Crafty Catch Up
We learned a new word this week: ultracrepidarian, "a person who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside the area of his or her expertise."
Well, we have no time for that nonsense. We're far too busy talking to our very knowledgeable customers about stuff they do understand. In fact, some time ago it occurred to us that we should write some of this down, and so we started doing exactly that. Every month for the last year or so we have published a series of craft interviews about what changes audio operators have experienced in their audio careers. We had no idea how popular these little interviews would be, but we've spoken to some of the best audio people in their field across three continents, in a variety of disciplines such as news, sports, light entertainment and purchasing.
What is clear is that they are all passionate about providing the best product they can, and there is nothing ultracrepidarian about that.
Catch up with a best-of here, and look out for more in the New Year from an equally diverse group of folk. This round up features:
Rob Wolifson, TCN Audio Supervisor Nine Network, Australia; Fred Aldous, Freelance Sports A1, USA (FOX Sports – Superbowl, Datona 500 NASCAR, Olympics, World Series, NCAA National Basketball Championships); Vaughan Rogers, Former Head of Audio at Sky and now Freelance Audio Engineer, UK; Michael Abbott, Freelance A1, USA (The Voice, Shark Tank, X-Factor and The Grammys); Randy Flick, A1, USA (WWE & HBO Boxing); Michael Couto, A1, USA (NBC Nightly News); Tony Williams, Freelance Sound Engineer, UK (Million Pound Drop, Ejector Seat, Mastermind, Question of Sport, The Fanatics, Match of the Day, Most Haunted Live, The One Show, Dragon's Den, Embarrassing Bodies Live, Jeremy Kyle and Blue Peter); Andy James, Sound supervisor, BBC, UK (Golden and Diamond Jubilee, Wimbledon, London Marathon, Boat Race, Open Golf): Russel Smithson, Jon Matthews and Ben Corbett, Sound Supervisors, The London Studios, UK
What elements of modern console technology has made a large impact on your craft?
Historically, shows were set up differently, 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 transitioning from one show to the next was fairly easy.
We don’t have that luxury anymore, these shows are done in one studio, back to back. 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 recall templates at the push of a button. You can get things done quickly and still maintain quality and reliability. That's a huge gain.
A board that’s designed for the job I do is critical. 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. It’s tactile and immediately in sight, just the way I need it.
Everyone who works in broadcast audio has one thing in common: a need to easily access critical functionality, and to do it fast.
Calrec’s built in automixer has been a godsend for shows like Question of Sport where it's a free for all between the host and teams, whose dynamics can range from a whisper to a scream at the drop of a hat! 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.
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 many shows. Combining these and the automixer facility virtually eliminates 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 interaction without any noticeable dropout!
File management is important. 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 fade in/out of camera mics and play-out of SFX. 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. Replay is an important element that allows me to go from live production to post production with a minimum of programming.
The tight spacing of the faders on Calrec consoles make them easier to use. There are different points in the broadcast where you have to fade some music up, fade another track away, and get rid of something else; four or five fader movements at one time. Calrec’s tight faders allow that to be done, on one hand sometimes, so that’s one thing I love. Others’ channel strip spacing make that more difficult, and mixers with smaller hands are really at a disadvantage.
I also love the headroom of the console. In sports, you never know where something is going to happen that has a really high SPL (sound pressure level). A handheld guy with a camera mic spins around, and all of a sudden he’s shooting the crowd and someone’s screaming at the mic because their team scored a goal - the console can handle that extra SPL, even if it’s louder than you guessed it would be!
What differences have come about due to the many ways content is delivered in recent times?
NBC News is very much focused on mobile. Presently, however, my mix is geared for a 5.1 television broadcast. There are some folks downstream of us re-purposing 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 is something we will all be dealing with soon.
