BY Steve Harvey
Hollywood, CA (March 23, 2018)—In 1996, Quincy Jones, at that time the executive producer for the Academy Awards program, asked Tommy Vicari to handle the music mix for the broadcast. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to do a TV show.’ He said, ‘Well, figure it out,’” recalls Vicari.
Twenty years later, on the ninetieth anniversary of the Oscars, Vicari is still at the musical helm, mixing the orchestra during the live telecast. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “Once, I got to the theater and the bass player was standing outside the pit because there was nowhere to fit him,” he reports.
Now, Vicari has someone representing him at the venue during the setup. “We have measurements for how many feet it takes for a cello player to bow, and how big the drumkit is.”
At Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, which has hosted the Oscars since 2002—the year the show switched to HD and 5.1—he tries to place each orchestra section in the same place every year. “When I got this gig, they never did that,” he reports.
Vicari has been working as an engineer, producer and mixer in recording studios since 1969. Over the course of his career, he has been honored with multiple GRAMMY and Emmy Awards and a Cinema Audio Society Award. His credits range from studio productions with a who’s who of artists to television series and motion pictures.
He starts making Oscar plans in December, including booking the truck. Two years ago, he brought one of Viacom’s audio trucks out to the show, having used it previously for A Capitol Fourth, the PBS show celebrating Independence Day in Washington, DC—the only other TV show he regularly mixes. Last year, the truck was unavailable, so he hired Music Mix Mobile and Mark Linnet’s vehicle. This year, the Viacom truck—under new ownership, he says, and now outfitted with a Lawo mixing console—was back.
Several days before Oscar weekend, Vicari heads over to the venue to the music mix remote truck for his first line and level check. “I get the orchestra for two hours, to set all the preamp levels. Of course, they’re not playing at full level, because they’re saving themselves for the show, so you have to leave room so that if they do play out, you’re not breaking up the preamps.”
Broadcast lead mixer Paul Sandweiss and front-of-house mixer Patrick Baltzell pick their microphones for the podium and the host, but anything musical is Vicari’s domain. “We basically set up a studio in the pit. We partition and give them monitors and the feed from the show, give them a conductor cam and air conditioning. They’re down there for eight hours.” The musicians wear headphones and have a dedicated monitor mixer, who also feeds them click tracks, he says.
With an audience of 1.2 billion in 225 countries and territories, there is no margin for error, so the orchestra visits Capitol Studios during the week before the show to record the music cues, including the nominated songs, in case of technical failure on the day, and for playback in some of the trickier situations. The best picture category, for instance, can be a contest between as many as 10 nominees. The conductor and the orchestra hear the announcement at the same time as the audience and have no time to shuffle through 10 charts in time to play the winners onto the stage.
The show’s conductor and musical director changes each year; this year, it was Harold Wheeler. “A lot of people contribute,” says Vicari, busily mixing in Capitol’s Studio A before the show. “He writes some of the charts. This year, we’re using mostly newer charts, from a lot of the composers that have contributed over the years, like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.”
Vicari and Pro Tools operator and engineer Larry Mah (the two have worked with composer Thomas Newman for 19 years) plus Capitol Studios engineer Chandler Harrod and the facility’s crew spent a couple of days in Studios A and B tracking the 42-piece orchestra before the broadcast. Vicari essentially had 10 to 15 minutes per cue available for mixing. “We’ve got a system, so it’s not so scary,” says Vicari, who brings in his Millennia mic preamps, GML EQs and PMC monitors, which are all carted over to the remote truck at the Dolby Theatre after the sessions.
Mah cleans up the audio and mutes unused tracks while simultaneously fielding requests from show producers and artist managers. “I have a remote,” says Vicari, “so I can start Pro Tools and Larry can be sending stuff on his computer.”
Once upon a time, it would take Capitol’s staff 12 hours to set up. This year, it took five hours. “We’ve done it enough times now that we’re starting to figure it out,” says Mah. “It’s written down, and while it’s a little different year to year, a lot of it is the same.”
“We work as a collaborative team; I have all the best people,” laughs Vicari.
That team is the reason why the production returns to Capitol every year. “I was really proud of the setup crew this year. They did a really good job,” says Harrod.
Capitol’s job is to make Vicari and his people comfortable, says Paula Salvatore, VP and studio manager for the past 27 years. Continuity is also important. “There’s so much going on that once they get it right, Michael Seligman and Rob Paine, the executive producers, like to keep the same procedures and the same people,” she says.
There is another reason why Capitol is a preferred destination, says Arthur Kelm, the studios’ chief engineer, general manager and VP, which is that the equipment is always current and cutting edge. “Staying on top of technology is what we do; that’s part of being Capitol,” he says.
On Kelms’ watch, all the facility’s Pro Tools rigs have been reconfigured identically, with the same software, same plug-ins and 72 inputs with 80 outputs. “You can take a project from room to room to room. It wasn’t that way when I got here six years ago.”
Fiber and Focusrite RedNet interfaces now tie the Capitol tower’s rooftop performance area to any control room, he adds. And in C, where he installed a Dolby Atmos monitor speaker system almost a year ago for internal mixing projects, the Pro Tools system is MADI-enabled to manage 128 channels.
“My next big project is a central server for all the studios,” says Kelm. Carving out a few terabytes from the existing video server will enable automatic backup, he says, replacing the current nightly sneaker-net system. “It will also make working on the same project in multiple rooms easier.”