Live Music Challenges 'Today Show' Mixer
Oct 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson
WORKING FAST IS ONLY PART OF IT
The Today Showon NBC has been the ruler of the morning network airwaves for most of the past 59 years, an incredible feat given the fickle nature of TV viewers. The show regularly attracts an audience of more than 5 million weekdays, and sometimes millions more depending on news events or the star wattage of the day’s guests. So it’s no surprise that The Today Showhas long been a coveted destination for show-business personalities, from actors wanting to promote their films to musicians pushing their latest project.
Through the years, live music performances have played an increasingly important role on The Today Show, as improvements in technology and signal transmission in the digital age have allowed music to come across into our homes with greater fidelity, power and nuance, and as such are more appealing to the performers and viewers. These days, it’s not at all unusual for the program to stage a live mini-concert or two per week before thousands of spectators outside the program’s Rockefeller Center studios (mostly, but not exclusively, spring to early fall), plus feature singers and bands playing inside on one of the show’s soundstages. It’s a grueling schedule that requires the coordination of a huge number of people just to get the music portions of the show on the air, as principal mixer Matt Rifino explains.
“It’s such a group effort, such an undertaking,” he says. “The guys are really amazing. In just a few hours, they turn a city block into a concert venue and a television studio at the same time, and within 12 hours it’s back to being a street again. Everybody plays such an important part, from the guys that build the stage to the ones who do the lighting to the audio crew that we have—they’re so good: the guys who plug in the mics on the stage, our monitor engineer, our front-of-house engineer. If it weren’t for all of them, there’s no way this could happen.”
GETTING HIS START
Rifino, who is just 30, got his start as a go-fer at a 16-track studio near his central New Jersey hometown while he was still in middle school. The engineer there gave him lessons on how to use the 32-channel Tascam board, the MDM recorders and the limited outboard gear the studio owned, and when Rifino graduated from high school, he enrolled at SAE in midtown Manhattan. He got his first real break through family connections (no shame in that!): Rifino’s grandfather was an electronic keyboards expert who worked for many years as a tech at the Power Station (and had known Tony Bongiovi since the owner was a teenager), and his father was a lawyer who represented Power Station in some legal matters. Matt Rifino was around the studio quite a bit as a kid, so it wasn’t a tremendous surprise when he was brought onboard—first as an intern, later as an assistant—at Power Station, which by that time had transformed into Avatar Studios.
Assisting some of the greatest engineers in New York at Avatar further broadened Rifino’s knowledge base. But when it became clear that getting a shot at a coveted engineering spot at Avatar could be eons away, he started working other places on the side—at Fenix Studios in Staten Island, a room that had a Neve VR when he started there, then an SSL 9k; and also at NBC, where he started by doing A2 jobs (putting mics on people, setting up P.A. systems, etc.) before moving up the ladder and getting a shot at mixing. While still working when he can at Fenix and also doing engineering on his own with a mobile rig, for the past three-plus years Rifino’s main gig has been working as the primary music mixer for The Today Show, manning a room downstairs in “10 Rock” (as it’s called; the more famous “30 Rock” headquarters of NBC is across the plaza), which is very well-equipped for Rifino’s needs, as he outlines.
"I have two complete Pro Tools|HD6 systems with expansion chassis; two Mac Pro 8 Core Intel with 16 gigs of RAM; three Glyph removable hard drives chassis per system and 10 Digidesign 192 A/D/A per system, or 20 total. I have a Digi Sync and Digi MIDI for each system to control the mic pre’s from the 48-fader [Avid] ICON console, then eight Grace M108 8-channel mic pre’s for a total of 72 channels, with power supplies. As far as outboard, I have three Neve 33609s, two Manley Vox Box, one Manley Vari-Mu comp, a Lexicon 960 and an Eventide H8000. More than anything, though, it is the Waves plug-ins that are on every mix. I use the SSL E-Channel on every track. Then I use the CLA compressors, Puig Fairchild and Pultecs, C4, L1, L2, Renaissance Axx, Maxx Bass, HDelay and Revibe on every mix. When the SSL Channel and Buss Comp came out, that’s when I could really mix in the box! For monitors, I have an M&K 5.1 speaker setup, stereo Genelecs and little Wohler speakers to get an idea of what it sounds like on TV speakers.”
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