AES Delves Inside Mixing Late Night TV

The Audio Engineering Society held its annual Convention at the Javits Center in New York City on October 29 to November 1, with lectures, panels, and a show floor of the latest products from the Pro Audio industry. My role at AES each year is to make sure the hottest events are covered for the show daily magazine. This year, the session that stood out was the Grammy Soundtable: After Hours—Mixing for Late Night TV. You can read my coverage here or at its original location here.

The faces of late night television have changed dramatically over the last few years, ushering in a new generation of hosts. In 2014, Jimmy Fallon moved up from his NBC late night gig to take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. David Letterman, who hosted Late Show with David Letterman since 1993, retired earlier this year, handing the show over to Stephen Colbert, the comedian, actor and former star of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.

Late night television’s hosts weren’t the only changes though—with these new shows also came complete overhauls of the show studios, which are designed first for visuals, then audio, giving the shows’ sound engineers a special challenge of mixing clear audio in the smaller studios.

In this year’s Grammy SoundTables panel, moderated by Will Lee of the CBS orchestra and Late Night with David Letterman, a panel of sound engineers discussed their positions in late night television and how they adapt to each show’s unique challenges. Panelists included: Harvey Goldberg, Late Night with David Letterman and Late Night with Stephen Colbert; Josiah Gluck, Saturday Night Live; and Lawrence Manchester, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

“In general, making music for TV is not always the best acoustic environment,” said Goldberg. Since Colbert took over, Goldberg said he could tell what acoustic changes were made to the theater when it was redone. The same occurred at Fallon’s studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York.

“Jimmy (Fallon) wanted the new studio to sound fantastic, for both him and the audience,” said Manchester. While each show has its own unique format, one of the most common challenges each producer faces is mixing audio in a short time span. For Manchester, Fallon’s writers will come up with a musical segment a few days (and sometimes a few hours) before filming, leaving him with the challenge to create a plan as fast as possible. This is usually for Fallon’s musical impressions, or collaborations with guests throughout the show. “The experience relies on ample time—you don’t have a lot of time in late night but that forces you to come in with your best plan,” he said.

Over at SNL, Gluck said they usually start figuring out recording plans on Thursday— two days before the live performance. For the 40th anniversary special, Gluck said they used a lot of wireless for the musical performances to add flexibility to the show.

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