Audio Engineering for Orchestras by Mark Dahlen

Mark Dahlen is currently an audio engineer for the Nashville Symphony, and also mixes symphony rock shows around the country. A history of two decades in the industry, including a long stent in the international touring world with rock/pop/country and world music artists.


As an audio engineer, I have had the experience of working both directly with orchestras and also with touring artists performing with orchestras. While they needs of both are similar, there are differences in approach. The main goal of my job is to reproduce or assist in sound reinforcement of the orchestra so that all patrons throughout the venue have a pleasant experience and enjoy the performance.

From a very basic standpoint, audio engineers want information about the performance. The venue, its layout and equipment. What are the acoustic features, or lack thereof, in the space? A proper onsite visit is important in determining what approach will be appropriate.

Some of the first questions I would ask after understanding the space is: what is the instrumentation of the orchestra? And how is it laid out? A stage plot diagram, usually created by the stage manager, showing the setup is most helpful in understanding how the orchestra will react sonically in the room and how microphones should be placed. An audio engineer will create an input list with all the necessary microphone allocation for the performance. Depending on the setup and the repertoire, different instruments will bleed through other microphones. For example, If you have the brass section behind the strings, which happens often, and you use overhead microphones on the strings, you will most definitely get a lot of brass in those microphones. Given the nature of the repertoire and the other instruments on stage, it may not be an insurmountable issue to work around. In other situations, especially in a collaboration with a pops type performance where louder stage sound levels are possible, different micing techniques may be appropriate.

It is important that the audio personnel are given day schedules and show flow information: rehearsal and show times, top of show speakers, guest artist entrances, solos etc.

When working with orchestras or artists, it is important to make sure the on stage experience is working well for them. Monitor speakers, sound baffling and isolation might be required. Operations managers are often the liaison between these conversations, but direct musician to audio engineer conversations can be helpful in creating a positive two-way relationship.

There are times when abnormal aspects of performances arise, such as live broadcasts, additional guest performers, stage moves, seating on stage, and additional guest technical requirements. Anytime new details emerge, the production staff should be made aware as soon as possible so that they can give input on production related obstacles and solutions. Keep in mind that audio personnel may be booking equipment through outside vendors and may have input on purchasing or renting items. Having regular conversations about upcoming performances with the production personnel will help ensure a smooth show day.

In the end, we are all on the same team, and we want to produce the best possible show. The best compliments you can receive as an audio engineer, are no comments at all.  The audience is so caught up in the performance, that they don’t even notice the sonic experience as a separate aspect. Hearing people walking out saying, “that was just amazing” is a very satisfying thing to hear.