Live Music Challenges 'Today Show' Mixer

Oct 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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During the actual televised performance, Rifino follows the action on a couple of video screens above his ICON, and he makes small sound adjustments as needed based on what he’s hearing: “I have all the individual cameras [there are usually nine to 11 for outside performances], plus I have program feed, plus the preset feed, which is usually whatever camera they’re going to take next. I can see everything. In my head I’ve usually played the song back enough and rehearsed where the solos are, if I have time, so I’ll be able to tell that if the director is going to the guitarist, I’ll usually know it’s the solo. I try to follow it as much as I can. Sometimes the band comes out and they’re immediately playing a lot hotter than they did in rehearsal because they’re pumped up and on TV, or the singer is singing way hotter, or maybe the singer is singing softer. My hands are on the faders constantly. I try to really follow the vocals, the solos and the crowd.

“What I’m actually sending out is six channels of audio in 5.1, and I’ve got four audience mics I put up—lately I’ve been into the Shure KSM32s because they’re very un-colored. I’ve got two farther back that I use in my rear speakers and that’s a lot of what’s in my rear, so the P.A. mix definitely matters. Then I have two in the front to grab crowd as the artist moves onto the truss [narrow thrust stage].

“I try to mix the band like it’s an album and make it as tight and punchy and big as I can, and then I start to open up the ambience around it. But it’s not like a concert DVD where you’re saying, ‘Okay, here’s my 5.1 mix; I’m going to go back and do my stereo mix.’ Since your cable box is doing that downmix, I’m very careful about what I put in my rears because the Dolby quotient takes the rears, monos them, flips them out of phase and then puts them 6 dB in the front. So if you start panning stuff half-way—let’s say you want your guitars to feel a little wider—half of that signal is going to get flipped out of phase in mono and put back in when someone listens on a stereo television.”

The live outdoor environment itself is a challenge for everyone involved, as it is a narrow space between very tall buildings with pavement below (though always covered by a crowd, which can range anywhere from a few thousand to up to 20,000). Dave Swanson does the FOH mix on a Yamaha PM5D-RH, and Pat McLaughlin usually works hand-in-hand with the band’s monitor engineer to handle that aspect of the sound. “This year the Avid Profile has been the hot [monitor ] desk,” Rifino comments. Directing the show is Emmy-winning veteran Joe Michaels. Rifino also credits his trusty A2s, Dave Auerbach and Mitch Blazer, “for saving my butt many times when a mic or cable has gone bad.”

Indoor performances bring their own set of challenges. Though there is no crowd to deal with or stage and P.A. to assemble, the space is quite small, “so sometimes it’s actually harder to mix because the musicians are so on top of each other and there’s a lot of bleed. The lead singer is usually only four or five feet in front of the drum kit, and the backup singers are right there, too, so I’ll usually do a lot of mutes on them.” Rifino rarely does small indoor ensembles: “They bring me in to do full bands,” he notes. “If it’s more than 10 inputs, I’ll usually do it.”

Rifino has had the opportunity to mix a broad range of top artists (some multiple times) through the years, including Rihanna, Chris Brown, Lady Gaga (a performance that earned Rifino his first Emmy), Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Journey, the Zac Brown Band, American Idol winner Scott McCreary, Elton John, New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys and many others. Asked if he’s ever been starstruck, Rifino laughs, and says, “Not really, but I do feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with so many people I admire. Like Robert Plant. You look down at the fader, and it says ‘Robert Vocal.’ That’s awesome! Or Bon Jovi. I’m a kid who grew up in central New Jersey. You look down at the board and you’re reaching for Richie Sambora’s guitar solo during ‘Wanted Dead or Alive,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I remember playing air guitar to that when I was 6!’”

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