Striving for Excellence in Sound Mixing
By Sound Girls
Cover Photo: Pictured left to right: Executive Producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh; Sound Designer, Mick Potter; UK Associate Designer, Adam Fisher; Mixer, Heather Augustine Photo Credit: US Associate Designer, Josh Hummel
I love to show this picture when people ask what my job in sound mixing is like, especially in tech. It’s from one of our first previews of the Miss Saigon National Tour: I’m at front of house (FOH) with Mick Potter and Adam Fisher, the sound designer, and the UK sound associate respectively, next to me on the console. The executive producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, watches the show on the end of the row, keeping a sharp eye out for any aspect that might need a bit of polish. On my other side is the US sound associate, Josh Hummel, who’s taking the picture, so it’s a full house in every sense of the phrase.
There’s nothing like mixing a scene for maybe the third or fourth time with multiple people — all of whom have the ability to fire you — within a five-foot radius. And while you’re mixing, the producer is making suggestions to the designer who is making adjustments and talking with the associate, who is also making adjustments while giving you notes to help you refine your mix. Oh, and please, don’t miss any pick ups.
It doesn’t stop once you leave tech. Granted, FOH becomes less crowded once the directors, producers, and designers are gone, but there are now thousands of people in the seats and they also expect perfection. They will happily be your harshest critics if they feel like the experience isn’t up to snuff, and you don’t have much of a safety net: actors can cover when they forget something, but there’s no way to ad-lib a fader up after you’ve missed the line.
Until you’ve done a few shows and learn to trust in your abilities as a mixer, it’s easy to let your nerves get the better of you.
This is a common problem in many careers; a musician has to be “on” for an audition, an athlete has one chance to break a record or win a medal, a businesswoman has one meeting to nail a presentation. However, there is one major difference. Those jobs have one thing: one project, one match, one audition. As a mixer, it’s every day, 8 shows a week, week after week that you have to spend at a level of peak performance.
Mixing has and always will be a high-pressure job, but if you’re able to accept that and work with it instead of fighting it, you and your blood pressure will thank you. Sometimes it’s as easy as finding a scene or a song in the show that you can jam out to or get carried along with the sweep of the music. Other times it’s finding some way to let go of adrenaline or calm yourself down before your start. I know people who will take a walk around the theatre if they need to work off some nerves. Personally, I like a game or an easy crossword puzzle that keeps me occupied and gets my brain going, but I can put aside at a moment’s notice.
Most of the time, the stress comes from falling into the trap of expecting perfection.
Achieving a “perfect” show depends on millions of variables and is therefore close to impossible. I was listening to a podcast called “How To! with Charles Duhigg” where he had Dr. Green, a peak performance psychologist, talk about dealing with stress, specifically related to performance. Green said at one point, “There’s a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence.” That phrase resonated with me and my approach to mixing. Mixers rely on a unique ability: they have to constantly strive and expect nothing less than complete accuracy, but if they do make a mistake, they must also have the capability to forgive themselves and move past it almost immediately, otherwise, it can derail the rest of the show. “Striving for excellence” is exactly what we do. You walk up to the board with the commitment to do your very best every single time, but allow yourself enough grace to acknowledge your mistakes if they happen and move on.
Sometimes that commitment is your best defense against nerves. If you bring that mindset of striving for excellence every time you step up to the console, it’s just another show. It doesn’t matter if a producer with a net worth of upwards of a billion is pacing around FOH, or if it’s just you left to do your thing: you always mix the same show. I’ve seen the opposite with the actors a lot. There are always a few that consistently do warm-ups, but when a creative or someone important comes to the show, suddenly the dressing room hallways are filled with a cacophony of vocal exercises. Backstage you can see the ones that have been doing the show they’re supposed to the entire time: they’re calm and collected; conditioned by weeks of practice. Those who choose to mark their singing for most shows, then decide to go all out for this show are the ones huffing and puffing; they didn’t realize that it was so much work to dance and sing like they’re supposed to. (Plus it’s an absolute treat for the mixer to have to play “Guess the Level” when actors decide to actually sing out for the part they never do, or option up an octave instead of the normal note.)
When mistakes happen—whether due to surprises or not—one of the biggest, and least productive, traps a mixer can fall into is dwelling on that mistake.
Your brain only has so much bandwidth to devote to a task at hand and, as soon as you start using up processing power to berate yourself over a missed pick up, you limit what ability your brain has left to focus on the show. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of time to beat yourself up when the show is done if you want to.
The best method I’ve found is to acknowledge it. My involuntary reaction ends up being a sharp head jerk and a pissed off grunt, but then I put myself right back in the show. Take a moment, but only that, then focus on the next line, the next band move, the next scene. Don’t give yourself an opportunity to linger. It’s not easy at first, because that’s exactly what you’ll want to do, but with enough repetition, it will become a habit.
Once the show is over, then you can do a replay of what you missed. It shouldn’t be to blame yourself but to do a technical analysis and take stock of what happened in the moment. Did you grab the wrong fader? Were you focusing on something or someone else? Did you lose your place and fumbled while getting back on track?
When you know what caused the mistake, you can take steps to help yourself the next time.
One of my more glaring mistakes was the press opening of the tour for Miss Saigon. It was a tense, quiet scene between Chris and his wife, Ellen, and I grabbed the wrong fader and, instead of Ellen comforting Chris, another woman was loud and proud talking offstage about her dress for the opening party. Again, mentally curse, and move on. After the show I highlighted that line and made sure I absolutely could NOT miss the fader number that was in my script. That served as a reminder for me every time to make sure I threw the right fader.
On a less obvious note, in Mean Girls, one of the lines changed from when I first learned the show, and “I noticed you failed your last few quizzes. Is everything okay?” became just, “I noticed you failed your last few quizzes.” For some reason that last sentence was so ingrained in my head, that there were multiple times where I forgot it was cut and had to scramble to get the next fader up in time. To solve that, I made a concentrated effort to consciously remind myself to bring up the next fader on the word “few” and, with show after show of that constant thought, it eventually became habit.
In both cases, the mistakes (or close calls) were singular events, blips that didn’t snowball into larger catastrophes, but being able to keep your cool under pressure can help you have less of those blips in the first place. When Les Mis had the official press opening for the tour, it was just like the Saigon preview at FOH, only more people. Designers from every department, directors, production management, producers, you name it, if there was an open space, it wasn’t empty long. And despite their best efforts, they’re never completely quiet: pencils scratching on notepads, fingers tapping notes on tablets, whispers back and forth. Even with all the distractions, I focused on the job at hand and had a solid, clean show. Afterwards, one of the production managers told me a few people had mentioned to him that they were impressed that I could be so calm with so many eyes peering over my shoulder. You don’t always get the feedback, but people are watching and they’ll notice how you handle yourself in a stressful situation.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to walk into every show with clean feet, or “leave your baggage at the door.” Did you miss a line or two in the last show? Were the dynamics not what you know they should have been? Did you have an absolutely flawless performance? Great. That was the last show. This is a new day and a new show. Come to it without resting on your laurels or harping on yourself for the mistakes of yesterday; each new show is another chance to get it right, another chance to feel that satisfied rush as everything comes together. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes the stress of our jobs can discourage aspiring mixers before they even have the chance to learn how to master it. Remember to be patient and show yourself some grace, especially when you’re learning. Good things take time.
Article by SoundGirl: Heather Augustine
Another great article by SoundGirls: Staying Creative at Home: 4 Tips to Get You Started