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Calrec Craft Profile: Hugh Healy

We're back with a new run of our popular Craft Interviews, and we're delighted to be kicking off this new series with someone who not only is a completely brilliant audio engineer, but also a really lovely fellow: Hugh Healy.

Like most people who work in audio for television, NEP’s Hugh Healy’s journey began with music. Trained as a scientist and with a background mixing some of “the worst garage bands on the planet”, he realised that he had a talent for both mixing and engineering – and what’s more, he found he enjoyed them both. He became Head of Sound at Disneyland in Anaheim, LA, and it was here where he started mixing for television, setting up for various national broadcasters who would sometimes broadcast from the Disney complex. Today, Hugh is Senior Audio Engineer at entertainment specialists NEP Denali, and we were honoured to spend an hour with him talking about people, culture, expectations and how having a guy in Nantucket is an important aspect of getting the right mix.

So what happened after Disneyland?

There was something about the get in/get out mentality of television broadcast audio that appealed to me, plus the engineering input was extensive – a lot to learn, and I do enjoy a challenge! I joined Green Crowe and Company, who were then the premier entertainment video truck company. Some years later they were bought by Unitel, and when Unitel went bankrupt in 2000 a small group of us engineers and sales folks set up Denali with the existing kit and client list. We made the transition and NEP came in with us so we were suddenly part of a very strong group which worked really well - our entertainment clients were very happy because nothing had changed for them, and we had the support of a large organisation like NEP. This is how Denali, the entertainment division of NEP, was formed.

Do entertainment clients have different requirements?

They have very specific needs, and it’s very important to understand those needs. There is a huge crossover between entertainment and sports in both expertise, equipment and communications, but entertainment clients need to feel that their requirements are recognised and are being fulfilled. Having a specialised entertainment division helps us to do this; everyone at Denali is focused on what our clients expect to see.

So how does the service differ between sports and entertainment?

Let’s start with the people: of course we only want the best engineers and we’ve stolen a bunch of guys from NEP who we’ve liked, but these guys also have to have certain personality traits. We can’t turn up at a broadcast and just do the job, we have to be involved – one of our engineers referred to the job as being a “Production Engineer” in the sense that although we are all engineers our remit goes way beyond that. We are heavily invested in the people, the production and the progress of each show; we are involved with everyone from the talent to the production staff.

It’s cultural. Our clients expect to be looked after and it’s our job to make sure they feel that they are.

On the facilities side, there is an enormous amount of overlap with sports, but it’s all the peripheral equipment which makes the difference. For example, the audio room is substantially bigger than in a typical sports truck – we have dual-trailer truck systems and we have single trailer trucks. In a single 53’ trailer the audio room will typically have a room around 14’ x 12’, a dual-trailer system has an audio room around 17’ x 15’. People are packed in there; there’s an audio engineer, mixer, an audio playback person and often an audience “sweetener” to enhance the audience mix. These rooms are treated acoustically and we remove all the noisy equipment such as the audio router and the comms tray. The audio room is more like a recording studio.

Then there is the multitrack infrastructure. We support multiple 192 track MADI workstations for recording and playback along with AES multitracks, and we have the ability to QC any MADI path without interrupting the signal.

Finally, many of our clients still want analogue outboard equipment, things like tube compressors on a music show, which we insert into the console, and we’ve recently started integrating plug-in servers too.

There are some outstandingly good sports engineers, but there is a culture and a method which we adhere to in entertainment. Our clients are really not concerned with the engineer’s issues; their expectations are very specific and we pride ourselves on being able to provide this service.

Also, all our trucks have a bagel cart, which is located inside the door with lots of snacks. That’s cultural too. You won’t find that in most sports trucks!

Which features on the Calrec consoles do you find useful in the field?

There are so many things! Firstly, the number of inputs. For example, we do a show called Capital Concerts with a live orchestra, choirs, guest bands, satellite stages, plus production elements, with over 300 live mic inputs which have to be working simultaneously. The show is similar to the way the BBC’s “Later…with Jools Holland” works, swapping from band to band, but often several bands will all jam together so there are over 300 inputs that are hot – memory recalls won’t work here so the desk needs a huge number of inputs and the capacity to control them all.

Multitracks are important, so the more busses the better, plus having a lot of Direct Outs. Recall capability has to be instant – we have other desks which have slower recall so you have to be careful when you do it, but the Calrec’s are near instant. Things like multiple dynamics sections, significant routing capabilities, and Automix! Automix make our lives much easier especially when you have a lot of open lavalier mics – these things simplify everything and keep all our patching down.

Fibre is very important to us, and it integrates so well into the Calrec. There is no translation layer, no separate application, you control it directly from the desk. The channel counts are so high and the set up times get smaller and smaller; this helps us get up and running quickly.

