Three years ago, the Grammy Awards gave multichannel audio a huge push into the consumer mainstream by broadcasting its 45th Awards Ceremony in surround. Ever since, the show has been raising the bar in the quality and complexity of multichannel telecasts. For one week, the Grammy production team transforms the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles from a sports arena into a state-of-the-art venue for the most technically challenging live broadcast event in the world.
“It’s like a sporting event,”
says Hank Neuberger, the co-Broadcast Audio Supervisor who, along with Phil Ramone, oversees all the audio content of the telecast.
“Except that in a sporting event, no one cares what it sounds like.”
The sound engineers assembled each year for the telecast represent the cream of the crop in their respective fields, Neuberger said.
“The consensus of these experts is that this is the hardest show in live television.” And since the music industry focus of the event naturally attracts the attention of so many audio professionals, the show is subject to more rigorous critical scrutiny than other broadcasts. “After other telecasts, even the Academy Awards, we’ll get a few comments about the audio portion. After the Grammys, the emails keep flooding in for weeks.” As a result, he added, “our team of audio specialists take a lot of pride in their work here.”
Just what that work entails, and the number of hardworking people contributing to it are details normally invisible to the home viewer who watches the final product. A backstage tour of the Grammys two days before the telecast gave me a unique appreciation for the task and the combination of behind-the-scenes talent and dedication it takes to pull it off.
5.1 Music Mixing at the L7 Trailer
I began my tour outside the Staples Auditorium, at Effanel Music’s L7 Mobile Recording Studio parked adjacent to the backstage loading ramp. Founded in 1980 and recently purchased by Satellite XM Radio, Effanel are world-class specialists in mobile multi-track recording, and the L7 is their flagship studio on wheels. The L7 trailer is 46ft. long, 14ft. wide, with 10ft. ceilings, and serves as the 5.1 mixing area for all the live music performed during the show. The lower platform at the foot of the trailer is the mixing console,
where the 5.1 mix is assembled from the 144 channels feeding into the trailer. Video feeds help the mixers match their sound to the video content. The elevated producer’s platform in the foreground overlooks the mixing area. Behind me is the machine area containing supporting gear. Computers and power supplies are maintained in a separate “clean room” compartment with separate access from outside the trailer.
5.1 mixing for the Grammys will be the joint responsibility of Jay Vicari, who regularly mixes for Saturday Night Live, and Effanel’s John Harris, a thirteen-year Grammy veteran whose many credits include recording engineering for the MTV Video Awards and numerous top-tier live acts such as U2, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana.
The complexity of this year’s Grammy Awards tops anything in the live event category.
“In the opening sequence alone,” Vicari pointed out, “we’ll have five bands on stage at the same time, and we’ll have to be constantly segueing between them.”
Their goal is to recreate the volume, intensity and “grand-ness” of being on the floor at the Staples Auditorium. “This is the Grammys,” added Harris, whose credits include an Emmy for his work on the show.
“The bands have to approach their performances differently, and so do we. We want it to be a unique experience, so it often falls to us to re-invent the way the songs sound so they’re different from the albums, or event he way they sound at a regular concert.”
Harris and Vicari have to create coherent music mixes in real time out of the 144 channels feeding into their L7 trailer. The key to managing the avalanche of data is the advance preparation work, Vicari explained. Prior to the ceremony, each act gets at least one opportunity to rehearse on the Staples stage. During these rehearsals, Vicari and Harris work out the rough parameters in their 5.1 mix and store them as presets in their AMS Neve Capricorn console. The presets can be recalled at the press of a button when the acts take the stage during the telecast.
Vicari was quick to point out that the presets are only a starting point.
“No one ever does their song exactly like they did it during rehearsal. A vocal or guitar may be done differently during the performance. We have to adjust our mix to capture those differences.”
Still, the presets provide the mixers with an essential footprint to work from.
Once an exotic technology added as an afterthought, multichannel has now become the standard for recording live musical events, Harris reports.
