Mixing Without Leading

by Bryan Reesman
Charlotte Maltby and Leslie Becker with the cast of Icon.
Charlotte Maltby and Leslie Becker with the cast of Icon.

Kate Munchrath tackles the fast and furious life of an audio mixer working NYMF

Working on a fast paced festival production with a very short run can be daunting, but try juggling three shows playing the same festival about the same time. Sound engineer Kate Munchrath faced such a scenario during July’s New York Musical Festival (NYMF) when she simultaneously mixed Icon, Lisa and Leonardo and The Last Word. Fortunately, all of them were presented in the same venue, The Duke on 42d St., a 199-seat black box space, but even then—with 10-14 cast members, at least five band members and only one rehearsal—there were plenty of sonic variables to contend with.

Kate Munchrath
Kate Munchrath

“It is a bit much,” admits Munchrath. “Reasonably, the only way to do it is to just compartmentalize each show. You do the show, then you change over your entire mindset to the next one and don’t think about that other one.” It’s a different type of situation—ironically much more crazed than her last position, assistant audio engineer on American Psycho-The Musical.

Each of the productions was quite distinct. Icon was the tale of a young man who, tracking down one of his grandfather’s heirs, learns about the fate of a once famous princess from his homeland; Lisa and Leonardo chronicled how Da Vinci’s sketches of Lisa (as in Mona) lead to each of their romantic unions coming undone; and The Last Word was a ‘70s-era tale of a young man trying to save a club from demolition by hustling cash through Scrabble games across America. Munchrath felt the latter musical was the most challenging as it was more fast paced and had to have a powerful but not overpowering sound given its rock opera style. 

All of her NYMF shows had different sound demands. The Last Word and Lisa and Leonardo had five band members in an elevated pit (a ramp about 20 feet above the stage): guitar, bass, two keyboards, and drums. Icon subtracted the bass but added in trumpet, trombone and a reed player. “The shows are incredibly different,” says Munchrath. “The Last Word is a pop-rock opera, Icons is more orchestral, and Lisa and Leonardo is a more intimate love story.”

 

The cast of The Last Word
The cast of The Last Word

Audio and Energy

Given the nature of the near month-long event, NYMF shows are notorious for having only one tech run of a show, usually the day of opening night with the sound designers helping work out any audio issues. “You only get one try on the console before you have an audience,” stresses Munchrath. “That is really difficult. For The Last Word, I went to a see dress rehearsal and the schedule was such that when I saw them they weren’t ready to do Act 2, so I didn’t see Act 2 until our dress run right before we opened. That was a lot. Part of the challenge of doing shows like this at the festival is nobody ever settles into anything. When you run a show for a while, everybody gets used to what they’re doing and you can kind of predict the way things will go because the timing is usually the same or they usually stay aligned with the same particular volume. With a festival like this, that is just not going to happen. It’s kind of like dancing and not leading. We just have to follow and figure out what we’re going to do that day.”

Munchrath and Kim Cincotta, her A2, did a sound check for every show because so much happened with each production, not to mention that they were juggling three separate shows. “For one of our shows, we had one lovely performer who was just much louder than everybody else, so we changed the gain setting on her microphone pack,” reveals Munchrath. “When you do a sound check every show, you are able to catch things like that. Maybe if we forgot to change that back between shows, we’d notice an actor was a little quiet and catch that before you go into a show situation.”

There are other unexpected factors that can come into play. “A couple of days ago we did one particular show that had somebody big in the industry present in the audience,” recalls Munchrath. “The cast was very excited so everybody was much louder than I was used to. It’s just funny because all bets are off. You get there and just do your best. Because all of these shows are new shows, they’re constantly bringing in line changes and different songs and different blocking. With everything they deal with, it’s definitely a lot for them to keep up with as well.”

The audio console at the Duke is a Yamaha M7CL, located in the back of the seating area, house right. The number of channels used varies by show, and Munchrath notes that the first 16 are usually for cast microphones. The band tracks vary. For her three shows, all the mics were Sennheiser MKE 2s, which was helpful in terms of continuity. “It’s nice because I know how they sound or how they should sound,” she states. “Any measure of continuity that there can be is always helpful. Having some of the same crew is helpful. When you think about it, you are still learning the show. The audience for the first show is not going to come back for every show, so it really needs to be the best show that it can be. A lot of times in the audio world we get audiences when we’re still learning, and you have to figure out how to make that unnoticeable so that they can have the performance that they deserve to see, and you can get through it and get better.”

The sound engineer praises her in-house A2, Kim Cincotta, for being an upbeat, hard worker who helps her troubleshoot mic issues during shows and with whom she has a good dialogue and working relationship. Cincotta graduated from SUNY New Paltz in June, so this triad of shows was her baptism by fire. It was also good practice for Munchrath, who admits, “I haven’t done a festival or something this fast and furious in a while. I have to remember how to go back and do that because it’s definitely its own skill set. It’s not for everyone.”

 

Bleeding Over

The modest and modern Duke on 42nd Street has a small stage that is probably 12 to 15 feet deep. For Icon, a large projection screen loomed over the cast, partially obscuring the band, which sat on a platform about 20 feet above the stage and approximately parallel (in height) to the last two rows of the audience. In contrast, the actors were mostly blocked downstage, close to the first few rows of the audience, which mean mixing the sound from such physically different locations was tough in the small house. 

“We try to make it as even as possible,” notes Munchrath. “There is ambient sound that is not coming specifically through the system. Everyone in the band has their own monitors, and they’re still fairly loud. There’s also foldback on stage that the actors inherit. There are times when we’re opening house and the band is practicing and our assistant production manager will come and say, ‘You should really turn the band off at the front of house.’ I’m like, ‘They are off, those are just their monitors.’ It’s finding the balance for being able to hear whether it’s partially coming from the system and partially from the monitors.”

And when the system is on, things are still tricky. “Our space is not very big, so to get loud and yet have everything intelligible and heard can be a challenge,” she observes. Each show had a different sound designer, so Munchrath had to navigate their varying styles of sound and interaction with the staff. Some designers weren’t used to the time constraints and there were adaptations that had to take place on both sides of things. In the end though, Munchrath considered it a wonderful challenge. “I think it’s a good experience, and you definitely learn how to do things very quickly,” she finishes. “There’s no time not to. You realize how good your mixing skills are.”