Remix capabilities are very important to us, we multitrack so much, at some point we have to remix it. On the Alpha consoles we used the Remix Input Switching a lot, and were disappointed when the Apollo was launched without it, so it was good that Calrec listened and added it back in on later software versions.

And sound quality is paramount. The first Calrec I used was the Q2 series, and they were the best sounding desks I had ever used. The Alpha consoles were clean and tested well, but they sounded utilitarian. We used them because they were by far the most flexible.

When we installed our first Apollo seven years ago the feedback from every single mixer who came through was that the desk was every bit as good as the Q2. As an engineer I hate using this kind of phrase, but they are more musical, and they still have that same functionality. I’ve had half a dozen Golden Ears guys in front of the desk, and they agree – and that’s really important to us because our clients can be very particular about sound quality. We simply cannot have their mixers picking up on a perceived lack of fidelity because that is a subjective statement, and therefore it's not debatable.

How quickly are you expected to be up and running? What is a typical set up time?

For large shows we may get a week but we start rehearsals very early. For example, for the Teen Choice Awards we’ll start setting up in the morning and we will be on camera in the afternoon. On bigger music shows we will triage to get things done, but if you are under those time constraints and also have to rehearse a band with 60 inputs, you need people on top of their game – not only that, but people who are calm under pressure.

In the real world, stuff is going to break, although today it is less about things breaking and is often more about IP protocols not talking to one another. People have a tendency to panic and often these things take time to resolve. On a big job, an hour’s delay is hundreds of thousands of overtime dollars that has to be accounted for.

The guys who do well in this business are the guys who can calmly deal with situations and either fix it before the client notices, or remain calm while they are being screamed at! Competence is an underrated virtue which is absolutely essential in this job.

Do you think that TV viewers’ audio expectations have increased over the last few years?

Or course. Viewers have gone from a three inch speaker to multi-channel sound systems and it has consequently raised the bar of the minimum standard of audio – it is no longer acceptable for Producers to allow the broadcast of mediocre audio, and anything that doesn’t sound good is chastised.

I ensure there are checks in place throughout the broadcast. For example, on a high-profile awards show I will monitor the high-end audio forums like avsforum.com on a browser, and if they are talking about the fashions then we are doing a decent job! But if they’re talking about the lousy audio then we need to look at what we are doing, and quite often that will be an issue downstream of us.

I also have a team of engineers around the country listening to the audio as it goes out. A good example of this: I had a guy in Nantucket listening to an awards broadcast we were mixing. Nantucket’s broadcast infrastructure is old, and he texted me to say that the audio at the podium sounded dull. Well, it sounded good to me, but I was watching the mix and the mixer was diverging the dialogue between the centre and the left and right.

I remembered that a lot of these old 5.1 distribution systems are using AES devices in their plant, and AES receiver chips don’t all clock identically, which means that you can feed the same signal to two AES inputs on a processing device and one may be one sample out compared to the other. If you have something across those multiple channels and your TV or set top box is doing the downmix, it creates a comb filter, but at only one sample it doesn’t sound like a comb filter. What you’ve actually got is a HF roll-off that starts at about 2kHz, and by the time you get down to 20kHz it’s down almost completely. So you have a severe high end roll off with a one sample delay between AES inputs. Once I realised this, we tightened up the dialogue divergence so it was 12db down on the left and right, and this fixed it.

This is what you have to care about so that the client feels like they are getting the service they deserve. Because if it is happening in Nantucket, it’s happening in other places. These are the things that our people deal with which make clients want us there.

So what does a Senior Audio Engineer do? Is it similar to an Audio Guarantee Engineer?

We test everything – we’ve already checked the signal paths with the networks, and so once the transmission starts I am listening to the network return, to a downmix and the individual legs, I am watching what the mixer is doing so I can dive in and help if there is an issue, and I’m listening to Production to ensure they are in the loop. I’m listening and monitoring everything to try and anticipate any potential problems. I consider myself very fortunate to do this job; it encompasses so much stuff and I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that the job is done right.

I am a part time hardware designer, I have designed boutique mic pre amps for various companies, I program firmware, I have a recording studio in my house, and I love to work with musicians on various projects. All these projects give me pleasure in the audio world, and my television work is an extension of that. I enjoy the challenge of the engineering and finding new ways to do the job better.

What do you see as the biggest change to the way programmes are mixed in the next five years?

Obviously shows will continue to get larger, they never get smaller! I think we will find we are doing a lot of multi stream stuff, multiple mixes to different outlets, and a lot of Object Based Audio and everything that entails. People don’t really know what do to with that, but the classic example I always cite is that if my mother had a button on her remote which made the dialogue louder, she would be really happy with that! Once people figure out what to do with Object Based Audio it will be a significant technology.

I think we will be sending a lot more stuff over the internet, and both AoIP and VoIP will be huge and not because they need to be but because that’s the way the industry is going. And lots more remote production with the mixer sitting in a remote studio, which is already happening in sports.

24/05/16

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