Dealing with the FOH Mix Position

by David Morgan
in On the Digital Edge
The Jones Beach Music Theater in Wantagh, NY is among many venues around the world with a quirky sounding FOH position. Photo by David Morgan
The Jones Beach Music Theater in Wantagh, NY is among many venues around the world with a quirky sounding FOH position. Photo by David Morgan

All FOH mixers have their own preferences for the location and layout of the mix position. In the years since I moved onto digital mixing platforms, my layout preferences have become decidedly minimalist. I am down to a total of five cases for my setup. The DiGiCo SD5 console sits on a two-by-10-space rack that houses the system control hardware. To my right is an empty case that becomes a table for the two tablet computers running the Lake software. To my left is a second 12-space rack containing a 64-input Pro Tools HD recording system.

The FOH workbox sits just behind me, right next to the “Morgan” caddy that holds my personal stuff (chair, rug, sun shields, music stand, mixing mascots, etc.). I ask for a space that is 12 feet wide by 10 feet deep located on center, 100 to 120 feet from the stage. If I can lose the emptied Cadillac to nearby storage, my setup can be compressed into a space eight feet wide by eight feet deep. My pre-2006 analog setup with racks of outboard gear required more than twice that floor area. Our production as a whole benefits, because a smaller, lower FOH footprint providing optimum sight lines allows more floor and center lower grandstand seats to be sold.

Nix the Risers

My audio preference is to stay off risers. Even low-rise staging structures can produce strong low frequencies resonances that may give one a false bass reference for the overall mix. It is always difficult to convince yourself that what you are hearing is still okay even if it sounds wrong while seated at the console. So, I always set up on the floor when working in arenas or auditoriums. I stand just a shade less than six feet, four-inches tall. Therefore, I am still able to see over the heads of most audience members if the crowd suddenly rises from their chairs. When I was younger, I used to stand through the entire show. And I may actually have done more than just stand, because I somehow earned the nickname “Dancin’ Dave Morgan” many years ago! However, 2017 David Morgan now sits comfortably in his Stealth Chair behind his DiGiCo SD5 console.

Dealing with Reality

An ideal situation would be to only work in arenas or venues where an unobstructed 12-foot wide by 10-feet deep temporary home on the floor is always assured. But reality doesn’t work out that way. A huge variety of physical conditions and restrictions will demand creativity in adapting to a non-standard workspace. More than once, I have encountered situations that only had room for the console set up on top of a pre-existing table area. At that point, one starts searching for all the extensions for the cabling and makes it work.

At a theater in Dallas during the 1995/96 Kitaro tour, the designated FOH position was behind the last row of orchestra seating area and separated by a low wall. Due to a very low balcony overhang, I could only see the first few feet of the stage. During the show, Kitaro would roam all over the stage to play a multiplicity of instruments. The only way to both adequately hear the P.A. and have the necessary sight lines to the stage was to put the PM4000 console on the carpeted floor and mix lying down. One must do what one must do. The theater employees definitely laughed at my quirky inventiveness, but all agreed that the show sounded very good.

Last summer, I mixed a hospital benefit show in Texas while set up in a vomitory located just downstage left and offstage of the monitor mix position. This area was both upstage and offstage from the flown P.A. system and it was necessary to mix on a pair of Tannoy 12 reference nearfields we carry for these circumstances. There is a dedicated Lake LM44 in the FOH electronics rack from which we send Left, Right, Sub and Frontfill to the house or installed system. I am able to carry the wireless tablet with me throughout the seating area and tune the system output to satisfy our needs. The show was executed with faith that the Tannoy output very closely matched the P.A. output. During the performance, Clair system engineer, Andy Sottile, roamed the seats with the remote tablet to perform any necessary touchups.

There are also many mix positions around the world that are located in areas that sound radically different from the main seating. One well-known example is at the Jones Beach Music Theater in Wantagh, NY. The mix position is on level ground and is located in a rectangular cutout that extends back into the first few rows of the gently rising seats. The reflections off the plastic walls/ceiling of the permanently erected mixing tent, plus walls of the concrete box canyon surrounding the mix position, and then the even further out-of-time reflections coming off the grandstand wall all combine to massively skew the frequency balance that the engineer eventually hears. The sound inside the tent is very phase-y and heavily weighted in the lower midrange frequencies. I always hope for clear weather so I can move my console toward the stage and get away from that concrete enclosed tent. If it’s raining, as it often is, then I am stuck in the tent and basically mixing by memory.

Fixing a Hole

On the tour of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong that I recently completed, I was required to mix in what was basically a hole in the ground. We were doing a show at Leeuwin Vineyards in Margaret River, West Australia on a beautiful outdoor stage that was set up on an expansive, lush lawn surrounded by towering Karri forest of Eucalyptus giants. When I first encountered the venue, I immediately wondered why the tent covering the FOH area was so low. It wasn’t long before I discovered that a smallish square bunker (2.5 meters by 2.5 meters at most) had been dug about 1 meter deep into the flat ground. The lining walls were made of concrete blocks and the floor was carpeted so this was definitely not a new feature.

It was obvious that I would be required to stand in the hole while mixing. The console would be resting on the grass just in front of me on the stage side of the bunker. In the hole behind me, there was an elevated table on which the lighting board would sit. Our LD, Tom Wagstaff, would then sit on the back rim of the square bunker and look over my head. This arrangement proved workable for most of the show. However, when the audience rose to their feet, the stage disappeared from sight and the direct line to the audio system was blocked. In this show, the audience usually remains standing for the last five songs. So I put on my headphones and soldiered on. Both Tom and I were running on memory until the last note was played. Now I know how a garden gnome feels staring through a field of legs.

One Hot Mix

I had one other unique FOH riser area experience in Australia. On our show day in Adelaide, the temperature was 111° F in the Botanical Gardens where the concert was to be held. It was a beautiful setting for the concert, but insanely hot for working outdoors. When we arrived at midday from Melbourne, the FOH position was still completely enclosed by the plastic tenting structure that covered the risers. The front, rear and side panels were all tightly lashed in place. It seemed prudent to open it up as soon as possible.

Whether motivated by bravery or stupidity, I charged inside the tent and began unzipping, clipping cable ties, untying the lashing ropes, and pulling back the wall panels in order to get some air flowing inside the structure. It must have been crazy hot in there, and after a few minutes of wrestling with the side panels, I started to get dizzy. In a semi-conscious state, I began to stumble and found myself stepping awkwardly from the lighting deck down the one-foot height difference to the audio level. Somehow I managed not to fall on my face or tear open my body on the scaffolding, but I did hyper-extend my right knee. The resulting damage caused me to limp my way through the rest of the Pacific Rim tour, but I considered myself lucky that the injury was not more gory or severe.

In resignation, I went and sat in the shade until help arrived in the form of a large fan that mercifully got the air moving under the tent roof while the stagehands and I set up the gear. I was very grateful throughout the day that I don’t carry racks of tube compressors or other heat-producing outboard that would blow additional heat over me while I sat behind the desk. The DiGiCo SD5 console runs very cool and the heat sinks located on the rear panel keep any warmed air away from the operator. Sadly, there was very little change in the temperature when the sun went down. The heat was rough on every performer and member of the crew. The resilient audience was treated to a great show, but my day at the mix position was brutal. The next day at the airport, I looked as though I was still in shock from the intense heat exposure. Who says mixing sound isn’t a physically demanding occupation?

Safe Travels!