An Interview with Mitch Hansen about Lighting Design for Orchestras

Mitch Hansen joined the Nashville Symphony in 2008, having previously worked for a number of production companies and venues in the area. He is an alumni of MTSU and has lived in Middle Tennessee since 2004.


What specific duties or tasks are a Lighting Director responsible for in producing an orchestra concert?

  1. Make sure the musicians can see their music
  2. Make sure musicians can see the conductor
  3. Make sure the audience can see the musicians.

Note: Not all of the orchestra needs to be visible all of the time, but, all of the orchestra that CAN be seen from the audience’s perspective SHOULD be able to be seen. This means that you don’t always have to light them perfectly even from all angles, if priorities 1 & 2 are met.

What documents or information does a Lighting Director need when preparing for an orchestra program?

Every theater or hall has some sort of technical documents, usually:

  1. A line-set drawing
  2. A lighting and stage plot
  3. A patch sheet

If you’re lucky, they will also have an inventory (assuming they HAVE inventory). If you’re REALLY lucky, they will share said info with you in a timely manner. Some houses treat these like nuclear codes, other houses post them on their websites as public info (albeit buried more often than not).

These documents will tell you:

  1. where you can hang lights
  2. what lights are usually hung where to hit what
  3. how to control said lights
  4. what extra options you may have.

Each show will require a different approach (yes, even standard classical repertoire), although often they start from the same origin.

Under what circumstances should an Operations Manager consult the Lighting Director before making a decision?

When making decisions that require changes to the stage, the personnel onstage, the timeframe in which the LD has to set up/program/teardown, it’s ALWAYS courteous and professional to let the LD know in as much advance warning as possible. When asking for artistic elements (specific cues, effects, etc), it’s best to confer with the LD to ensure the idea is feasible, as well as can be accomplished with the tools and time provided. This also lets the LD know that these items are considered priorities, and the other elements of the show may come secondary to them.

How much time should be scheduled in the hall for the work of the lighting department on a weekly basis?

This is largely a function of time and scope. Ideally, the Lighting Department should have as much time as they NEED to do everything they want. I’ve never seen such a luxury in practice. More often, there should be at least 1 dark day in the room for maintenance, and 1 day off for the crew. Beyond that, every 10 minutes of show requires 1 hour of programming (on average). 90 mins, 9 hours. Depending on the complexity of the show, familiarity with the console, severity of load in, and general condition of the equipment (and crew), this can go either way. I try and schedule no less than 4 hours for both load in, and load out. If load in takes 4 hours, typically load out takes 2.

If the orchestra is performing a classical concert outside the home hall, what basic language should be in the rider communicated to the offsite venue regarding lighting needs for the orchestra?

Make sure that the orchestra can see their music and the conductor. Try and keep the lights from shining in the musicians’ eyes from their line of sight to the conductor. Make sure there is a minimum lighting standard, including qualified and capable electricians to load in, program, and run the show. When in doubt, make sure the ENTIRE stage can be illuminated with WHITE light from both ABOVE and in FRONT (toward the audience) of the stage.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

  • Establish a priority for every show: Is this the orchestras show, the visiting artists show, or the video crew taping it for later. This will help streamline answering questions that may arise.
  • Just because you CAN use older gear, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Spend some money to look modern and stay relevant when it suits the act. Likewise, not every show needs moving projectors and pixel mapping. Less isn’t more (that’s why it’s called LESS), but less CAN be more TASTEFUL.
  • Lights are like cars: they consume expendable materials, they take time to maintain after use, and they eventually wear out. Plan, and budget, ahead to stay in smooth operations.
  • Always remember that the production crew is the first to arrive and will leave well after everyone else’s day is over.  They work diligently on a narrow timeline on long days in order to accomplish a massively complex undertaking, within a system with infinite variables. This job has immense pressure to succeed behind it; the show MUST go on. So, be nice to them, be patient with them, tell them they did a good job (when they do)… and make sure to include them in the headcounts for catering.

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.