Calrec Craft Profile – Michael Couto
Following a sun-drenched summer break, we are delighted to kick off our next round of Craft interviews with LA's Michael Couto.
Michael began mixing TV news at NBC affiliate WBZ-TV in Boston back in the 80s. As the 90s came around, he moved to sunny Southern California where he began his long relationship with NBC’s flagship evening show “NBC Nightly News.” He’s been the show’s west coast A1 for the past twenty years and played a key role in the transition from NBC’s historic Burbank plant to their new home on the Universal Studio lot.
He also serves as audio operations advisor to the network’s owned and operated stations KNBC and KVEA (Telemundo) that also broadcast from the new Brokaw News Center at Universal.
In this Craft Profile, Michael talks to us about addressing the instant nature of news, how to lessen the impact of automated control rooms and what he and his audio brethren have in common across the board.
What's different about mixing news from other forms of TV like sports?
One difference is that a catastrophic news event can hit at any time - which means our entire news operation must to be prepared, 24/7, to go big and to go live.
On the other hand, a lot of things are similar. Your top goals are:
1. Strive to get the best quality audio mix on the air
2. Do your best to not get yelled at (lips moving on screen without sound is a big no-no).
The tools we use to get the best audio are pretty much the same. However, in the live news world a lot of your effort is simply being ready for that moment when the rundown and all the forward planning gets thrown out the window. You hope it won’t happen, but when it does that extra bit of anticipation and preparation can make all the difference. (see goal 2, above!)
Has the way you mix changed to cater for an audience that now watches news on mobile and handheld (tablet) devices, often while on the move?
NBC News is very much focused on mobile. Presently, however, my mix is geared for a 5.1 television broadcast. There are some good folks downstream of us who are re-purposing our content for mobile and the web, and there is no doubt that the way we consume news is changing, be it via the web, social media, or direct to our phones. It’s a fascinating topic and I’m sure it is something that will continue to drive the way we produce content. It is something we will all be dealing with soon.
Where do you think news is headed regarding audio production technology requirements?
One thing I’m seeing is the incorporation of more in-camera computer-generated effects (augmented reality, etc.) into the news. As these digital devices get inserted into the signal flow, sometimes a significant amount of delay must be added to the microphones on the set to counter the latency of the online graphics processors. You’d think it would be pretty straightforward to just delay the main output of the board, but there are some areas (like IFB) where you want to preserve as little delay as possible. All of this can add a layer of complexity that we just didn’t see a few years ago.
Another thing is that more and more audio positions, especially at the local news level, are being automated. It’s painful for many of us to watch this happen, but automation in the news business doesn’t appear to be going away.
So far I’ve been tasked to set up two automated audio installations and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a heck of a challenge. The obvious issue is that if there is no one riding the faders, how do you keep unusually hot pieces from not overpowering the mix, or that super-soft-speaking anchor from getting lost under the b.g.? And God forbid you have both problems simultaneously.
The only chance you have is to use a board with exceptional dynamics and with lots of headroom up front. Hopefully those two things will help you level everything out and keep your overall output signal close to -24LKFS. The Artemis worked extremely well for us, especially in this application.
Can you give a few specific examples of how you tackled setting up the audio for an automated production control room?
It’s not always pretty. At the lower end of the range you’ve got to raise the input trim high enough to guarantee that the weakest cut-story package or the softest-voiced anchor still makes level. But with the anchor’s mics, doing this will likely kick up the noise floor that’s coming from the set, especially because the automation will open faders much earlier than a human mixer would. Sometimes you’ll even find a pair of faders up for no reason at all. So for the mics I like to add an expander to push down any extraneous noise that would come from a prematurely open fader.
On the upper end I use the two compressors per channel on the Artemis to provide both a soft and a hard backstop so that the occasional super-hot package or live remote won’t go through the roof. Using this approach we’re compressing the dynamic range into something that’s workable in an automated environment.
To pull it off you need an audio board with lots of headroom at the input stage and plenty of dynamic range management per fader. It’s still nowhere close to having an actual human running the board, but it’s as good as it can be and the end product is within an acceptable range.
What features on Calrec consoles do you use most?
Well, regarding delay, the fact that the Artemis desks offer numerous direct outs on each channel - both with and without delay - has made that part of the job much easier.
Another terrific function that I absolutely love is that blue ISO button on every fader. This allows me to have multiple profiles (memories) ready to go at a moments notice and load any one of them while the board is still hot on the air. For instance, I can be tracking a package when I see that there is going to be a last minute change on stage. If I already have an EQ and dynamics profile built for the anchor walking on set, I can simply ISO the fader that’s on-air and load a memory on the fly. It may seem like a simple thing but it‘s a game-changer in my world. I love it.
Broadcast audio is a very specific discipline, and like anything specialized it needs the right tools to get it as good as it can be. What are the most important qualities in a desk for live news?
Having a board that’s designed for the job I do is critical. What I especially like about our Calrec boards is that they’re made for broadcast, period… and that’s my job.
My focus is always on the integrity of the broadcast, and the ability to react fast to a breaking story is a big part of that. Once we’re on the air I don’t have time to scroll through menus to solve a problem. With the Artemis in particular, I’ve got everything I need laid out in front of me. Changing things like Aux & Track Routing, EQ & Dynamics, Wilds, Delay, etc. is done at the touch of a button. It’s tactile and immediately in sight, just the way I need it.
As mixers and audio engineers the shows we work on may appear to be different across the genres, from news to sports to light entertainment, but every one of us who work in broadcast audio have one thing in common: a need to easily access critical functionality, and to do it damn fast.