Calrec Craft Profile: Rob Wolifson

Rob Wolifson, TCN audio supervisor at Nine Network in Sydney, has earned a well-deserved reputation in the business as a broadcast mix master with an ear that’s spot-on. In his nearly 35 years at Nine, he has not only seen audio become much more sophisticated and complex, but he has had an opportunity to work with technologies and artists that have shaped the face of sound and music. We sat down with Rob to tap into his insight and find out more about his audio operation.

How did you get into the broadcast audio business? What made you decide that this was what you wanted to do?

Growing up I was always fascinated by two things. One was television. I believe it’s a very powerful medium that can reach people directly and in a very personal way. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a part of that.

My second interest was sound, although I didn’t understand why. It was more than just liking a song or a piece of music. There was something about its construction and feel that fascinated me. I was very lucky to get into TV at Channel Nine Network because they really did experiment and take chances and do things that maybe weren’t “safe.” That gave opportunities to people like me. The music came with the job because Nine did the programs that I like the most, which were sort of chat shows, variety shows. Things with lots of music, bands, and artists. I liked hearing guitarists work to get the sound right for a given song, and then sitting in the control room and listening to how the engineers of the day would mix those sounds.

What was your career path? How did you move up the ranks to where you are today?

As I said, I was very fortunate that I started my TV career at the Channel Nine Network. Channel Nine had an obsession with being the biggest and best, and as such had constant big productions. I realized immediately that I wanted to work in sound, so as soon as an opportunity came up, I joined the audio department and have loved every second for the past 34 years.

I started as a stage hand, plugging in microphones and things. I was lucky to learn from some great and passionate people. Among the programs I worked on was a five-day-a-week live variety show that had three musical numbers per day. There was an amazing house band and international guest artists covering the whole musical spectrum. Sammy Davis Jr. was the guest on one of my first shows.

I was then given the chance to mix music regularly for one of our recorded shows. I became completely hooked on mixing when I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon recording Joni Mitchell. She was so lovely and liked what I was doing, and so I felt that maybe I was OK at this.

I then went on to mix a local late night version of MTV, and in the Channel Nine way, our producer was not happy just playing clips. He invited musicians and bands to come to the studio after their gigs and play live. That was a great thrill and allowed me to experiment and find my own style.

In time I took over as audio director on the daytime show where I had started as an assistant. The show continued to have a huge focus on music, and I had the thrill and privilege of mixing live – everything from symphony orchestras to Jo Cocker and all things in between.

Now, as audio supervisor, my main focus is on training the next generation to have an appreciation of what TV audio can deliver and develop their skills and motivation to want to stay in the industry.

You’ve been at Nine since 1981. In that time, what are the biggest shifts you’ve seen that have changed the way you work and affected the output of the programming?

When I started, audio was still done in mono, and we were just experimenting with stereo. To go from mono to stereo was quite something. We didn’t have the equipment or the knowledge to do it properly at first, so we worked it out as we went along. That’s part of the charm of our network — that we’re encouraged to try new things and push the envelope. I’ve found over the years that not knowing is not necessarily a bad thing because it forces you to adapt and not always do things by the book.

Another big change was to 5.1 audio. In our studios, we’re still honing our surround skills. When it came out, it was fashionable to do everything in surround sound. Eventually we decided to take our time and get it right, because most of us agree that with surround sound, less is more. It stops being special if it’s always happening. If you have too much in the rear speakers all the time, people get a little indifferent to it. It makes sense to use it selectively, so that listeners perk up when they hear it, even if they don’t know why. Some people are very keen to use every piece of technology they have just because it’s there, but I’m not one of them. Stereo still works in many cases.

The biggest challenge, though, was the shift from analog to digital, which we made about 18 months ago with our installation of Calrec Apollo audio consoles. I had a lot of concerns about ease and speed of use in a live broadcast environment.

Yes, loading a template is easy with a digital console, but beyond that, I needed to be sure that changes could be made quickly and easily while still mixing the shows. In the analog world, where each function has a knob or button, it is simple to reach over and adjust something. But that’s not always the case with digital.

