As the home of country music's new stars, superstars, and legends, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN is unlike any other production in the world today. On a typical Saturday night performance, the evening begins at 6:30pm and will run until midnight with approximately 50 performers crossing the stage during that time. "We have to keep our mindset open and be ready for anything that will come along," explains Kevin Reinen, chief technical engineer for the Grand Ole Opry. "There is one show change on Saturday nights. Otherwise, the Opry is a steady stream of artists representing a wide variety of country music from today's mainstream hits to bluegrass to Americana.
Recently, the Opry's enormously busy stage turned to Neumann and Sennheiser microphones to round out an audio improvement initiative that began when Steve Gibson, music director/manager of Creative Services, joined the operation five years ago. Gibson was asked by Pete Fisher, Opry vice president and general manger, to use his years of experience in the recording industry to improve overall audio procedures. "There were practices in place that we felt could be improved upon with regard to broadcast audio, so we took a look at all aspects to improve the sound," says Gibson. "We literally looked at every element in the signal path from microphone, all the way out the door."
King Williams, broadcast mix engineer for the Opry, notes, "This front-end upgrade with Neumann and Sennheiser was the last piece of the puzzle. The Opry upgraded two audio consoles in 2003. We were looking for a different sound off our deck."
"We tried quite a few different models of microphones," says Reinen. "After multiple microphone tests, we made a decision on what sounded best. For example, we ended up with Neumann broadcast microphones onstage because we didn't necessarily want to block ourselves into a certain type of microphone."
The basic format of the Opry stage consists of the upstage area that is reserved for the Grand Ole Opry band, the mid-stage line that is occupied by the piano, various guitars and their respective amplifiers, and finally the downstage area that is closest to the audience. The new microphones are featured at mid-stage and downstage with a Neumann BCM 104 broadcast microphone on the upright bass and a total of eight Neumann (four BCM 104s and four KMS 104s) for main vocals and instruments. One Neumann BCM 104 called "Big Rhythm" is used as a wild microphone that travels around the stage as needed. Sennheiser Evolution 609 silver microphones are used on guitar amplifiers downstage. A Sennheiser MD421 is also on the steel guitar and on guest guitar amplifiers.
"We experimented with microphones, using them in different applications than originally intended," says Gibson. "We're not afraid to innovate, which is part of the reason we have made certain decisions. The Opry sound starts at the stage so we apply the best audio practices given the format of the show. The Opry is an icon of American music so it has to sound prefect."
As an innovation example, Williams explains that the Neumann BCM 104 is technically mounted upside-down because there is no boom stand like in a broadcast environment. The Opry mounts it on a floor stand with a gooseneck "so the casing is upside-down," he adds. "It has an easy, warm sound; not too harsh or bright, with decent amount of space around it. House FOH engineer Tommy Hensley and I immediately liked the way vocals and instruments sounded in front of it."
Williams often conducts syndication remixing of the show and was more familiar and comfortable with a Neumann front-end than what was previously used. "All in all, we were looking for fidelity; superb performance microphones that are dependable, durable, and that sound consistent."
The Opry's unique sonic personality is a special blend of musicians and performers, the acoustic characteristics of the House, and the talented audio staff working behind the scenes. Gibson concludes, "As professionals, we have always associated the Neumann and Sennheiser nameplates with quality and durability. We were looking for something that set us apart from other broadcast production environments in our city and other cities. The new microphones have just an overall broad, nice sound. The front-end is all important, so the more natural and less manipulation, the better."