“These days everyone wants you to record with an eye towards multichannel,”
he said, crediting the shift in focus to the popularity of DVD, and concert discs in particular.
“We haven’t done a stereo live record in years.”
After leaving the Effanel L7 trailer, I descended into the depths of the Staples Center to witness the steps before and after the 5.1 music mixing stage, that the live audio event undergoes on its journey to our homes…
Wireless Microphones and Pre-Recorded Sequences…
Live performances are only part of the audio content that goes into the Grammy telecast. This part of my backstage tour explored some of the principal sources that come together in the audio broadcast.
Before the live music performed at the Grammys can be mixed down to 5.1 in the Effanel L7 truck, it has to be captured – in real time, obviously. Although a few wired microphones dot the stage area, the vast majority of the show’s 1,000 mic input signals are captured with wireless technology – hand-held mics, guitar packs, and lavaliere clip-ons. That presents its own set of logistical challenges, since each performer’s mic has to be assigned and tracked on one of 78 performer channel frequencies that are operating at any given time.
Keeping the mics, performers and frequencies sorted out falls to Dave Bellamy of Soundtronics Wireless, whose biggest challenge is allocating the RF frequencies. Noting that the wireless spectrum available for this purpose keeps shrinking each year due to high-def bandwidth usage, Bellamy said he offsets this with more sophisticated antenna systems. His task is compounded by the tremendous amount of RF interference in the backstage environment, including chatter between the backstage technical crew on additional wireless channels. Overseeing the Grammy’s entire 190-channel wireless network is Keith Hall of ShowComs, who said that putting the system in place requires two full days of setup.
Live performances are only one part of the overall audio content of the Grammy Awards broadcast. In addition to the live feeds from the announcer and presenters, crowd response is an essential component. When properly captured, sounds from the audience do more than any other element to create that “you are there” feeling for the viewer at home. Getting the maximum impact from the audience is an art unto itself, and at this year’s Grammys, the task fell to sound designer Klaus Landsberg of KFL Audio. There’s a lot more to capturing audience sounds than simply sticking a mic in the air. To get the best capture, Landsberg explained, he uses 40 separate mics positioned in strategic “hot spots” distributed around the hall.
Determining those locations involves some educated guesswork. For example, he avoids the front sections usually occupied by industry heavyweights, who tend to be more jaded about the event, and consequently less responsive. On the other hand, the sections for ticket winners from radio promotions tend to be very enthusiastic, so he always mics them. The nominees’ entourage sections are also a good bet for reactions as well. In real time, Landsberg monitors all his mic feeds and produces a live 5.1 audience impact mix, which he passes along for integration with the show’s other audio content. Landsberg’s other year-round efforts include ‘American Idol’, which he reports will also be recorded and broadcast in 5.1 this year – further evidence of multichannel penetration into the mainstream.
Pre-Recorded Audience Cues
In addition to live content, the Grammy Awards include a number of pre-recorded elements, from announcer tracks to those catchy audio clips played during the reading of the nominees and winners. Selecting these artist audio cues and controlling their playback during the broadcast is the responsibility of production mixer Don Worsham. Much consideration and research goes into selecting appropriate artist cues with “instant recall-ability” hooks so the viewer can recognize the best aspects of each nominee’s work in a limited time. He also pointed out that while nominee cues are selected for maximum impact, the winner cues have different requirements, such as accommodating voice-overs as the artists make their way to the stage.
Since the award winners are kept secret even from the production staff until the actual moment of presentation, Worsham must have pre-selected both nominee and winner cues available for each nominee. Leaving nothing to chance, he has the cues distributed among five separate playback units to allow the most flexible control over crossfades and other effects. Worsham, who has been with the Grammys since 1981, has kept current with several generations of playback technology – from cassette tape units through the hard drive units used for this year’s telecast; next year, he’ll be migrating to a server-based system. In the last few years, Worsham notes that expanding sales of high-definition televisions have prompted The Recording Academy, which produces the Grammy Awards, to take its advanced broadcast technologies seriously.
