese patron, Mr. Creosote:

“Today we have for appetizers moules mariniers, pâté de fois gras, beluga caviar, eggs benedict, tarte de poivre—that’s leek tart—frogs’ legs amandine, or oeufs de cailles—little quails’ eggs on a bed of pureéd mushrooms. It’s very delicate, very subtle.”

“I’ll have the lot,” replies Mr. Creosote.

“A wise choice, monsieur. And now, how would you like it served—all mixed up together in a bucket?”

“Yeah . . . with the eggs on top.”

While the humour in the scene is partly visual, the Pythons’ unique stamp of taking things to the brink of the ridiculous, and then vaulting over it, contrasts the list of the individual, highly refined dishes on the menu—representing the pinnacle of classic French cuisine—and the way these “very delicate, very subtle” elements are offered to the patron in a gross, vulgar, and repulsive manner, “all mixed up together in a bucket.”

Of course, no-one would willingly order a meal this way, much less be served in this fashion by a trained professional. Yet, that is much the way sound is often presented to theatre patrons: all mixed up together, with the eggs—or rather, the voices—on top. Occasionally delicate, not often subtle.

What is at issue here is the very notion of mixing, of combining disparate elements into a single channel (center cluster), two channels (L, R), a combination of these (L, C, R) or perhaps even on very rare occasions, a surround mix of four or five channels.

While mixing a large number of individual audio signals together into a few channels may be a very real requirement for the limited channel count of broadcast radio and television, as well as channel-restricted media such as consumer audio playback systems, this is certainly not the case for theatre and other staged entertainment. Until recently, however, theatrical and similar live events have largely been mixed in much the same way as broadcasts and recorded music.

This may be attributed in part to the large overlap in the designs of traditional recording, broadcast and live consoles; schools teaching audio (i.e., “recording schools”) continue to focus on the art and techniques of the mixdown; even one of the audio industry’s leading magazines proudly heralds the practice in its name, Mix. Originating in broadcast and recording sessions involving multiple microphones, and refined in multitrack recording studios producing mono or stereo masters, mixing has become entrenched in the industry and in the minds of many who dream of working in it, to the point where it’s almost as if no other way of working with sound is even remotely conceivable.

A great many shows are presented as if the audience were listening to a gargantuan stereo system, with massive line arrays hung to the left and right of the stage. Now this might not be inappropriate for a touring band well known from its recordings or for a big, dynamic rock musical where the design calls for a larger-than-life aspect.

Even so, many of the blockbuster musicals from the past quarter century benefited greatly from the creativity of such esteemed sound designers as Olivier Award winner Mick Potter, who, in the quest for more natural sound, have opted for separate vocal and orchestra mixes, striving simultaneously for clarity in the voices and power in the orchestra. Moreover, two voice mixes are sometimes derived, with one going to a duplicate set of loudspeakers in an A-B configuration pioneered in 1988 by Martin Levan for Aspects of Love, to eliminate electrical summing of mic signals and the ensuing phase problems that arise when performers are in close proximity to each other’s microphones.

For other production styles, however, an approach based on mixing may not be the most appropriate technique for conveying the nuances of theatre—including musical theatre, where sound systems have become ubiquitous—if the purpose of sound reinforcement is to allow every performer’s voice to be heard as it would unamplified in an optimum seat.

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