Creative Audio - Mixing Live Music For TV With John Harris - Part 2
“You need to be very predictable with the broadcast at all times. When I started doing this you had to be really careful with 5.1; there was no standardization,” he says. Indeed, for a long time, as broadcasters began to switch to HDTV across the U.S., it was not unusual for audio channels to be mixed up during transmission, or for audio processors to be incorrectly set or configured.
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Since it was early days in the digital switchover, everybody still had a VCR, Harris recalls. “So I gave everybody in my family a VCR and I had them record my shows. Then I had them send the tapes to me the next day in the mail. I’d listen to them all, and they would be WILDLY different! The one thing I found was that the center was never right. Ever. It was never what I sent out.”
To make sure that his mix was reaching listeners correctly, he says, “I needed to be very predictable. And still to this day, you’ve got to be predictable in what you’re trying to do to be effective. Especially for what I do. I’ll do 20 acts in a show and I can’t have one that has a bunch of rear or height information that the others don’t,” he says.
Learning To Listen
Having been working on that consistency for so many years, Harris says, he and Eric Schilling, his mix partner on shows such as the Grammy celebrations and the Video Music Awards, approach mixing the same way. “You can ask people whether they thought it was him or me mixing and they’ll probably be wrong. Because we’ve adopted each other’s way of doing things and the way we hear the world.”
There may be an expectation that, when the show director calls a closeup of a musician, that instrument should get somewhat louder in the mix. “I’ll never follow the director,” Harris says. “I appreciate his art, but he has to fill four minutes with entertaining images. I’ve had directors get mad at me because they took a shot of this guy sawing away on a violin and I didn’t turn him up.”
That said, “I will sometimes push something up and suddenly there’s the image, because the director is paying attention and they want to be correct. They will follow the mixer musically almost all the time. But if they’ve done their homework, they know the song and they know there’s a guitar solo there.”
That’s not to say Harris hasn’t had some impossible demands made of him. “There would be some fan in row 53 jumping up and down and singing along, and the director would want to hear him! And they would be incensed at me because I wouldn’t do it.”
Changing Attitudes To Sound
How music is presented on television has certainly changed since Harris began his career. Once upon a time, music acts would be mixed out of a tiny audio booth at the back of the video truck where the production mixer’s attention was constantly being pulled in several directions at once and the environment was less than conducive to producing high-quality work. He recalls, “The role of director didn’t really exist when I started, and there was no such thing as a music mixer. There was the guy who did the audio for the show, and he did the podium mics and the audience and the play-ons, and he also did the bands. I credit Randy Ezratty, my good friend who gave me my career, for having the fortitude, the vision and the tenacity to say, ‘No; that doesn’t sound good, and it’s not the right way to do this.’”
Ezratty was one of the pioneers of the concept that music artists deserved the attention of a dedicated mixer who could feed the music mix to the video truck from either a flypack or another truck, and he set up Effanel Music in 1981 to provide that service. “They looked at us like we were completely out of our minds that we would think this was necessary,” Harris laughs.
“I should say Randy Ezratty and Phil Ramone in the same breath, because it was both of them whom I was working under at that time,” he continues. “Randy and Phil would say, ‘Our job is to do the best job we can for the artist.’” A legend in the music industry, Ramone had a long and storied career as a recording engineer and producer, also acting as an advisor on music shows such as the Grammy telecast until he passed away in 2013. And so it was that Harris got in on the ground floor, just as “television music mixer” started to become a job description.
Over the ensuing years, Harris’ workflow has evolved such that, especially on multi-act shows, he now works in tandem with a second mixer in a second audio truck or mix room. “Back in the old days, once the rehearsal was over, they moved on and it was time to rehearse the dance number,” Harris says. “When I started, I would go to a show as a band representative. I’d say, can we play that back? They’d say, ‘Oh, I didn’t record that. Why would I?’”
These days, he says, “I do band A and get the best mix I can in the time that the cameras are pointing at them. But I’m recording every single second of that, along with a switched feed of the video. When that’s over, I’m not done. Was that perfect? Was it as good as it can be? Of course it wasn’t; I need time to mess with it,” to fine-tune the mix before the show goes live.
As the soundcheck and camera rehearsal for band B gets underway, a second mixer — typically, Eric Schilling or Jody Elff — will work with them from the other mix position. “I’m going to back up my recording and let the artist come out and sit with me,” Harris says. “I’ll say, I would love to have your thoughts and get your guidance on your song and your presentation. I want this to be the best it can be for you.”
When that concept was first proposed, the idea of spending time on a music mix was nothing new in the record business, of course. “But doing it for television was completely unheard of,” he says. “So now we have two control rooms and two separate mixing positions, because we need the time, and one mixer couldn’t do that.”
There have been times, Harris says, when people have sat with him as he works on a mix by an artist that isn’t to their taste. “They’ll say, ‘How do you do this? This is terrible music.’ There’s no such thing as terrible music. There’s a huge palette of music and my job is to be completely agnostic to style, to what I like. What can I do with this increasingly amazing technology to make that artist sound as good as I can?”
Maintaining The Art Of Mixing
As Harris gets older, he’s worried about who will continue the legacy of the broadcast music mixer. “It’s a very, very tiny universe, but a very important one,” he says. “But it’s nothing that people are standing in line to do. And I do often wonder how to further its appeal to young people. I teach a class, Music Mixing for Broadcast, at Temple University in Philadelphia. In my first class I explain who I am and what I do, and students have no clue that this is even a job.”
But Harris is not retiring just yet, and in the meantime, he and Elff, with their HEAR partnership, have harnessed IP technology that enables them to remotely mix live music events anywhere in the country from their homes at the highest audio quality and in 5.1 or Dolby Atmos. Alternatively, they can roll out in NEP’s Gemini truck, which houses two identically-equipped mix rooms. “I hope to use our new technology — and I’m doing it because I’m getting older and I always wanted to do it — to further the art, to continue to do what I do, but to do it better, more efficiently and effectively, in a better controlled environment,” Harris says.
The technology enables him to do more work, to be sure, but it might also make the work more attractive to the next generation. “I can do two shows in a day on different coasts. It’s cool that we can do that, technologically, but I just love that now you don’t have to ride on airplanes or trucks, because it’s not all that appealing. Maybe we could make the art of this more appealing if we can make it more acceptable and trainable. We can educate mixers in a new way and allow them to carry on the torch.”
His final word of advice for TV music mixers? “Just keep trying to make the most exciting performance that you can. If people don’t even notice that they’re immersed in this wonderful experience, then you really did it well.”
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