“High definition television has gotten big enough to where the [Recording] Academy wants our High Def and 5.1 surround content to be of equal quality with the standard def / two-channel broadcast,”
In this part of the HFR backstage tour, we focus on the production phases in which all the disparate source components are combined into the complete audio signals to be transmitted to the home viewer. As it turns out, the Grammy Awards include two parallel – and independently-created – audio soundtracks: a 5.1 surround mix for HDTV viewers, and a surround-encoded two-channel mix for viewers who receive standard definition broadcast signals.
The High-Definition 5.1 Surround Mix
In the Effanel OSR trailer, parked inside the Staples Center backstage area sits 5.1 Sound Mixer Paul Sandweiss of Sound Design Corporation. Sandweiss’ task is to take the 5.1 music mix produced by John Harris and Jay Vicari in the L7 trailer, and combine it with all the other audio components. “I glue all the elements together to create a unified, realistic sound,” he explained. These elements include the audience impact sound stems from Klaus Landsberg and the nominee package audio clips from Don Worsham.
Sandweiss also ensures that live and taped components such as the announcer’s voice are seamlessly matched in level, tonal balance, etc. Feeds from the podium and ancillary lavaliere mics require special attention to create a uniform balance among all the people spread out on the stage at the same time (i.e., when groups assemble to accept an award).
Given the caliber of people providing all these sources, Sandweiss admits that compared to some of his other audio engineering assignments this job is relatively easy – integrating the components with a predetermined mix in mind, he applies some light dynamic compression and limiting per network specifications, he sends out a full bandwidth 5.1 digital signal to the CBS trailer for signal encoding and transmission. As a safety backup, Sandweiss also keeps front-of-house feeds available, but will only use them as a last resort. Since his product is intended for the Grammy’s high definition broadcast, he takes a no-compromise approach.
“I mix mainly for the high end,”
The Standard-Definition Matrix Surround Mix
In parallel with Sandweiss’s efforts, veteran production mixer Ed Greene provides the Grammys’ standard definition audio content from a rather compact trailer he shares with Phil Ramone. Greene’s two-channel soundtrack is not a downmix of Sandweiss’s 5.1 soundtrack, but an entirely separate mix he creates from the same source elements that Sandweiss receives – the music-only 5.1 mix, podium mics, audience impact feeds, nominee audio cues, etc.
Drawing on his experience as a Grammy mixer since 1974, Greene weaves together these sources at his own console like a musician at a keyboard (he even uses a foot pedal for the audience feed to give him an extra real-time “hand”). Greene processes his mix through a Dolby Pro Logic II encoder to create the surround-encoded Lt/Rt mix which will accompany the standard definition broadcast (stereo-only mixes are no longer produced for the Grammys). Greene’s mix is ultimately broadcast by traditional analog CBS affiliate stations as well as any digital stations that are unable to pass a 5.1 signal.
When played back through a home receiver or processor equipped with any type of Dolby Surround decoder, Greene’s two-channel mix will yield a very good surround soundfield, notes Dolby Laboratories’ Rocky Graham, who serves as an onsite Digital TV consultant for the Grammy telecast. Those with more sophisticated decoding (Pro Logic II or Logic 7) will even get stereo separation in their surround channels.
“I’m not pretending that it’s as good as discrete 5.1,”
“If you go side-by-side, you can tell the difference clearly. But it’s still a great, involving surround experience for viewers with basic home theater systems.”
Transmission and Delivery
At this point, there are now two complete soundtracks – the final high-end discrete multichannel mix produced by Paul Sandweiss in the OSR trailer, and Ed Greene’s Lt/Rt matrix mix for the rest of the world that can’t receive 5.1 digital audio. Both mixes, along with the high-definition video signal, are fed to another on-site truck housing the CBS transmission system. To get to the CBS broadcast center in New York, the audio mixes are encoded into Dolby E.
