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Calrec Craft Profile – Randy Flick

Randy Flick is well-known in audio circles as the principal mixer for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and HBO Boxing in the US. A veteran of 28 Wrestlemanias, here he tells us a little about the changes he's seen in television audio, particularly in recent years, how and where he got started in the business, and how Calrec consoles make his job that bit easier, even though he does have quite large hands ...

What do you think modern viewers expect from the sound that comes out of their TVs? Have expectations been raised?

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.

Since you started working in audio, what are the biggest changes you have seen in the way broadcast sound is produced?

Two big changes: moving from an analog desk to a digital desk, and the move to fiber.

When I first started I was mixing on analog Q2s and S2s. Those were solid desks, and I really enjoyed working on them, but when we moved to digital consoles - the Sigmas and Alphas - I realised what a beautiful surface they are to work on. You set up one fader and copy and paste the next fifteen down the line instead of having to set each one up on an analog desk. That’s one thing I really love about the transition.

I also like the idea that you’re using fiber technology to get audio into the console instead of copper. Early in my career I covered a lot of golf, and you’re using long 25 pair cable runs to go and 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 fiber right into the consoles has been a godsend. Sports that cover a lot of ground area such as racing and the Olympics benefit immensely from the fiber operation.

What’s the single most impressive mix you have heard recently, and why did it impress you so much?

I would say the Superbowls recently have been great, also the baseball - World Series mixes have raised the bar. I wouldn’t be surprised if the microphone count for a Superbowl or a World Series game was double that of a regular season game. There are obviously additional reporter and effects mics, but I know they really increase the number of parabola mics around the football field (for a Superbowl).

Giants Freddy Sanchez looks at incoming pitch

For the World Series, it seems like there are effects mics every couple of inches - in the dugouts, on all the bases - and a lot of different crowd, or audience, reaction microphones all over the place.

Microphone-wise, there are probably more effects mics in use for baseball than for football because there are more places to get sound from that are not right there on the field, and almost every position now is mic’d for a stereo image.

Also, for the main mixer and sub-mixer, they’re putting a lot more EVS or video replay material into the console, so this can easily double, maybe even triple the possibilities of playbacks from different machines. They are basically ISO’ing every single camera, and that can be 25 or 30 cameras or more. For football it’s even more.

The mixes can get really big and exciting, but they still keep the announcers right there in the mix so you can hear them well.

What would be - or would have been, if it’s something that happened in the past - the ‘dream’ gig for you to work on?

I would say the biggest challenge would be mixing a Superbowl.

I’ve mixed a lot of football games for different networks, but because of the WWE, HBO and ice-skating, doing intercoms for the Reagan and Clinton presidential inaugural galas, the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty and a bunch of one-off entertainment shows, my career path just didn’t go that way. But Superbowl would be the dream gig for me.

How ready do you think the industry is to begin producing even more immersive multi-channel audio (Atmos etc.) on a large scale for mass consumption?

Just even the idea of mixing straight surround right now is a big educational problem for A1s and mixers in the US, because there’s almost no learning time.

Moving that forward, to do several multi-channel mixes in a remote vehicle is almost impossible. The audio mixer is listening to the Producer, the Director, maybe a tape release AD, and you’re also hearing a bit of fan noise from somewhere and of course you are expected to mix the show!

To move up a level is really tough in a mobile sports operation, especially in a ‘set, shoot, strike’ environment. Sometimes you feel lucky you’re even getting on the air! You might have a 10 o’clock call in the morning, and a few hours later the Producers and Directors are saying it’s time for production. We’re mixing this piece and producing that piece, and you haven’t got time to blink,
your day is already pretty full!

To concentrate and put together and do due diligence on a bigger multi-channel operation…that’s a real challenge.

When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?

Well, right after the earth cooled, I was working in radio for a while, in the mid to late Seventies, lastly at KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh. KDKA is one of the largest stations in the United States, and was the first commercial station, and I was their Production Director.

Part of my job was to do the some of the engineering on the larger productions, and for the election coverage we did. I really enjoyed sitting at the console and bringing in the ten or a dozen remotes that we were doing in the field for the different election candidates’ headquarters and building up the mix minuses. Plus there were half-a-dozen people in our studio making political commentaries, and I really liked the challenge of setting it up and making it all happen on the air.

After that point, a freelance position in Pittsburgh appeared because one of the freelancers went to Hollywood to work on some movies. I thought, “You know, this could be my next challenge” and I decided to make the leap.

I worked on local sports, and that’s how I got into the business. It was around 1980-81, and I mixed a lot of professional sports in Pittsburgh and started to travel in the mid-80s. One of the big OB companies was based in Pittsburgh and they had me working freelance, doing different jobs for them - golf shows, ice skating productions and sports in general. I also worked on the Superbowl for five years.

That’s how I got working as a freelancer, and I’m still a freelancer today.

What was the first big job you did that made you think “Actually, I think I’ve really got a knack for doing this”?

