Calrec Craft Profile – Michael Abbott
In our second Calrec Craft profile (click here for Randy Flick), we were honored to be able to speak to top US mixer Michael Abbott. Michael is one of the most experienced Light Entertainment mixers in the business, having worked on The Voice, Shark Tank and the X Factor, amongst many others. He has worked on the Grammys for almost three decades, and has been the audio coordinator for the prestigious show for over a ten years.
You are the go-to guy for big, live LE events. What is it about these shows that you enjoy so much? What is it about live TV that you find exciting?
A collaboration with other engineers is required to provide a soundtrack that my clients expect. This involves working with a group of intensely creative individuals. You come to work each day looking for incremental improvements. Never let complacency take over. Always be open to criticism.
I have been involved with live sound production for over 40 years, starting in 1972 working on live concerts. There is a visceral thrill and spontaneity to working on live events that I currently continue to enjoy mixing for live TV broadcasts.
How does mixing for a music show like "The Voice" differ from other light entertainment TV?
My clients' and network partners' quality expectations are obviously higher. My goal is to provide a soundtrack that places the viewer at home in the 10th row in the audience in a 5.1 sound field.
Where did you develop the skills you have brought to The Voice, American Idol etc.?
I worked for CBS & FOX Networks and these entities provided me with a broad experience in audio. I was assigned to engineer audio for sports broadcasts, scripted productions, game shows and post production. This has provided me the opportunity to develop the techniques to create sound mixes that work in a real-world application. For example, talk shows that have unscripted dialogue helped me understand how the proximity of multiple lavaliere mics interacts with each other.
Over the years I have also been involved on a wide range of reality, taped and live productions and many live broadcast awards shows. I incorporate, where applicable, the tools & applications from the above to each project I am involved with.
On format shows like "The Voice", how much direction comes from the production company as to how it is presented?
For the most part we have meetings with the creative team, the audio vendors and I work to come up with a set of mic types & speaker systems that we think will work best for the set/stage we will be working on. As far as sound design is concerned, I am left to my own as to how to provide the delivery of content in the sound field.
Typically, what is the audio set-up for the type of LE TV you do?
I have a go-to set of hardware and software devices that are used in every project I take on. These elements are my palettes that I draw on to deliver the same consistent product I try to provide to each client. The majority of network LE broadcasts require a 5.1 mix. This in turn requires working with the broadcast network in the development of the 5.1 sound field and the respective positioning of content in that sound field.
How many sources are you mixing?
For "The Voice" we have 32 RF hand and lavaliere mics. 24 inputs for the house band during the preliminary rounds, 56 inputs during the Live Show. Guest bands can be another 56 channels. Then there are 10-12 audience reaction mics, 4 hand-held camera mics, 4-6 EVS video playback sources with 8 channels of audio each and multiple channels of audio play-out devices for interstitial music beds and bumpers.
Where do you see the biggest changes coming in the next ten years?
There is a lot of talk about technologies like Atmos and Auro in the home, and object-based audio is being discussed by worthy people in the industry.
The object-oriented, immersive and higher ordered Ambisonic formats will become options for hi-res broadcasts. Pending mergers of data providers and content producers will have a determining factor of how and when these technologies will become available.
As a sound mixer what do Calrec's consoles offer you that makes doing your job that bit easier?
File management is an important element of my use of Calrec consoles. I am fortunate to work almost exclusively on Calrec consoles, I use the offline editor for the Alpha series desks, and this capability allows me to arrive on a production ESU with a snapshot that has the majority of programming already done.
I use the GPI options for triggering of fade in/out of camera mics and play-out of SFX.
How does a feature like Automixer help you to produce a better quality product?
Automixer is a great addition to the Apollo line; some of my projects are acquisition-only for future editing. Automixer gives me a better stereo reference mix for these projects as it cleans up the background noise and the overall mix is transitionally smoother between the multiple mics during unscripted dialogue.
You have had a big input into the sound of the Grammy Awards for many years. How has it changed over the last few decades?
I started working on the Grammys back in the 1990’s, providing the performers with multiple stage mixes, working on a single analog 40 input / 16 output console. Multi-colored china-graph grease pencils were my analog recall. The Grammys today has 10 audio mix positions and another 30 technicians for 20+ live performances that are engineered on a variety of digital consoles. IP-managed data transport has become a mission critical element, requiring the engineers to have IT skillsets.
Specifically, how has the equipment you use enabled you to push the boundaries of broadcast audio?
Plug-in servers have given me a palette of processing that I could only dream of in the past. Snapshot Recall provides for dynamic scene changes. The Replay function is an important element that allows me to go from live production to post production with a minimum of programming.
Do you think those TV viewers’ audio expectations have increased over the last few years?
Viewers are always looking for a compelling “aural experience” without knowing specifically what they should expect. Audio in general is a 'black art'. At best a majority of the audience has little understanding of how it works. Despite this, the expectation is high and my job is to deliver the soundtrack I hear in the audio booth to the viewer at home with the fewest possible sonic artefacts.