Anything that can go Wrong will go Wrong – Murphy’s Law

“Murphy’s Law” is when something bad happens unexpectedly at the worst possible time.

One of my “Murphy’s Law” moments was during a one-man theater show with a live orchestra (where I was running front of house). We had a full house, and the show was being broadcast live on a radio station in Chicago. The same show the night before was nearly flawless so this night’s sound check was easy. The radio broadcast went live, and the show started. When it came time for the actor’s entrance, I raised the fader for his mic and heard nasty pops and thumps in the PA. As I turned off the mic, I saw the broadcast engineer in the balcony scrambling to remix and troubleshoot, too. I radioed to the stage manager who subtly stepped on stage with a handheld mic we had ready as a backup. The actor took it without missing a beat of his monologue. It was stressful, but our backup plan had been perfectly executed.

Even with planning, meetings, tech riders, top notch crew, sound checks and solid equipment, you’ll still be thrown curve-balls. Murphy’s Law says the piano tuner will someday be scheduled the same time as sound check, or a computer will eventually crash right before the show starts. Sometimes we have to get creative to hit a curve-ball. I used to work in concert halls where most acoustic shows would book a recording engineer but no one for sound reinforcement. Occasionally they’d need light and sound reinforcement, but it wasn’t apparent until they were rehearsing on stage – an hour before the house opened with the sound engineer set up backstage. If they were insistent on a MacGyver solution (solving the impossible), what do you do? Move the recording rig to front of house and miss the recording sound check? Run the PA from the control room outside the hall? Or, do you train someone how to hit record while you’re at FOH and check in periodically that the recording is still running? My philosophy: If a piece of gear is setup/working and you’re crunched for time, don’t move it.

It takes time to get comfortable in high-pressure situations like that where you’re expected to be “on” without warning. The work I did in concert halls (recording and FOH) is very similar to what I do now mixing for broadcast. Broadcast can be like an ER where you don’t know what’s going to come through the door or when. When it does, you have to make quick decisions and work fast. If I’m mixing something that needs to air in an hour, there’s little room for error (or losing focus). ADR and Voice-over recording has these moments too. Before the session, you might only have a Quicktime, script, and the names of a couple of people showing up. The rest is winging it (similar to running FOH for a band you just met) – adjusting mics and mic placement, headphone mixes, checking levels and sound – all while everyone waits and the clock is ticking

The key to planning for the unknown is to have an emergency plan. For every session (or show), you need to know what supplies you might need, where they are, that everything in your kit works, and that you are capable of setting up what you need quickly. For VO sessions, I’ll have a lav nearby just in case they needed to shoot ADR. For those acoustic shows, I learned to set up a couple of mics running to the PA regardless if they asked for it. For post-production mixing, I have templates with stems and effects sends in place, so there’s no room for routing errors. Your emergency “supplies” should cover your weaknesses, too. It’s Murphy’s Law that you’ll forget where to find a setting or plug-in when you really need to use it. I forget people’s names under pressure, so if there’s someone new on the crew, I write it down.

I’ve learned to handle situations by saying “I’ll see what I can do” or “I’ll do what I can” instead of “no” (up front). The show is going on, either way, so even if you can’t do much, you can, at least, say you tried. More importantly, you have to trust that you can perform under pressure. Doubt creeps in at moments when you actually need to be the most present. If there’s a technical problem and someone else is showing frustration about it, it’s easy to think, “Do they doubt my ability?” In actuality, that voice is your own doubt about yourself. Even if they are upset with you, it doesn’t matter because you still have a job to do. We know that we’re problem solvers, and Murphy’s Law is part of the job. In time, you can get comfortable with the stress, but it’s an easier process when you believe you can handle whatever might come your way.