Engineers Explain the Nuances of How They Capture Broadcast Audio at Live Events
Today, live television programming presents technical challenges far greater than those faced by previous generations of engineers. Multiple screens, pre-recorded music, and computers all need to be synched together. The viewing needs of the live audience must be respected. Archiving for possible DVD release means that all sound sources must be recorded perfectly at a live event. Performers demand sound that respects their studio performances, while dancers need individual cue mixes — you get the picture.
Industry veteran Ed Greene in a remote truck he uses for complicated live shows, featuring a 120-input Calrec main console, 96 channels of ATI custom sub-mixers, Meyer monitors, Akai and Digicart playback machines, and more.
Add to these pressures the increasingly tight schedules that audio teams are forced to deal with, and you've entered a world where only the most talented and experienced professionals survive. What is it like in the trenches, recording broadcast sound at live events? SRO separately spoke with two highly respected live-sound engineers — Ed Greene and Paul Sandweiss — about the state of the industry and the challenges they face at live gigs.
Greene has been an A-team recordist for over two decades. When he first spoke with SRO, Greene was on a plane heading from New York, where he had just completed working at the 2003 Grammys, to Los Angeles, where he was about to set up for ABC's 50th Anniversary television special.
Sandweiss' impressive credit list was capped in 2002 when he won an Emmy in the Sound Mixing for a Variety or Music Series or Special category for his work on America: A Tribute To Heroes.
SRO: Have standards changed with regard to audio quality for live broadcasts over the last several years?
Sandweiss: The acceptable standards for live broadcasts have changed quite a bit since I started in this business in the mid 1970's. In almost every instance, sound quality has improved, from microphone types to network limiters and compressors. When we did live remotes back in the day, you basically worked with whatever microphones the live sound contractor provided for the band, which typically were optimized for live sound, not recording or broadcast.
Paul Sandweiss, above during setup to record sound for an HBO special covering a Janet Jackson concert in Hawaii, says the standards for live broadcasts have changed greatly since he entered the business almost 20 years ago.
One of the benefits of live broadcasts today is that a lot of the remote trucks and flightpack systems monitor through some type of multi-track recorder, so you can record rehearsals, make a few tweaks, and then do the live performance with those tweaks saved in your snapshots. I remember back in the 1980's, doing entire awards shows — the Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, and MTV Awards — by myself, handling every audio component in the broadcast, and manually resetting consoles during commercials. Talk about driving yourself nuts! Nowadays on a large-scale broadcast, it is not uncommon to have three or four mixers involved in the broadcast sound, in addition to two or three monitor mixers and three or four FOH mixers. I was fortunate to have worked on America: A Tribute To Heroes last year, and we had nine broadcast engineers actively involved in the live mix, not to mention the 56 other people involved in the audio for the show.
Greene: Listeners these days require more sonic detail from audio, and an appropriate sense of space. More than ever, this requires additional miking — many music groups have 50 or more inputs — and the same processing for a live broadcast that is done for a post-mixed program. When you add the music inputs to the rest of the production, it can be 150 to 200 or more inputs. If we successfully deliver a good sounding program — either live or post-produced — it is then up to transmission, broadcast or cable, to deliver that product to the listener. The overall standards for this path have not changed significantly in the last few years. Regretfully, at times the results are disappointing due mostly to lack of experienced audio personnel and misuse of current technology.
HDTV is another story. Aside from sports, 5.1 for live entertainment programming is really just starting. The unspoken objective is to provide a similar sound experience to DVD. Basically, we are asked to provide a 5.1 surround mix in addition to an SD surround mix that is compatible with mono … all live! My first experience with this was on July 4, 2000 for PBS, on an annual event called A Capitol 4th, which took place on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., featuring the National Symphony Orchestra. The program included Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with live cannon, fireworks from the Washington Monument grounds, and performances from Ray Charles, James Galway, Lee Ann Womack, Barry Bostwick, Kristen Chenoweth, and many others.
This is a new and exciting palette for mixers, and aside from common sense, there are no rules. Again, the transmission paths to the listener are critical, and the jury is still out on how this is best accomplished. For that broadcast in 2000, I used Dolby E. More recently, I have used SRS Circle Surround, which allows 5.1 transmission for both HD and SD listeners. Hopefully, more listeners will be able to receive 5.1 broadcasts soon. It's a very exciting format.
SRO: How do you compensate for the growing time and budget constraints we are seeing on major productions these days?
