Award-winning sound mixer Pat Baltzell is a true artist and technical wizard who has worked on an unfathomable range of award shows, political conventions, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowl halftime shows. One of the most strikingly calm, modest and skilled industry pros imaginable, Pat has nearly 1,300 live television shows to his credit and seems to simply take being part of history in stride.
As he was recently preparing sound design blueprints for the 50th Anniversary of the Country Music Awards in November and planning for next year’s presidential inauguration, I had an opportunity to talk with Pat about his journey from being a young saxophonist in Philadelphia through an exceptional 37-year trajectory in live sound.
[MM] While mixing so many music award shows and events, do you still find time to play?
[Pat] I was a saxophonist in my previous life and played all the woodwinds. Then, in my mid-20s, I decided I was going to be broke and bitter if I continued being a professional musician and went back to school at UCLA. I took engineering classes and my first sound job was at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City. After five years, I wanted to move into film or television and returned to Los Angeles. Maybe in my third life I’ll go back to being a musician.
[MM] How did you break into television?
[Pat] I have a degree in music and wanted to mix film scores, but it’s a difficult industry to break into. There are a handful of guys who work with all the top film directors and, with more television than film work available, I opted for TV, because it was easier. I started out very modestly doing parades and projects nobody else wanted, because they needed to show up at one or two in the morning for a 7 a.m. parade.
Little by little, I built up a client base with these small projects and occasionally, when there were several larger TV projects on the same weekend, I would get the crumbs other mixers couldn’t do. Eventually, I got to mix sound in theaters and venues and started meeting broadcast mixers. Typically, the producer hires the broadcast sound mixer, and the broadcast sound mixer hires the PA sound mixer—which is me. To start a career in television sound, I figured I needed to befriend the broadcast mixers, and that’s what I did. I got lucky and started to build a reputation for myself.
[MM] Were you ever interested in becoming a broadcast mixer?
[Pat] About 19 years ago, just as I was entertaining offers to mix in the broadcast truck, I was approached by ATK Audiotek—a sound company that rents speakers, consoles and microphones—to become a partner in their growing business. It sounded interesting but, if I moved into broadcast, I would no longer have control over which PA company was hired. Staying in-house sound mixing, the work would obviously go to Audiotek, so it was a win-win situation. I agreed to become a partner, which I still am today.
[MM] With the Oscars, Emmys, GRAMMYs, Kennedy Center Honors, Country Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards among your many credits, are there certain shows you’re partial to?
[Pat] I prefer shows with lower sound pressure levels. For example, the Country Music Awards is a bit quieter than some of the pop award shows, like the Billboard Music Awards. I also really like the Kennedy Center Honors, which has every style of music—classical, opera, Broadway, rock, jazz and blues. I’ve done about a dozen Paralympic and Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, which are always interesting. I just finished the Democratic and Republican Conventions, which I’ve done since 1988 and have been in the unique position of hearing many of the best politicians and orators of the last three decades, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Mario Cuomo to Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama.
[MM] How do you prepare for an event as enormous as a presidential inauguration?
[Pat] The swearing in ceremony is in Washington D.C. on January 20, and this is my fifth cycle of doing the project. I worked on two George W. Bush and two Barack Obama inaugurations, and the process starts about a year and a half out. The U.S. Capitol contacts me and sends a contract to produce the design work.
For every show I work on, I create all the drawings and design work. I also tune all of my projects, which is kind of unique. The inauguration design work entails about 18 full-sized blueprint sheets, detailing every speaker location, sound pressure level predictions, cabling diagrams, single-line diagrams and mechanical drawings indicating weights, how the speakers are to be aimed, how they’ll be installed, plus all of the equipment racks and what’s supposed to be in them. With President Obama, for instance, there were a million people at his first inauguration in 2008. If Hillary Clinton is elected, there might be a million people attending again this January, so the performance of the sound system has to be very well detailed and accurately modeled. I’ll predict the worst-case sound pressure level at a distance of 500 feet will be 89 dB SPL, so there are drawings to indicate that.
About a year in advance, I submit my drawings to the Architect of the Capitol, and they release it to sound companies to bid. The government chooses the winner, and I send a representative to the company a week before we install. They set up the entire system in their shop to demonstrate they have everything, and it all works. Then they pack it up and bring it to Washington, where we set it up for real.
[MM] How long before the actual event do you show up on-site?
[Pat] It varies. Next year, the Academy Awards will be held on February 26, and I’ll be on site for 11 days beforehand. A big job like the Olympics requires more like two months. The inauguration takes three weeks, so I’ll be there on January 1.
