In a recent blog post, my good friend Brendan O'Connell, the (outstanding) songwriter and keyboardist for Chicago-based soul-pop band The Right Now said it best. "It seems like my family and everyone else we knew gathered around the TV annually to watch brilliant pop stars perform. We didn’t have cable and my parents definitely didn’t shell out the cash to for me to see Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney in concert. The Grammys were one of the few chances I actually got to see those artists perform in a live setting. In my house live performance was the true test of talent."
As an audio engineer who specializes in live engineering, I've sat in the "hot seat" for several TV and radio broadcasts with my clients; from major award shows to local and regional TV appearances, depending on the event, the procedure can be very different than others. "Band engineers" -- the technical name for my role in most of these events -- can have varying degrees of input and hands-on interaction with the production team, from fully controlling the actual mix to giving over-the-shoulder input to the event's engineers. The GRAMMY Awards are one of the telecasts where an incredible team handles everything from start to finish, alongside input from the individual artists' engineering staff.
ATK To The RescueThe GRAMMY Awards' live sound has long been handled by the GRAMMY Producers & Engineers Wing, and ATK AudioTek was the provider for house audio. ATK's engineers are among the best and the brightest in the industry, and they do a flawless job every year of producing the GRAMMY telecast's live audio, coordinating both house and monitor audio with the broadcast mix, provided by bi-coastal audio company M3 (Music Mix Mobile).
Handling such an event isn't easy; you've got a lot of different variables between bands, and you've also got a lot of non-performance audio to wrangle, too -- aside from the stage audio, you've got an array of presenter mics, audience mics, and replay that you have to factor into every mix. There's a lot of channels, a lot of things to organize, and only one shot to do the telecast right. And they nail it every time.
FOH and MonitorsAside from the actual broadcast mix -- the element of the show most visible to the viewing public around the world -- there's also the epic task of managing both front-of-house and monitors for the actual GRAMMY event. Alongside preparations for the broadcast, the engineering team begins collaborating with artists' production managers and personal engineers months before the actual event. Input lists, stage plots, and production pre-plans are gathered and sent to everyone involved to form a forward plan. Artist endorsement representatives from companies such as Shure, Sennheiser, and Audio-Technica were on site with complete mic packs to provide all endorsers their preferred tools; some personal microphones are allowed for vocalists, and artists are asked to bring their own in-ear monitor earpieces if they use them.
The total inputs used for a show of this magnitude are staggering -- not to mention the RF coordination necessary for such an event -- and the available I/O options that such an event requires is equally mind-blowing. This year, DiGiCo was chosen as the exclusive console provider for the show. Five DiGiCo SD10 and one SD7 were employed for use at the show, and an unbelievable 256 microphone preamp channels crowned over 400 individual inputs. While that type of input management might seem overwhelming -- and I know, in the analog realm, anything over 32 channels starts to get messy if not managed professionally -- ATK wired the entire PA system digitally. All consoles were tied together by just two fiber-optic cables each, and the entire PA -- from stage rack input to amplifier input -- was ran digitally via Optocore fiber.
“The show’s producers continue to raise the bar in broadcast entertainment year after year and we needed to follow suit with the technology,” says Mikael Stewart, ATK’s production mixer and VP Special Events. “By using the best and most advanced tools, we guarantee the highest fidelity for every performance. The sonic quality of the DiGiCo consoles was one of the biggest assets this year, in addition to the Optocore infrastructure that allowed complete flexibility and accessibility.”
During the live performances, two stages are actually running concurrently; while one artist is performing, another can be inconspicuously setting up and line checking on the other stage. These "A" and "B" stages have identical snake components, and when set pieces and instruments are brought in -- pre-loaded onto wheeled carts with all mics and I/O cabling in place -- and pinned to a multi-core digital snake. These lines end up in the DiGiCo SD Rack system, which splits to monitors, FOH, and broadcast worlds at the same time.
Broadcast EngineeringWhile the FOH and monitor crews toil away inside to achieve sonic perfection for the room and the artists on stage, the raw signals are routed to a splitting point, affectionately dubbed "splitsville". From there, the audio channels head outside to the broadcast trucks, provided by M3.
In the company's dual Eclipse and Horizon trucks, top-notch engineers John Harris, Eric Schilling, and Joel Singer, mixed the actual broadcast audio. Mixing is handled on an Avid D-Control surface via an SSL Delta Link MADI I/O interfacing to an Avid 192 I/O system (with a complete battery of the best plug-ins in the industry). The crew monitors with Genelec 8250A Bi-Amplified Active DSP Monitors (in an L-C-R array) and 8240A Bi-Amplified Active DSP Monitors (L-R rear), along with 7260A Active DSP Subwoofers, were used in M3's Eclipse truck for the live music mix, as well as in the identical mirrored system in the Horizon offline remix truck.
During rehearsals, the live mix is recorded in multi-track in the Eclipse truck, then the sessions are brought digitally into the Horizon truck. From there, band engineers and studio producers work hand-in-hand with the M3 team to make sure that the mix is accurate to what they need. Once the mix is tweaked, the engineering notes and plug-in settings are ported back over to Eclipse, and the broadcast is mixed off of these production templates.
While it's a lot of work, getting sound right for such an important event is worth it. The production team at the GRAMMY Producers & Engineers Wing has exacting standards, and rightfully so. The annual GRAMMY Awards is their chance to shine, and this year, they certainly did. Joe Shambro is an audio engineer and music technology writer from St. Louis, MO. He has toured worldwide with top-performing major label and independent talent, and has mixed a wide variety of broadcast and studio projects for entertainment, government, and corporate clients.