Greene: It's incumbent for a mixer to understand the audio requirements of any program before production starts. The mixer can then decide whether the facility and their expertise can accommodate the program. Production can then be advised of any additional audio costs and requirements.
As with motion pictures, these elements include dialogue, music, effects, and for live events, the audience. The audience track is one of the big differences between television and film work. You don't often build an audience reaction into a film unless you're working on a concert scene. Contrast that with my work on the Tony Awards shows, where I use up to 25 microphones on the audience alone. Why? Because audiences in different parts of the theater react differently, so you need to capture each area independently. People near the stage tend to have the quickest reactions, for example. The job of the sweetner, by the way, is to augment the audience reaction, when necessary, not replace it. The mixer can then decide whether the facility and their expertise can accommodate the program. Production can then be advised of any additional audio costs and requirements.
Audio post usually comes at the end of the entire production and editing process. From the producer's view, the shortest time at the lowest cost is the answer. At this point in time, money and patience are at a premium. Any audio post person must now keep in mind the practical and financial versus the artistic.
These days, with rare exceptions, budgets are lower and production time is shorter, and shows are more complicated. They require many additional inputs, for example. Last December, for instance, the Kennedy Center Honors program paid tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Simon, James Earl Jones, James Levine, and Chita Rivera. The production schedule was very tight, and there were lots of elements — choirs, bands, dancers, singers, and pre-records. We started to work on the show on a Friday morning, and basically didn't stop until the show ended on Sunday night.
Sandweiss: Setup is critical. We recently installed a music mix facility at the El Capitan Theatre (in Los Angeles) for the new Jimmy Kimmel Live show on ABC. Bart Chiate, the music mix engineer, handles the house band and any guest band performances daily for the show. We installed the system with a 5.1 infrastructure. Bart can monitor back-and-forth between his 5.1 and stereo mixes, so that when ABC makes the decision to go HDTV with 5.1 audio, it will be an easy transition.
We spend much less time these days sorting out ground problems which may occur during complex interfaces between sound companies and recording or broadcast folks. Well-built equipment with good CMRR (Common Mode Rejection Ratio) along with balanced power, have helped immensely. With more complex choreography, wardrobe changes, and interactive sets, the audio has become more challenging, but broadcasts sound excellent when everything comes together.
SRO: On the kinds of live events you work on, how much emphasis is placed on archiving?
Greene: In my opinion, producers would be wise to create multiple formats during original production and postproduction of programs that may have later use. There are many, many pieces that go into any original production. While it is a good idea to store program elements after the original airing, trying to find and figure out how to put them together after original production can prove daunting.
Sandweiss: When we record live events, we always think about 5.1 and record additional audience tracks so the room may be adjusted later in the mix. The rest is up to the producer.
SRO: As recording engineers, what is the relationship between you and others on your staff, and the FOH mixing crew? Do you ever get in each others' way?
Sandweiss: Anyone who feels that broadcast sound is the most important should consider the reality of what it is we all do. The monitor sound is equally important because the artist has no chance of performing well if the monitor sound is not together. Those wonderful guys who spend their lives in the trenches, keeping artists happy, never get the glory that their counterparts receive, but we could not do what we do without their groundwork. The PA sound at the venue is equally important, because the live audience responds to what they hear, and if the FOH sound is happening, the crowd gets in the game, which now gives the broadcast mixer two of the required ingredients for a great live mix — performance and energy. All the broadcast mixer need do is mix those elements together, at the proper blend, and you have your own Frampton Comes Alive, so to speak. There is definitely room for a great FOH mix, a great set of monitor mixes, in traditional wedges, or the current favorite, in ear, and a great broadcast mix. I personally think they go hand-in-hand, and when all three gel, audio ecstasy is achieved.
Greene: My philosophy, for any show, is that it should be one crew all doing the same show, sensitive to each others' needs. No, I am not dreaming! I am very lucky to work with many talented professionals who share the same philosophy. It is in nobody's best interest to arrive with an attitude. Once again, much of this is discussed before production and each of the principals (TV, FOH, and monitors) usually come in with a plan. We then have a meeting at the start of production to work out any remaining issues. When we begin, honest communication is always the best answer. From the producer and artist's point of view, a realistic expectation of results is the key to a smooth production.
Gary Eskow is a composer and journalist who lives in Central New Jersey. He can be reached at ScribeNY@aol.com