As an example, we have a regular Thursday night sport/chat/variety show — “The Footy Show” — that has as many as 10 hosts at a time (all ad lib); an audience of around 400; stunts in and out of the studio; guest bands; a house band; and more. There is no opportunity to scroll through menus or change layers in order to make adjustments and changes, so my primary concern was to have a large-format console with as much surface control as possible.

The design approach Calrec has taken with its consoles, especially with the Apollo, was the most straightforward of all the desks we tested. It has a very comprehensive work surface with many options to customize it for our workflow and make sense across our range of show requirements.

I have had no trouble training operators young and old to work the console and understand its signal flow. It’s simple to configure channels, patch sources, build templates, and make changes on the run. Plus the visual feedback you get from the touch screens and meter sections is easy to see and instantly understand.

The amount of knobs and buttons available to change parameters is very impressive, and so is the fader spacing and the sensible way the screen-patching and source-routing works. All of those factors made the end choice quite easy.

We were quite apprehensive and concerned before such a major change, but it didn’t take long before all the operators settled in and started looking forward to the next time they had a chance to use the Calrec desk.

Tell us a bit about your audio operation.

At our Sydney facility, we have three working studios. Of the three, the main studio is where we produce our live shows like the weekly “The Footy Show.” We’ve got a core of live shows that are on every day. Our main production studio is available 24/7 and is on air live a minimum of eight hours a day (often more, with many shows running back to back).

We have designed the control room for our main studio so that one person can operate all of the equipment and mix almost all of the shows on their own. The control room has two Calrec Apollo consoles — one with 64 faders and one with 32. The original plan was to have the smaller Apollo as a backup console for the larger one, but we have not needed a backup because there is already so much redundancy built in. So we decided to use the 32-fader Apollo as a second console on larger music shows — either with one operator using both consoles, or with a second operator on the smaller Apollo when needed.

Nine has made hardware redundancy a major priority, so much so that when you installed the Apollo consoles, you also installed dual core routers — the only ones in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere! Why? What was it about the Apollo desks and the dual core routers that quelled your redundancy concerns?

As I said before, our main production studio is live on air several hours every day, and to our station management, it is totally unacceptable to be off air for any reason. When the time came to replace our old audio console, one of the primary demands of management was that it stay on air no matter what. It’s really as simple as that. The competition for advertising dollars and audience share is so great that no broadcaster can afford to lose either, especially due to a preventable equipment failure.

Our engineering team pushed all the manufacturers to provide their maximum level of redundancy.
Calrec was able to deliver with a second console that shares inputs from Calrec Hydra I/O boxes and dual core routers. That means, in the unlikely event of a failure so catastrophic that it renders the primary system unusable, we can still stay on air with the second console using the same I/O in a quick and elegant way. This system also worked well for operators because the process of getting to the second desk was simple, quick, and easily understood.

We read a lot about manufacturers designing redundancy into their products, but the term “redundant hardware” can mean very different things to different people. As a broadcaster with a clear focus on redundancy, what do you expect to see from a redundant system?

Simply put, our expectations of redundancy is to know without any doubt that all aspects of the system are covered — that every link in the chain had been looked at — so that should a failure occur in any path, we would be able to carry on. Calrec came up with a design that gave all of us — managers, engineers, and operators — confidence that this requirement would be met.

In terms of console technology, what can you do with today’s consoles that would have been impossible to do when you first started?

In the past, shows were set up differently, so you had more time to prepare. For example, if a show was on at noon in one studio, the breakfast show would be done in a different studio, so you would have all the time beforehand to set up the band and musicians and rehearse them to get it right. Transitioning from one show to the next was fairly easy, and you could be fairly sure of what you were going to get.

We don’t have that luxury anymore because these shows are done in one studio, back to back. If there’s music to rehearse, it has to be done during commercial breaks, where you might have only three minutes, so you never hear the end of the song before you put it to air. And you might have other things to do in that break, like checking the lines for a remote interview.

Whereas before we had to use lots of patch cords and make manual connections to go from one show to the next — and then continue to patch throughout the show — now we can build templates and change in an instant, at the push of a button. You can get things done quickly and still maintain the quality and reliability. That’s a huge gain.

Even better, when you load the template and you’ve got a good console like the Apollo in front of you, you can be sure everything will work as expected. And the intuitive surface makes it much easier for one operator to run the show than it used to be.

02/10/15