The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Production sound mixer Terry Fountain

Production sound mixer Terry Fountain

“The show is busy, so the soundcheck part of the day is quite limited. I mix both the production and the bands, so I have to have a handle on all of the sounds of all the instruments before the band even walks onstage. It's rare that I get 30 minutes with the band before we camera block. Sometimes we only get one pass on camera before we have to move on to rehearse something else, so that six years of working quickly [on the road] has paid off.”

About half the time, Fountain says, the band will have someone in the booth with him during the soundcheck and live mix, which “usually helps keep me from missing something particular to the mix that I might not be aware of,” he says. “Other times I think it's better to just go solo because it brings another sound to the music mix that they may not have experienced.”

How many inputs would a typical performance require? “I have 40 inputs set aside for band inputs, which is usually overkill,” Fountain says. “We had Stevie Wonder on a couple of weeks ago and we had to pare it down to 40 inputs from 100 inputs. Stevie has been on a couple of times and he doesn't bring anyone with him to sit with me, but we all know how Stevie should sound.

“All of our mics are from my collection. I'm a big fan of Shure mics and use them a lot, but I have a lot of Sennheiser mics, and a variety of direct boxes for keyboards, as well.”

Neil Taylor (who has been with the show since the beginning) handles the music mix for the studio audience on a pair of Yamaha MC7L digital mixers; music monitoring is done by Eric Slaughter and John Perez on a Yamaha PM5D.

As for miking the main part of the show and the other conceptual segments, Fountain eschews traditional studio booms, and notes, “The size of the stage makes it hard to wire anything with cable except the bands. So we use Soundtronics wireless systems to gather audio from the various sources around the stage. We use Sennheiser 5212 wireless packs with Sennheiser Platinum lav mics for Ellen and the people she interviews.”

However, he adds, “Surprises happen all the time, and we don't always put a mic on everyone. So my floor A2s [assistants] — Liza Tan and Ron Thompson, who've been with me from the start — have wireless fishpoles with shotgun mics on them for these moments. For instance, before the show, the audience dances to music that we play for them, and Ellen watches this in her dressing room as she gets ready. Later, during the show Ellen may want to replay a clip of a dancer she likes and talk to them in the audience. When this happens, our floor A2s need to be ready to pick up this audio with a fishpole and shotgun mic.”

As for the Bathroom Concert Series, it's “a single mic in the bathroom,” Sciarrotta reveals. “The music is played from a boom box. They bring me a karaoke version of the song they want to do, then I edit it to an in-point of their liking. After that, I simply burn the cut onto a CD, which is played from a boom box in the bathroom. I also have the cut standing by in SpotOn, ready to play back at any time through a Fostex speaker set up in there, just in case they need it.” Both Lily Allen and two members of Fall Out Boy joined DeGeneres (on separate shows) to sing versions of Britney Spears' “Womanizer” (of all things), while Pink and DeGeneres struggled through a hilarious version of Pink's “So What,” and Bret Michaels led 10 female fans (a tight squeeze) through Poison's “Every Rose Has Its Thorns.” (The show also has encouraged viewers to send in their own Bathroom Concert songs and has shown some.)

Over the course of the day, Fountain says, “Dirk and I communicate constantly and coordinate our respective responsibilities. I have three stereo feeds from Dirk — announce, SFX and music. There are many different cues, depending on whether we are doing a game, a remote, telephone call, you name it.”

Sciarrotta adds, “We collaborate on the cues — their levels, the in and out points, and the outputs that each of the cues is played on. For example, there may be an underscore creating tension, and then on top of that there will be stings. I will play the music pair to Terry, he will know to keep it as an underscore, and I will fire stings down the SFX outputs so they can stay on top of the music. This makes it easy for Terry to separate the two streams, and makes it easier for me to hit the cues and keep the stings prominent.”

During the show, “We constantly listen to our director, Liz Patrick, as things change moment to moment,” Fountain says. “The assistant director, John Zook, is also very important because he counts every second of the show as it happens, and these timings are my lifeline for the many audio transitions that I do live.”

“We need to be ready for basically everything,” Sciarrotta offers. “Surprises happen every day. The show is never the same twice. You never know what is actually going to happen at any moment. While Ellen is conducting an interview, the person being interviewed might mention their favorite song. At that moment, I am fishing for that cut of music and loading it into SpotOn for playback by the end of the segment or whenever someone calls for it. Get it ready and get it fast, because you just don't know. I would say 90 percent of the show is unrehearsed.

“At the end of the night, we have to make sure post-production does not need anything from us. If there was a music cue that was not timed right or was up-cut, I have access to shared folders that I can simply drop music into for the editors. Our post-production needs can also include SFX for a tape piece or VOs we record. The shared folder system works well; no need to burn CDs anymore. As we prepare for a taping during the day, I also have access to shared folders with producers in our production offices. They can drop music in my folder so I can use it for whenever I need it. This saves a lot of time and avoids having to burn a CD. I simply drag and drop.”

In general, Fountain notes, “The show is not ‘sweetened’ per se. Ninety-nine percent of what you hear at home is what I mixed live, including the bands. I very rarely change a music mix; when I do need to remix a song, I use a Fairlight multitrack audio/video recorder. It's saved my life a few times!”

As for the surround broadcast, “The 5.1 is created via an upmix so that if anything is changed after the fact, it doesn't change the 5.1 mix,” Fountain says. “It simply is edited in stereo and upmixed for broadcast.”

Given the hectic pace, it's amazing more things don't go wrong on shows like these. But that danger is part of what makes working on what is essentially live television so exciting. “The biggest challenge has to be that the show is mostly impromptu,” Fountain says. “You really have to have game to mix a show like this.”

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