I started freelancing through Unitel Video, who sent me out to work on a then fledgling WWF. Vince McMahon and company were just at that point taking their regional operation and making it national.

There were some issues in how the show was being mixed, and they sent me out into the field to trouble-shoot. They liked what I was doing and soon invited me to become the mixer on the show.

Early on my freelance career - this would have been 1987 - there was Wrestlemania 3 in Pontiac, Michigan. Even now, it’s still the largest ever indoor entertainment crowd at over 93,000. It was really, really exciting. We did the show in multiple languages - I did the English part of it and the effects. It was so exciting, probably the biggest thing I had ever done and I thought I’ve had a real opportunity here.

Twenty eight years later, we’re coming up on Wrestlemania 31 now, which this year will be out in California.

What’s the biggest audio project for TV you have worked on?

Wrestlemania. It happens once a year and it’s the WWE’s Superbowl, if you will. We do the show every year for anywhere between 60,000 and 80,000 people, inside and outside arenas, and we have to roll with the show. It varies every year, but the audio crew could be anywhere from 16 to 20 people, depending on what we do and how the show is laid out.

I know people who figure it’s wrestling - what can be so tough about that? Wrestling is a combination of sports and broadcast news, there are some pre-determined outcomes to events that happen in the show, but the idea is that things change, and they can change at the last second.

The Producer might be in the middle of a countdown - “and in three, two and … don’t send this to the house … and one … and roll”, and we’re literally changing where some of the music, video tapes or microphones get sent in the last second of the countdown. It changes because of what’s happening in the Arena, and whether there’s a need for a mood change or whether we want to move onto another piece of the show…it’s very fluid

It’s that timing that keeps me on the edge of my seat. We have a rough layout of the show, but we never know what’s going to change during the course of it.

We have live bands at different times, we’re running a hundred different frequencies in the air for intercom and wireless mics, and IFBs, and we’re using lots of different Hydra operations all around the Arena to bring in and send sound out. There are a lot of different facets all rolled into one broadcast.

And we’re basically doing two different shows at the same time - the one the crowd in the arena sees and hears, and the other one that just happens to be a network television show that we’re doing simultaneously.

Sometimes they’re the same, and sometimes television plays one piece of video tape while the people in the house are still listening to some music that they need to continue listening to because that’s what they’re seeing.

The WWE show itself is one of the few shows that does a ‘set, shoot, strike’ most of the time, and that’s pretty amazing considering what we put on the air. We carry our own pyrotechnics operation, our own lights and truss, our own PA system and two double expando trucks.

We set up in the morning, and we do a live show for the network later that same day. I have friends walk by at 10am on the day of a show and ask how many days we have been here. I reply “two hours” and their jaws just drop!

You have been using Calrec consoles for many, many years, and work on some very high profile broadcasts – can you tell us a bit about how the Calrec consoles are used in a big sports entertainment production like WWE?

Calrec consoles are easy to understand. There are a lot of other brands out there, and I’ve worked pretty much most of them, and often you find yourself wondering what these people were thinking when they put the console together! Especially when you’re trying to do a show like WWE.

We’re using a 96 fader Alpha, a 56 fader Omega and a 40 fader Zeta. The Alpha does all of the main mix of the show. It also gives feeds to the house mixer - entrance music for the performers, video tape roll, things that the house needs to hear - as well as everything that happens on TV, including lots of different sets back stage that we do live hits from, plus all the announcer tracks.

Most of the shows are done onsite and in English only. On our pay-per-views, we are in multiple languages - we definitely have Spanish all the time, and we’ve had French and German too. The show is transmitted live to hundreds of countries, it’s amazing that we’re able to do it in such a short timeframe!

What features on the Calrec consoles make your job easier?

The tight spacing of the faders on all 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, and that’s a four or five fader movement at one time. The Calrec’s tight faders allow that to be done, on one hand sometimes, so that’s one thing I love. Other manufacturers’ 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 a little louder than you guessed it would be!

Also, I love the configurability of the console. The different choices of multi-tracks and auxes and groups, how they’re configured, the Calrec just makes it easy to figure that out. With some other manufacturers, their configuration stuff is buried. The Calrec consoles are just easy to use and easy to figure out.

On a side note, I am also the mixer for HBO boxing in the States, wherever it happens to be. I’m involved in a mentoring programme (with HBO Sports and Sennheiser) to help new and up-and-coming television sound mixers break into the business and get a feel for how it all works at a network level. One of the things I tell the mentoring students when they stop by is how easy the Calrec console is to understand.

Almost anybody can run a console properly when things are running right. When something goes wrong that’s out of your control - a microphone dies, a piece of gear dies - you have to go and trouble-shoot it instantly, while you’ve still got a live show on the air, that’s when you really have to work.

I think the Calrec’s just easier to trouble-shoot and easier to run, and that’s important. If you’re mixing 80 faders and you’re trying to find out what went wrong with one of the 20 effects mics you’ve got open, you’ve got to find it because the Producer or the Director is screaming at you.

You’ve got to move as quickly as you can and solve it as quickly as you can.

 

06/10/14

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