[MM] How do you approach tuning a room like the Dolby Theater for the Oscars?
[Pat] Probably, one of the strongest points of my work is how much time I take with tuning and balancing the sound design. I take hours and hours with test mics in every area, seeing what happens underneath the balconies and in different seating areas when I make a change in the front rows and see how it affects the balcony. I take a long time, but I am very methodical about balancing it all. So, before we get to the first rehearsal, I’m convinced we have the sound system as optimized as possible, in the way it’s going to behave in that space. That way, I’m not surprised when the first performers come out to rehearse. I know it’s going to be loud enough in the house and not have a negative effect on the broadcast because of too many reflections, too many surfaces being excited.
[MM] The Country Music Awards in Nashville are coming up in a couple of months; can you walk us through your prep process?
[Pat] We recently flew in for a day to survey the Bridgestone Arena and look at drawings of the new set, so we could discuss options for stages. In music award shows, there’s one main stage with two sides; one band performs while another sets up, and we go back and forth all night. This time, we’re adding two more stages, a small one in the middle of the arena and another all the way in the back with a kind of mosh pit vibe.
The survey is about three months prior to the event, so there’s time for things to change. The scenery hasn’t been built yet, so everyone weighs in on potential problems for sound, lights or scenery. We go through some of the mechanics and the big pieces, and everybody leaves with a plan. Then the scenic designer modifies the drawings for a scenic shop to start building.
Next, the producers start booking artists and, a month before the show, I contact all the acts—typically 24 for a three hour special—to get the specifics about their equipment and come up with a complete hardware list for the show.
A couple weeks out, I distribute information packages to my crew with a complete drawing set, schedules and patch lists of how each band lays out. Distributing these in advance does two things: it gives each crewmember a thorough understanding of the project, and it makes the load-in of a complex arena show happen efficiently.
[MM] So, the show starts and you hit the first big moment. How do you manage the audience roar and cheers?
[Pat] If I’m doing my job right, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Back to those diagrams of how even my sound coverage is—it will be plus or minus 3dB in every seat. Everyone should be able to clearly hear every spoken word and every lyric. When you have a performance or a speech that’s designed to illicit a response from the audience, and that’s what it does, it makes everyone feel good. The producers love it, and the mixer in the truck who has microphones covering the audience loves it, because that enthusiasm translates to the viewers at home.
[MM] You spend considerable time on each project, what’s the most satisfying part of it?
[Pat] I still love when we go live on the air; when they count down 5-4-3-2-1 and we come up on the host or the opening monologue or the cold opening. That’s always fun for me. And, in that moment, I hope the show is going to be a good one. I guess I’m my own worst critic but, out of all the shows I’ve done, there have only been three I’ve thought I’ve done really well. I always think maybe this will be the fourth show I’m really proud of—that I wouldn’t want to redo.
[MM] What kinds of things do you wish you could go back and change?
[Pat] Mistakes you make as a mixer. Where you up-cut someone—they start talking, and you’re on the wrong microphone, so you miss their first word. Or, a singer doesn’t sing the same as they did in rehearsal; maybe they’re nervous and sing more softly. It might take a couple notes to figure out what’s going on. It’s not the mixer’s fault; it’s the performer’s. Broadcast mixers can go back and fix these mistakes for the rebroadcast, but in my position, it only happens once in real time, so I just do my best.
[MM] You and ATK Audiotek have had a long relationship with HARMAN Professional Solutions and, in particular, with JBL. How does JBL fit into your work and serve your projects?
[Pat] We’ve used JBL pretty exclusively since 1999. We started with the JBL VerTec line array speakers and have since used them successfully. Now there’s the VTX generation, and they’re a staple in all my designs. JBL has a unique advantage no other speaker company can claim, and that’s the weight of the VerTec and VTX series. Because of the carbon fiber box, there’s a third less weight, which becomes a factor when the show is so heavy you either need lighter speakers or less of them. And, with less weight, the speakers are easier to truck and install. It has been a big advantage during the last 17 years, designing first with the VerTec series and now the VTX V20 with its smaller footprint, lighter weight and great sound.
I also love the JBL VT4880A subwoofer. I use them on the ground and in clusters flown in the air. They have been part of my design for a long time as well. At the Super Bowl, where weight really comes into play, we pile them on carts, and they’re very light to push. We need to get them from the parking lot or a tunnel in the belly of the football stadium onto the field and plugged in within six minutes for halftime and pregame shows. If a speaker weighs a third less than all its competitors, it’s a big advantage.
Many thanks to Pat for sharing his insights on an extraordinary career! Are you a live event mixer? How do you prep for major events? Share your experience in the comments.