When last week’s presidential debate turned into verbal pro wrestling match, with insults and interruptions landing like knee drops and ref bumps, Lance Vardis was uniquely qualified to make sure the raucous back-and-forth was heard clearly by millions across the globe.

Vardis, who lives in South Portland, is an independent broadcast audio engineer and live sound producer who has helmed the soundboard for televised World Wrestling Entertainment events for the last decade.

Vardis was at the controls when Republican President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden went head-to-head for the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland. And he’ll be at the soundboard again Wednesday night when Vice President Mike Pence takes on Sen. Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City.

“It was a lot like a wrestling match,” Vardis recalled Tuesday during a break from setting up sound equipment in the Marriott Auditorium at the University of Utah. “There were obvious similarities with the sparring that went on.”

Lance Vardis, a professional broadcast audio engineer who lives in South Portland, sits at the soundboard before mixing the first 2020 presidential debate last week at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Photo courtesy Lance Vardis

More than 73 million people watched the first presidential debate across 16 TV channels, according to Nielsen ratings. That doesn’t count everyone who livestreamed it on phones and laptops or listened to radio broadcasts.

The debate has been widely criticized for running off the rails. Moderator Chris Wallace regularly asked the president to stop interrupting Biden, and the former vice president repeatedly told Trump to shut up and called him a clown.

Interruptions were so frequent, calls for a mute button went viral on social media. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the next day that it “intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates.”

Vardis said he was consulted briefly last week about technical aspects of muting the candidates, but he hadn’t heard anything about it since then. If there were a mute button, Vardis said, he wouldn’t want to be in charge of it.

“To cut someone off is very contrary to what I normally do,” Vardis said. “I’m just supposed to provide a neutral platform, sound wise, so the candidates can get their message out.”

Vardis, 57, has been the front-of-house audio mixer for WWE Raw broadcasts on USA and WWE SmackDown! broadcasts on FOX since 2010. He also has worked at three Super Bowls, the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions, Election night 2008 at Grant Park in Chicago, 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

And he has produced live recordings and broadcasts of the Foo Fighters, Black Crowes, Bare Naked Ladies, Matchbox 20, Slayer, Newport Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz Festival and Voodoo Music Festival.

Vardis said he’s usually on the road 150 to 200 days per year, with WWE events in major cities across North America, Europe and Australia, so he tries to make the most of his time at home with his wife and 13-year-old daughter.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, his WWE gigs have been limited to Orlando, Florida, with a video audience Zoomed in. He was there Friday night before flying to Salt Lake City on Saturday to prepare for the vice presidential debate.

WWE events are among the largest, most technically advanced productions in the world, he said.

“Sound, lights and visuals – we have all the latest gadgets and toys,” Vardis said. “It’s one of the biggest traveling shows when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.”

Lance Vardis sits at the soundboard while working at WrestleMania 2018 at the Superdome in New Orleans. Photo courtesy Lance Vardis

For the presidential and vice presidential debates, Vardis is one of nine audio engineers who set up and run a sound system that feeds multiple receivers, including broadcast networks and livestreams. He said they’re tested regularly for COVID-19 and must wear masks on the job.

Positioned 50 to 75 feet from the stage, his soundboard mixes the audio coming from the two candidates and the moderator and controls what they are hearing.

And it’s nothing like setting the cruise control on a car. If one of the candidates suddenly speaks softly or begins to shout, Vardis must adjust the mix.

“You can’t just set it and forget it,” Vardis said. “My hands don’t leave the mixing board. I’m hyperfocused on the stage and the video monitors and the candidates’ faces. It’s very stressful. You’re so keyed in to what you’re seeing and hearing. Every little breath or noise.”

Vardis said Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate is expected to be calmer than last week’s presidential matchup. But he’s making no predictions about the second presidential debate next week in Miami or the third on Oct. 22 in Nashville.

“Hopefully everything goes forward as planned,” he said.


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