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.

How Stephen Colbert is Changing Late Night

The Ed Sullivan Theater off Times Square lit up following the Septemeber 24 taping of

The Ed Sullivan Theater off Times Square lit up following the September 24 taping of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

A very lucky, Internet-savvy friend of mine landed three tickets to a taping of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,’ and out of what I can only imagine is selfless kindness (or maybe he owed me a favor), he offered me one of those coveted spots for Colbert’s September 24 show. I know I’ve written about the show before—it was my most anticipated premier of the year, but seeing it live, well, I’m still riding that high.

Colbert has a few weeks under his belt now, so it seems like he’s picking up on the flow (nine years of ‘The Colbert Report’ probably helped him adjust to that live taping atmosphere too). Watching him on TV, you can get a fairly good idea of how Colbert works, but during the taping, I got to see an up-close view of Colbert’s true talent—working with his writers in between segments, going over each joke, making sure that the crew was on the same page—a real treat for a TV junkie like myself. You forget that as fun as it looks to host a talk show, it’s still work, and requires careful planning to make sure everything runs smoothly.

The theme of the night was Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. (complete with a handwritten cardboard sign welcoming “Frank”). Colbert, who was raised Catholic, wanted to center his show on the Pope, and discuss with his guests about what this historic event means to them, what the role of the Catholic Church is in today’s society, and what it means to be Catholic in a celebrity world. I was pleasantly surprised by the discussion topics—when you get so wrapped up in the extreme views that stem from religion (anti-abortion, planned parenthood, gay-rights, etc. etc.), you tend to forget that religion is still an important aspect of our culture, and that with any religion, there is more good behind it than not. Even the Pope during his address to Congress yesterday urged listeners to not let ideological extremism get in the way of freedom.

Andrew Sullivan, Jim Gaffigan, and Maria Shriver discuss being Catholic with Stephen Colbert on September 24.

Andrew Sullivan, Jim Gaffigan and Maria Shriver discuss being Catholic with Stephen Colbert on September 24.

Instead of keeping the Pope discussion to a few jokes before bringing on an A-List celebrity, Colbert dove into the heart of the day, first talking with a panel of ‘openly-Catholic celebrities’ about why they are proud to be Catholic (Andrew Sullivan was the most poignant of the speakers, telling us that his religion taught him to be confident and open about being gay, two lifestyles that don’t always see eye to eye), followed by a discussion about how the Catholic Church is working to help the environment with Archbishop Thomas Wenski. The panel, which also included comedian Jim Gaffigan and journalist Maria Shriver, left me stunned—not just because of what they said, but that I witnessed an open, educated discussion on a Late Night television show. And that is how Colbert is changing the face of Late Night, by bringing a current, intelligent edge to his nightly line up.

You also have to credit Colbert’s interviewing skills for much of the show’s initial success. His ability to humanize even the most aggressive monsters is something you rarely see in any news form. Earlier this week, Colbert hushed his audience for booing Ted Cruz—he told the audience that even if you disagree with Cruz’s views, he is still a guest on the show and deserves respect. In a world dominated by the Internet, it’s easy to join the crowd mocking public figures we disagree with, but what we forget is that these are still people who are (hopefully) fighting for what they believe in. Colbert’s interview with Vice President Joe Biden last week is another great example—instead of talking about politics, or the presidential race, he talked to Biden about life, about how he maintains such a positive attitude in a world that can bring so much pain (he had me in tears for the whole segment). Colbert’s ability to see each guest in a stripped down form, pulled away from the persona the media has assigned him or her, is a rare quality that needs to be commended.

Comparing him to other Late Night shows, past and present, Colbert is offering a new form of Late Night that I think will appeal more and more to younger generations. During a pre-show Q&A (the only time I’ve ever seen a TV show host interact so intimately with his audience), one man asked Colbert why he chooses to bring on guests that don’t fit that A-list/B-list celebrity demographic. Colbert’s answer was simple: he wanted to bring on guests he thought were ‘interesting.’ And then he asked the audience if they enjoyed the interviews he’s done so far—the CEO of Uber, Elon Musk—people who are changing our world in big ways, but may not always get a chance to sit in the spotlight. Don’t get me wrong, I think Fallon has a great show, but if Colbert continues doing what he’s doing, then there’s little competition for my attention, and I’m sure for the attention of many Americans interested in current events.

You can watch the whole episode from September 24 here.