The Late Show With David Letterman, a Conversation With Harvey Goldberg

Mixing Audio For An Iconic Television Show
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Harvey Goldberg’s bona fides as an audio engineer are well established. The list of clients he’s recorded, mixed and mastered includes a number of high-profile luminaries: Hall & Oates, Peter Frampton, Kool & the Gang, they’re all there. If you take a peek back into his early years in the industry, you’ll find that Harvey Goldberg did some work with the great Duke Ellington.

For the last 15 years Goldberg has been applying his talents to The Late Show with David Letterman. An iconic figure in American culture, David Letterman draws a steady stream of "A" level talent to his CBS show. For the last eight years Goldberg has been mixing music for The Late Show — no mean feat, considering the show, while taped, has the spontaneity of a live performance. Goldberg took a few minutes to speak with Broadcast Engineering last week while preparing for that night’s show.

BE: What specific challenges does The Late Show present to an audio engineer?

Harvey Goldberg: “The variety of musical talent we have is extraordinary, so a mixer has to be well versed in a number of different styles, that would be the main issue. The stage, which looks large on television, is actually quite small, which means that the players in the featured band are on top of each other, making it difficult to isolate their instruments.

“We’re working in a television studio, not a recording studio, and everyone is surrounded by metal lighting, metal cameras, and a series of hard surfaces, which cause a great deal of sound wave reflections. Dave likes to have the PA system run at concert volume; he wants to feel the PA from his desk, which is louder than you’d like it if you’re recording a band underneath it.

“Over the years we’ve learned how to deal with these issues. The talent is so extraordinary, from Dave on down, that the technical problems don’t seem as critical as they might in a different situation.”

BE: Can you give a specific example of a difficult miking situation you’ve had to deal with?

HG: “Sure. We’ve had acoustic strings and harp as a complement to a rock band. Due to size constrictions, we have to place the strings players around the drummer. That’s tough! Again, though, when the talent is first-rate and the energy is there, you can always find a way to make things work.”

BE: “Has the proliferation of home theater systems changed the way you work?”

HG: “Not dramatically, and I think there are two reasons why. For one thing, most people, I believe, still have televisions that are hooked up to a stereo source, not 5.1, at least in the room where they’re watching our show. Secondly, we’re working in a live situation, where time is the enemy; every day is a new show. To map out a true 5.1 mix you need a lot of time, both in production and in post, which we don’t have, and you need true isolation of source material, which we lack. For these reasons, we don’t mix in 5.1. We do use a Dolby Surround System.”

BE: Wow, that’s an antiquated technology, isn’t it?

HG: “It is, but it works great for us!”

BE: What is “Live On Letterman?”

HG: “Live On Letterman” (www.cbs.com/shows/liveonletterman) gives fans the opportunity to spend some additional time with artists who appear on the show. One day, it was almost three years ago, I think, Pearl Jam decided to give a concert after they appeared on the show. CBS streamed it live over the internet. Several months later we had a similar experience with Elvis Costello. Then Paul McCartney went out to the marquee after he appeared, and about 5000 people gathered to hear him. That performance drew a lot of attention, and sponsors. We’ve now broadcast between 40 and 50 of these shows.”

BE: “Does mixing for the Internet present any special problems?

HG: “I’ve always approached television and Internet the same way. I come from a record mixing background, and was fortunate to work on a number of hit records that I heard play back in different environments — a clothing store, in different cars, from speakers buried underneath a friend’s sofa! — and so I was able to develop a way of mixing that lets you come up with a sound that will translate into these various formats, including the Internet.”

BE: You use a RADAR hard disk recording system. What made you choose this technology?

HG: “Years ago we were recording to a SONY digital multitrack tape system. When we made the commitment to move over to a hard drive system I asked everyone I knew in the industry what the most reliable product was. We can’t afford to have any down time, so durability is key. RADAR had a superb reputation in that area.

“I come from an analog background, so I was cautious about going to a digital system that lacked warmth. RADAR has a beautiful sound, and it’s very forgiving in terms of head room. We currently operate an SSL C200 console and use its convertors.”