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  • Writer's pictureBrett Ainslie

Playback and the Angry Inch: Sound for Musicals

You don't want to know how long it took me to think of that title, I'm not a pro-titlemaker. If you can think of something better, please, entertain me. As I was saying, every now and then I'm asked to mix location sound on a Musical film or commercial. Musicals can be real fun and exciting to work on; they're so much different from standard genres particularly logistically.  What I often notice, though, is hiring managers on low budget musicals sometimes expect a 1-man-band sound person to also run playback. That thought is as silly as Pierce Brosnan's musical number "S.O.S." in Mamma Mia! Seriously, it's bad

Just because music is sound, does not mean it is the responsibility of the Sound Department, let alone the Sound Mixer. With that logic, ask the Steadicam Op to choreograph and pull ropes for stunts during the scene he is shooting because it's visual. This is the Music Department. If you want to put the Playback Operator on the call sheet under Sound Department, I won't attest, but my point is, when there's playback, there needs to be a Playback Operator. The Sound Mixer is far too busy to coordinate the songs, beats, metronomes and all playback with the Director and Choreographer while mixing and recording the scene. And to think I've been asked to do this all while booming myself. People make a living out of playback.

I've been the playback Operator on a musical feature film, I've been a PA on network television using playback and I've been the Sound Mixer on a few musicals along with plenty of non-musical films that require playback for certain scenes. If the budget calls for it, you have a Sound Mixer, Boom Operator, Sound Utility and a Playback Operator when necessary. The Playback Operator owns or rents a playback equipment package; an entire station at a cart or table. The Playback Operator works directly with the Director and the music department on when they want playback to start in a scene and when to stop. This conversation also involves the Sound Mixer to a certain degree to ensure everyone is on the same page and location sound is recorded in the most effective manner; what sound is usable, what is not and what is needed. The Playback Operator attends rehearsals in pre-production and creates a proper metronome of the song in a computer program to get talent in rhythm before the song actually starts.

Our friendly Playback Operator (Not Really)
Our friendly Playback Operator (Not Really)

In my experience as a Playback Operator, we've had a slightly smaller budget. I was doubling as a Sound Utility and Playback Operator. I had a table, a small pre-amp mixer, professional loudspeakers and a laptop using Audacity to create the proper metronome and play the songs. I got the appropriate songs from the Music Department in pre-production, some were edited during production and we kept in constant contact on having the proper files. I coordinated very closely with the Director on when he wanted the song to start playback and when to stop. This is far too much to ask a Sound Mixer to do him/herself. It's not even a question of being cheap during production with expectations of spending a bit more in post; it's physically impossible, unless perhaps you're Vishnu, but I bet Vishnu might charge accordingly.

When mixing musicals, for microphones, I like to use Neumann on the boom with DPA 4071 (used in Les Miserables) as my lav mic for vocals to help catch the full range of the voice whether it's loud belching or whispers. Neumann is fantastic for baritone and the choice for Beyonce, Celine Dion and The Beatles. For instruments and band-like scenes I may use stereo microphones, usually cardioid, or a DPA 4061 or 4071 on a string instrument.

On Ultra-Low budget musicals I've seen the AD department take a laptop or a phone and playback the song through cheap consumer speakers. There was no metronome, music was sometimes distorted and I'm sure the ADs were putting aside some very important work they could have been tending to. But it seemed to work for what we needed. When it comes to musicals and playback, communication is key but it requires a plan, preparation, proper hands, and realistic expectations.


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