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Live Music Challenges 'Today Show' Mixer

WORKING FAST IS ONLY PART OF IT 10/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern

Principal mixer Matt Rifino

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.

Journey performing

Journey performing

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.”

Bruno Mars performs

Bruno Mars performs

IN THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING
Because The Today Showairs live every weekday day between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., preparations for an early morning concert on the plaza must begin hours before, in the dead of night. And for Rifino, there is usually some preparation days before that. “In advance, I usually will have talked to the band’s production manager and the front-of-house engineer and monitor engineer,” he says. “We get all the equipment ordered—we use a company called PRG Audio for the gear because NBC doesn’t really have a place to keep it, so instead they rent the [FOH and monitor] consoles, mic kit and P.A. each time. After I’m done with the planning and special ordering—let’s say they need a mic that we don’t have—I come in at 12:15 a.m., I give everyone their input list and the stage plot I’ve made up, and we go over the details of the day.

Rihanna makes a stop during her U.S. concert tour dates.

Rihanna makes a stop during her U.S. concert tour dates.

“A group’s full touring setup might be 80 inputs,” he continues, “but we want to cut back as much as possible due to time, so if it’s three songs, we’ll cut it down to whatever they need for those three songs, maybe get it down to 45 or 50 inputs. Then the guys will come in, unload the trucks, start building the P.A. system and the staging guys are doing the stage and the lights. I’ll be in my room during that. I like to be prepared, so usually I’ve already pre-set up my Pro Tools sessions, and I’ll probably just have to patch and make some final tweaks.

“We do a line check with the techs around 4:30 or 4:45 a.m. The bands show up about 6 o’clock, and the crowd is loaded in around 6, as well. However, we have a noise restriction—we’re not allowed to make any noise until 6:30. So the band is up there from 6:30 to 7—that’s what I get with the band; that’s what everyone gets. So it’s pretty fast in terms of getting everything dialed up.

“I record the rehearsal flat. At that point, I’m just worried about getting good pre levels in Pro Tools and having a good gain structure. After I get that and I’m happy with everything, and nothing is distorted or too low, I’ll start opening up plug-ins and start to do some EQ’ing and compressing and actually mixing. I’ll record each song and then I’ll play back each one after the fact as I’m doing my mix and save a snapshot of each song.” This way, the board and the processing details are instantly accessible during the band’s performance a bit later during the live telecast. “I record the live performances on multitrack, too, but they never get used.” The band’s FOH mixer will often sit at the console with Rifino to clue him in on a performer’s specific sonic needs or desires.

And it is always a live performance, even if there are occasionally tracks being fired into the mix. “Probably 80 percent of bands have tracks these days,” he says, “but a lot of it is little things—percussion and things like that where they want it to sound big, but they don’t want to pay a guy to be on the road to play shaker. But things like vocal effects—AutoTune or whatever—those are still going on a live vocal, absolutely!

“We have a rule that it really has to be ‘live’ because our show is a news show first and foremost. It’s NBC News, not NBC Entertainment, like Saturday Night Live or Leno. So we cannot have lip-synching on the show. There will never, ever be lip-synching on The Today Show. The program could lose its credibility as a news program if they say such-and-such is playing live and it’s actually me holding a [vocal] track fader.”

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.”

ARE YOU IN OR OUT?
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!’”