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Calrec Craft Profile – Tony Williams

You don't often hear the phrase "Jack of all trades, and Master of all trades as well."

There's a good reason for that, and that is that we've made it up. In fact, we've made it up especially for Tony Williams.

He's done the lot - in the last six months alone he's worked on games shows (Million Pound Drop, Ejector Seat), quiz shows (Mastermind, Question of Sport, The Fanatics), sports shows (Match of the Day), reality shows (Most Haunted Live), Light Entertainment shows (The One Show, Dragon's Den, Embarrassing Bodies Live), chat shows (Jeremy Kyle) and children's television (Blue Peter).

He is a go-to guy in his home town of Manchester, and was one of the first people we latched onto on Twitter (@AudiosuperTony) when we were trying to work out exactly what Twitter is all about and how it might keep us in touch with our customers. Here he talks about surround, community and how experience is hard won in the modern world of audio mixing.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself – how did you get into audio? How long have you been in the broadcast industry?

I started out by playing keyboards in the early 90's for various university bands, picking up session work along the way. I was then asked to do some PA mixing for a few Manchester-based companies, learning a lot of valuable mixing skills - mostly on the fly! After this I started a staff job at Granada TV as a sound engineer in 1996, and moved up the ranks to a mixer/supervisor before dipping my toes into the freelance world for various OB companies and other studios. I'm lucky to have the experience of working on both sides of the camera, something I try to remember and empathise with when mixing live bands and certain "demanding" artistes.

You designed the first ever light entertainment series to be broadcast live in DOLBY 5.1 in the UK. What was it, and how did it come about? What were the challenges you encountered, and where did you go for advice?

I supervised a live talent show called Cirque de Celebrite for Sky1 HD in 2006. It was the first live LE show broadcast in 5.1 in the UK. We used CTV's OB2, (which was at the time their main cricket truck) with a Calrec Alpha console. Part of the design utilized some of the cricket setup for 5.1 (such as Dolby E encoding). CTV's head of audio Ian Smith and guarantee engineer Mark Reed were instrumental in ensuring that we were able to broadcast in true surround without compromising the stereo mix for the majority of viewers.

The only true 5.1 content of the show were the Soundfield mics used for audience reaction. All VT and music inserts were pre mixed in stereo and diverged across the front 3 channels. As we didn’t have access to any upmixers at the time, this left a rather strange hole when switching between pre-recorded items and the live content.

We encountered all sorts of interesting phase and coherence issues during the first couple of shows, especially when using certain types of signal embedders. The Dolby E path had to be planned meticulously as we found that certain routers were causing signal problems in the transmission chain. Fortunately very few people were listening in 5.1 so no one complained! Times and technology have certainly changed for the better since then.

You work on a wide variety of shows – quiz shows, sports shows, children’s television. Is that a blessing or a curse? What are the benefits of not specialising in a specific genre (i.e., Sports, LE etc.)? How does mixing for say, children’s television, differ from other light entertainment TV?

Because I'm lucky enough to work on a wide variety of shows, I can be mixing anything from a music-heavy live entertainment show to a daytime talk series in the space of a week. This gives me a broad overview of all genres, and I can help producers achieve a specific feel and sound for a programme.

A recent quiz show that I worked on wanted a "big Saturday night, shiny floor, light entertainment" feel, so I was able to replicate that for them with minimal budget and a relatively small studio audience. Equally, working on programmes such as BBC1's One Show enables me to have the effect of a medium size audience in a very compact studio without resorting to taped applause.

On sport shows such as Match of the Day, we have had to re think the audio paths due to the use of augmented reality graphics. These lead to processing delays in certain vision sources, and it's been left to us to ensure that pictures and sound arrive in sync to the audience at home - both in stereo and 5.1. This system will inevitably find its way into LE formats in the very near future, and we will be able to advise and plan for such occurrences.

You are part of a very close-knit community of sound folk in Manchester, especially via Twitter. How much support to you get from one another within this group? 

Although it’s a relatively small audio community here in Manchester, we are lucky that we talk to each other regularly in a social environment as well as at work. Twitter is a great way to chat and keep up with what we are all doing.

An example of this is when we had the loudness debate. We were all working on different genres of shows at the time and were able to compare and contrast results from our brand new shiny R128 meters. We take a keen interest in developing technologies, and are fortunate to be able to talk directly to manufacturers such as Calrec to ask for tweaks and improvements in operating systems.

As we all worked together at Granada, we are familiar with each other's work practices, and are all comfortable in mixing each other's shows should the need arise. This has obviously been made easier at dock10 studios by each gallery having a Calrec Apollo or Artemis console so we can all have our own particular setup for shows recalled at the touch of a button.

As a sound mixer what do Calrec's consoles offer you that makes doing your job that bit easier? How does a feature like Automixer help you to produce a better quality product?

The built in automixer has been a godsend for shows like Question of Sport where it's virtually a free for all between the host and six team members whose dynamics can range from a whisper to a scream at the drop of a hat. Due to time/budget constraints there is no audio dub, so having this feature helps free up fingers and cleans the general mix without too much coloration between open channels. I’ve tried a few other external hardware automixers over the years, none compare to the ease of use and transparency that the Calrec model gives.

The ability to use variable delays on multitrack outputs is also useful. I've used this to supply clean feeds to a multi-channel Skype setup that’s prevalent on shows such as Embarrassing Bodies Live. By combining these and the automixer facility we can virtually eliminate the awkward audio dips from contributors on the incoming Skype lines when they talk over each other. We were able to have 16 channels of Skype interacting with each other without any noticeable dropout. This is now something that the developers from Skype are looking at for themselves for their Pro Broadcast arm after getting involved with us on series 2 and 3 of the show.

I'm looking forward to trying out some new features currently in development on some audience based shows in the near future. Hopefully more software "plug in" type dynamics and processing can be looked at in the future.

You graduated from the University of Salford, which has a very well respected audio department. What are your views on audio broadcast training and qualifications? Is it more valuable to learn on the job, or is the ideal a combination of both? 

I graduated with a degree in Electronic Comms from Salford. As well as providing a great base in acoustic engineering, it had a couple of extremely useful modules that covered the practical side of audio processing and RF theory, but didn’t really teach much about the art of mixing.

I might be being unfair, but I genuinely believe that you've either got an ear for it or you haven’t. There are so many media courses out there, but very few that teach the practical side of engineering, basic fault finding and the nuts and bolts of audio capture. To my knowledge there are no courses that actually put students in a proper working environment where they can sit on a board, shadow the supervisor and possibly mix show rehearsals to get a feel of what works and what doesn’t. This was made available to me at Granada, and is something that’s missing from our industry at the moment.

What changes are you seeing - and hearing - in the way TV sound is being captured, mixed and delivered to audiences? What do you see as the biggest change to the way programmes are mixed in the next five years?

Fiber technology has come a long way in helping clean up signals – gone are the days of earth lifts and frying multicores. The connectivity between systems has become a lot easier, and if planned correctly, patch bays and brasso could become a thing of the past.

The biggest change is the arrival of 5.1, and the compromise to deliver a mix that’s also suitable for the majority of viewers listening in mono/stereo. The advent of loudness metering is also a good thing, but as most supervisors have found, by trusting our ears we were already mixing to something close to that standard, the numbers are there to tick the boxes. It’s just a shame that at the moment that the content that bookends our mixes isn’t subject to the same rules.


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