“Maria” : Mixing West Side Story’s Most Famous Song

“Maria” : Mixing West Side Story’s Most Famous Song

Such iconic songs are always a challenge to mix, simply because they are beloved by so many people, who all bring to the table their own memories of favorite performances, and notions of how it should sound.

This performance takes place with a live orchestra in the pit, and I have mics on Violin 1, Violin 2, and Cello as well as a DI from the keyboard. Since the conductor has very good dynamic control of the orchestra, the mics are not for level reinforcement as much as texture. Since the pit wall blocks much of the high frequency direct sound to the audience, raising the string mics bumps the string lines to the top of the mix but also changes their texture, bringing a clearer, focused sound in such a reverberant space. I don’t want this all the time, as it could mask the clarity of the actors’ vocals, but it’s a powerful artistic tool. This is generally employed with subtlety, as moving the fader produces both a level and tonal change at once, and we don’t want to create a jarring change.

I also have two more tools in the form of a pit reverb and a vocal reverb. Both are Hall models with a decay time of about 1.8 seconds, with the HF damped back and the lows rolled off. This creates a drippy, dreamy, Hollywood string sound that gives a romantic texture to some of the lofty string lines, and helps smooth some of the harshness of the violins’ upper registers.

The vocal reverb is more about subtle psychological manipulation – guiding the listener with cues about the physical space that Tony’s voice inhabits. I seldom use enough reverb to create a conscious “reverb” effect (as in, hey, listen to that cool reverb!). Rather, I can delicately shape and enhance the actor’s performance by placing his big, broad, soaring melodies in a big, broad space, and bringing him closer and clearer on his softer, more vulnerable lines.


During the middle section, where Tony repeats Maria’s name over and over, we can briefly step back slightly from the goal keeping the vocals on top of the mix for lyrical intelligibility, since it’s obvious what he’s saying here. I let him come a few dB closer to being overwhelmed amongst the swells of the orchestra, which creates a very nice feeling of unbridled urgency, and slightly pushing the orchestra levels at the very peak of Tony’s soaring sustained note, creating a high climax, so the ending of the song stands quiet and intimate in contrast.

It’s important to note that I’m not creating or forcing dynamics that aren’t there; rather I’m subtly accentuating what the actors and musicians are already doing to help the delivery translate all the way to the back of the theater. A good example of this is the contrast between “Say it loud and there’s music playing” and “sing it soft and it’s almost like praying.” Since the VCA affects the pit mics’ post-fader sends to the reverb, pulling the Pit VCA back on those lines has the effect of shrinking the orchestra in the horizontal and vertical planes (it loses the upward and outward imaging spread provided by the flown L/R PA) and bringing it “closer” to the audience as the reverb dies away.



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