Massive Fail for Sound at Disneyland

Massive Fail for Sound at Disneyland

Some of you know that I’m an “AP” – or – Annual Pass holder for Disneyland. I love the place – even California Adventure. One of the things that Disney media folks makes great is the audio environment throughout the park. We’ve remarked on how amazing it is to have ambiences, music and other sound effects going all day and night – and even changing throughout the day – everywhere. Parades and events are no different: top-notch sound and public address with motion-matching time delays for performers in motion and more. But this last show I saw the other day had such horrific audio, it’s requiring me to make sure no Cinema Sound member makes the same juvenile mistakes we heard at the Disneyland venue. 

The Basics:

We’ve covered every one of these mistakes in both the Cinema Sound Education and in my book which is available at the store. I was, frankly, shocked to experience these things from what is otherwise flawless audio – especially coming from the same team that makes the “Fantasmic” immersive audio experience – in surround sound – amazing. But here’s what we experienced:

It was the “Mickey and the Magical Map” show which, as a show, is amazing. All your favorite new animated musical songs complete with live actors, characters and more dancing and singing against a digital giant-backdrop interactive screen. It would have been completely amazing – except for the ridiculous sound operation.

The Problems:

  1. Missing Vocals on Performer Entrance – Mulan arrives stage left, and we couldn’t hear her for several embarrassing seconds. It wasn’t a fader down, it was a mute or pfl button. She’s abruptly, and amateurly slammed back on with a pop in the system.
  2. Dynamic Vocalist Lost – many of the singers were very dynamic. By dynamic I mean, their volume ranged from very soft to very loud, and it happened many times in the middle of a musical phrase. There’s a lot of reasons for this – none of the least of which has to do with them having to move and dance while singing. It’s pretty normal on stage, but it’s also pretty normal to fix.
  3. Muffled Vocalist Unintelligible – because some of the mics were covered by wardrobe, hair or a vocalist just had a dark voice, several singers were missing the required high frequencies to be able to compete with the crisp background track they were singing with. The mixer didn’t bother to turn them up louder or EQ them to match.
  4. Ensemble Vocal Group Bad Balance – in my personal favorite number, four characters sing a quartet to the background track, but the lead vocalists were not mixed at all – it was just faders staying the same. As a result, the quartet ensemble and the drama of the performers were lost.
  5. Crushingly loud 2.3k – while the track was EQued for the venue properly, the vocalists had the standard, substandard no-eq mix of their microphones. The mixers not taking into account what we’ve been talking about for years which is that “your brain is always lying to you” and their vocal mix was akin to an editor’s uneducated independent film mix: filled with brutalizing 2.3-3.2k edge. These frequencies make it extremely difficult to enjoy a performance because of the brain’s sensitivity to them, and although it allows the vocalist to “seem” loud, all that’s really happening is assaulting frequencies bludgeon audiences, and completely strips them of enjoyment – not to mention masking consonants.

The Solutions:

In one show-stopping moment, Pocahontas, Mulan, Repunsel and Finn all sing together. Too bad you couldn’t understand any of them.
  1. Missing Vocals on Performer Entrance:
    1. I’m just going to quote myself from my book here, since I have an entire chapter on paying attention to the performers while mixing – and is one of the most fundamental aspects of live audio mixing.
      1. You must deal with this…as fast as you can! This is usually screamed from 10 people in your venue.  Your monkey brain has forgotten to turn the fader up on the speaker or performer on the stage.  Congratulations, you are now a recognized sound man.  Try not to eat your ticks when they turn around and look at you.  Read the section called “Mixer: How Do I Pay Attention to the Stage and Mix at the Same Time?” in the PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT FIXES Section.  On the other hand, if you are in the process of working on it because of a gear issue, disregard the voices in your head that are screaming “you’re making a fool out of yourself.”  In this case, you are the only hope for this entire event.  You’ll figure it out.  You are never more than a button push away…

  2. Dynamic Vocalist Lost:
    1. We never want to trust a dynamic vocalist to our keen ability to move a fader – especially when there are more than 4 vocalists and more than 24 faders. We use a compressor with gentle settings to manage that vocalist. Moreover, if the vocalist has large-band frequencies which are strong which may skew the compressor we cut those frequencies down to size with an EQ. We do the same thing in re-recording.
  3. Muffled Vocalist Unintelligible:
    1. Adding a simple hi-frequency shelf boost to the vocalist, or even better, cutting the bulbous bass frequencies which are masking the high frequencies and raising the input (not the fader) is always the best way to solve this – and should be done ON THE FLY if it becomes an issue, since a live mix is never stagnant – even if you’ve done a sound check before.
  4. Ensemble Vocal Group Bad Balance:
    1. Unwise is the mixer who leaves all faders at the same volume for all vocalists all the time. The situation is ever-changing on stage and great mixers always have one hand on the vocalist faders while managing everything else. Ideally, the mixer has memorized the musical arrangements and knows when one vocalist takes the lead from another and moves faders accordingly. In a perfect world, the mixer has EQed each vocalist to have their own sonic footprint unique from all other vocalists, and then restore their full bandwidth should they sing a song solo. Presets on the mixer are helpful for this.
  5. Crushingly loud 2.3k
    1. If I had a buck for every time I heard a PA system with a giant 2.3k bump in it, I’d be rich. But in this case the Disney PA system was fine. It was the microphones chosen and the non-attention to the vocalists’ sound that made this terrible to listen to. This can be solved with the easy use of wider band of cutting EQ or with judicious use of multi-band compression where the 2k-3k band has a stronger setting with a lower threshold. Ideally, this would be set on a bus where all vocalists are routed.

I don’t mean to be “down on Disney.” Heck, I’m an AP. I love it. But I am down on the sound crew who turned a great performance into high-school level drivel due to adolescent mistakes and lack of listening. We were sitting nearly dead middle as well, so it wasn’t from bad seats. In fact, the PA system was top-notch complete with plenty of sub and high frequency power. How do I know? Because the backing tracks sounded amazing.

If you’re not familiar with the fixes I mentioned earlier, you’ll definitely want to become a Cinema Sound member, and MZed Pro Member and even purchase the Cinema Sound Education here. Not to mention get a copy of my book on live audio mixing and get this handled so you never make the same kinds of mistakes we heard at Disneyland.

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