The Dolby Theatre transforms: What it takes to prepare for the Oscars

A massive production

While the several hundred million people watching at home will be focused on what’s happening onstage, the real show takes place in the days leading up to the event. On a normal day, the Dolby Theatre, formerly the Kodak Theatre, is equipped with 215 speakers, 115 of which are surround-sound. For the Oscars, however, the theater only uses 84 surround-sound speakers, providing a seamless and enjoyable experience for the orchestra, parterre and mezzanines.

All of this is controlled from a command center deep in the bowels of the theater, where directors, producers and sound mixers frantically work to ensure the show’s broadcast goes off without a hitch. If the only thing that happens on Oscars night is a presenter flubs their lines, you know these unsung heroes have done their job. In all, there are over 50 sound experts and audio engineers who ensure audiences get the best sound experience possible.

I talked to the show’s lead sound mixer, Paul Sandweiss, who shed details on what a complicated production the entire show is. And when asked about working at the Dolby Theatre, in particular, Sandweiss revealed how today’s technology, along with the venue’s layout, allows him to granularly control exactly where sound is placed at any given time throughout the broadcast.

“If we were doing a music piece, we could place guitars in one area, bass in another, and just move them around, EQ them and give them their own reverb,” Sandweiss explained while sitting behind a glowing console of dials, nobs and monitors. “It’s mixing on the fly, that’s what live television is.”

In a way, a sound mixer, especially someone like Sandweiss who does this for live events, is similar to a professional chef, combining the music, dialog and clips into a beautiful dish. If a presenter is too loud, Sandweiss can make adjustments. If a drummer is playing too quickly, he can fill in the sound so it isn’t noticeable to the audience.

The show is broadcast to homes across the world in Dolby Audio 5.1 surround sound, which is now the America television standard. However, not every person of the 1.2 billion who tune in has a surround sound system (me), which means it’s Sandweiss’ job, along with the other Dolby engineers onsite, to ensure the experience is the same for someone down the street in Los Angeles to someone across the globe in Japan.

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