Unlike the Dolby Digital delivery format, also known as AC-3, used in consumer audio applications, Dolby E is a more robust encode/decode (CODEC) process designed for use in professional broadcasting, where the source material travels through multiple paths of decoding and re-encoding, and undergoes other transformations that only occur in distribution environments. By design, Dolby E can be encoded and decoded many times without loss of quality, and uses much lighter compression than AC-3 – generally about four-to-one compression, although the exact data rates per channel may vary.
Dolby E can carry 8 discrete channels of information within one AES pair. In typical use, that comprises a 5.1 signal and a two-channel signal (usually a Pro Logic II mix, but it could also be used for a second language mix or other applications).
In the CBS trailer, which is equipped with an MPEG video encoder, Dolby E encoder, and transmission gear, the discrete 5.1 and two-channel surround mixes are encoded into a Dolby E stream, which is then multiplexed with the high def video signal into the complete MPEG transport stream that gets transmitted via satellite link to the CBS broadcast center in New York. (No standard definition video feed is produced; it is downsampled from the high definition signal.)
The Dolby E stream also contains critical metadata, separate from the actual audio data, which contains information about the audio data, and how to correctly perform encoding and decoding at each stage. The metadata doesn’t alter audio content – parts of it are used in different places along the way: the Dolby E ‘program configuration’ (5.1 + 2), some Dolby Digital encoding parameters, and the decoding process in the consumer’s living room. All metadata is authored onsite at the Grammy show by the CBS engineer doing the Dolby E encoding, and is carried with the Dolby E stream to the New York broadcast center. To complicate the picture, CBS has invested in developing technology to redundantly embed the metadata in the video stream’s vertical ancillary space (otherwise known as VANC), along with other data used for video transmission. The metadata, therefore, ends up being carried in both the VANC and Dolby E streams. CBS recommends that stations access the metadata through VANC, but those without VANC decoders can extract it from the Dolby E decoder output.
In New York, the Dolby E stream is decoded into the separate audio mixes and accompanying metadata. At this point, the network can integrate the feeds with the rest of its programming – inserting commercials, etc., as well as vetting the content (the broadcast is delayed five seconds as a precaution against wardrobe and vocabulary malfunctions). When all network steps have been completed, the robust nature of Dolby E allows the audio, video, and metadata to be re-encoded without loss of quality and sent out via satellite to local stations and other carriers such as DirecTV and Dish Network.
Stations capable of handling 5.1 audio receive the MPEG/Dolby E stream and extract the audio, video, and metadata. Through their local processing infrastructure, stations can insert commercials and other content, switching back and forth between the network and local programming. At the final stage, the stations re-encode the 5.1 audio into an AC-3 signal using the Dolby Digital DP569 encoder. Some of the metadata is used by the DP569 to govern the AC-3 encoding, the rest is passed through with the AC-3 stream to the home. The consumer’s Dolby Digital-capable home audio receiver or processor uses the metadata to correctly apply dialnorm, number of channels, dynamic range compression, and other parameters designed to help the program sound as good as possible on a wide range of playback systems – from high end home theaters to the speakers built into a television. All of these instructions are authored back in the CBS transmission trailer, and stay with the signal from the content creation site, over the satellite to the broadcast center, over satellite again to the local high-def station or carrier, and out to the homes of consumers with 5.1 audio capability. For the majority of standard-def viewers watching the Grammys via the traditional analog television path, there’s always Ed Greene’s surround-encoded Lt/Rt mix.
And that, boys and girls, is how a stadium-full of sound gets to be the Grammy surround telecast you hear in your living room.
Special thanks to Rocky Graham of Dolby Labs for talking me through the signal transmission cycle, to Robbie Clyne of Neilson/Clyne Public Relations for arranging HFR’s backstage tour and Ingrid Powell of the Recording Academy for her invaluable help.