There is now a huge range of different ways we can now offer content to the audience: online, social media as well as the more traditional methods. This means we need to be able to offer a variety of different formats and mixes to the intended audience. On many sports programmes the viewer can choose the audio mix they want to listen to: full mix, ref's mic, clean effects, radio or TV commentary. All these different audio mixes have to be configured, mixed and distributed from the OB, and the number of mix busses available on modern consoles simplifies this. The communications requirements also increase for every destination we need to feed, and audio distribution from site becomes more complicated. This means the role of the OB guarantee engineer is now one of the most demanding at site; they are the real unsung heroes in the OB audio world!
What are the biggest changes have you encountered during your career?
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 knowledge to do it properly at first, so we worked it out as we went along.
Another big change was to 5.1 audio. In our studios, we're still honing our surround skills. At first it was fashionable to do everything in surround. Eventually we decided to take our time and get it right, because most of us agree that with surround sound, less is more.
I don’t think you can narrow it down to a single event. From an audio perspective it was moving from stereo to 5.1. Not only did we need to learn how to mix in 5.1, but we also had to identify the compromise between a 5.1 mix and a stereo downmix that was being derived from the 5.1 mix. At FOX Sports we only deliver 5.1 to the affiliates, they do a downmix for their SD feeds themselves.
I started working on the Grammys back in the 1990’s, providing the performers with multiple stage mixes, working on a single analogue 40 input / 16 output console. Multi-coloured china-graph grease pencils were my analogue 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.
Two big changes: moving from analogue to digital, and the move to fibre.
I started mixing on analogue Q2s and S2s. When we moved to Sigma and Alpha digital consoles I realised you can set up one fader and copy and paste the next fifteen down the line instead of setting each one up individually. That’s one thing I love about the transition.
I also like the idea you’re using fibre to get audio into the console instead of copper. I covered a lot of golf, and was using long 25 pair cable runs to get the effects mics from the holes, outfield and announcing towers because it was too much to run multi-core cable. It could get very complicated. Plus, in wet conditions everything would sound like it was on fire, crackling away! Incorporating fibre right into the consoles has been a godsend. Sports that cover a lot of area such as racing and the Olympics benefit immensely from fibre operation.
Fibre 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 was 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.
Do modern television viewers expect better sound?
Jon Matthews (The London Studios): Well...so much of it depends on how the viewer has set up their home system. More and more people at home these days have soundbars and other setups. But I genuinely think that if you do a good stereo mix it doesn’t matter what people are listening on; it will still be a good mix. And because people are using soundbars, where everything has to be phase coherent, you’ve also got to have a good mono output. A challenge we have is that an ageing population does not favour too much background music or loud laughs, because they find it difficult to hear the dialogue. So this is something we have to consider as it is a situation that will only grow.
Russell Smithson (The London Studios): This happens on Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY). The 250 people in the audience are part of the show, and HIGNFY is the best example of this as the audience are on top of the panel – the spill is considerable. Most of the work you are doing with the audience is making the spill sound nice, because you get a lot of it through the talent’s mics, which can be pretty nasty. To balance it all out you have to have the audience at a reasonable level, but it really is part of what the show is all about – if you don’t make the laughter part of the show and showcase it in the same way, the show loses a lot of its energy. The audience is as big a part of the show as any element.
Ben Corbett (The London Studios): This affects how we deal with Loudness – for example, HIGNFY is turned round in 24 hours. I do a show on Sunday which goes out on Monday and only gets an edit, and it is such a fast turnaround that the editor doesn’t get the time to mix for loudness; he doesn’t run it through the algorithm. As sound supervisors we do our best to deliver to loudness, but after it has been chopped up it’s always going to be a different figure.
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.
Yes - fifteen years ago most people were listening to sound coming out of a 3-inch speaker on the front of their TVs. Today, a lot of people have really nice home theatre systems, or soundbar and sub-woofer systems, and most set manufacturers have a pseudo surround sound enhancement. That works in most instances, but many times it defeats what you’re doing. Over the last five years, it’s made mixing a show a lot tougher, compared to how things were 20 years ago.