How the experts go about getting better concert noise on the box
Thousands of pounds of technology at one end... a 3in speaker at the other. Jon Lewin wonders just how much effort goes into making a TV concert sound like two crisp packets banging together. Or like a proper gig.
ANYONE notice our weeny featurette on Whistle Test in the January issue? Well, PA firm Electromusic did, and they thought our comments on the general poor quality of TV sound reason enough to invite us down to Thames TV's studios in Teddington Lock, to watch them getting it right.
Electro provided the PA for Meltdown, Thames' first live rock series, currently being bunged out on Thursday evenings in the London area. The Meltdown shows were all filmed live in a TV studio under near-gig conditions, in front of invited audiences of 300 fans. The aim was to keep post-production editing, mixing and general trickery to the bare minimum, so the viewer gets as close a representation of the actual live performance as possible.
The 20 bands picked for the ten progs in this first series were a motley bunch, including Womack & Womack, Dr Feelgood, Nik Kershaw, The Bible!, and even Elkie Brooks. The two booked for the day I went were Aswad and Big Audio Dynamite, probably the strongest pairing of the lot.
Three weeks before recording, production office work began in earnest. Sound liaison person Keith Nixon would contact the group's management and arrange to visit the band's rehearsals. He would talk to their soundman about the equipment they use, and what they'd bring to the studio. He took details of the intended six song setlist, and also the layout of the band's gear on stage. "This sort of detail is important for things like foldback," Keith explained, "and it can save a lot of time when we're setting up a preliminary monitor mix before the band arrive."
While this kind of preparation coped with most eventualities, there were still awkward moments — like Meatloaf and his band flying in to record the show: all the equipment they brought with them had American 110V transformers. Thames coped.
Each Meltdown took two days of studio time to prepare and record. This follows the example set by The Tube, who have their studio booked Thursdays and Fridays; poor beleaguered Whistle Test only gets a single studio day. Meltdown's first day was for planning and rigging: the stage was erected and the Turbosound PA set up, monitors were arranged to accommodate the line-up of each group, and moveable platforms (risers) were prepared for each band's equipment.
Putting amps and gear up on mobile risers makes turnarounds between bands much easier and faster, particularly since each riser has its own multicore sub-box that can be instantly disconnected. All the mikes on the backline are simply left in situ, and the riser pushed backstage out of the way.
These multicores lie at the heart of the sound of the whole Meltdown series: Thames' engineers used a splitter system that sends the signals coming off stage in three different directions. The two normal feeds sent their 32 channels to the stage monitor desk and the out-front mixer, while an additional third was despatched upstairs to the sound suite, where the mixing for the TV sound went on.
The bands didn't have to turn up at all until the second day. First group's road crew was scheduled to arrive at 8.30am, with the musicians following on at 10. The equipment was set up, each individual instrument checked, and then the set run through in full. As on T' Tube, groups had around two hours to soundcheck, while the band's soundman ran around between the monitor desk, the hall desk, and the sound suite, advising the various mixing persons on suitable effects and EQ settings. Levels in the hall were kept to 100dB, as the cameras can suffer from microphony, which causes horizontal and vertical lines to appear on the picture. Electromusic people mixed the band in the studio/venue, while Thames' soundman Peter Ball handled the computerised desk upstairs in the sound suite.
While the group did their run through, Meltdown director Nik Bigsby was working out camera angles, and Peter Ball was organising mixes and loading them into the computer. "The desk has been very well behaved," Peter commented, touching wood. "We certainly couldn't do the show with the same speed and efficiency without this desk. The computer memorises the levels of the different faders, which leaves us to set only the outboard effects." The 84 channel Calrec wasn't set up to send MIDI information, though the three AMSs, Roland DEP-5, Yamaha Rev 7 and SPX90 are all capable of receiving.
The sound was recorded in four different ways: apart from a safety copy of the whole show on multitrack, a mono mix was sent to VTR for broadcast, one stereo mix sent onto VHS video, and another went to ¼in with a SMPTE code, for possible simulcast use.
Peter is the man who makes Meltdown sound the way it does when it dribbles out of your television. He's played in and toured with bands himself, so he understands the problems from both sides. When he's mixing, he takes into account the poor quality of most TV speakers. "It's hard to define how — a bit more edge, perhaps. But really what we go for is just a good balance — that'll sound good wherever."
The doors opened at 7.30, and Aswad came on at 8. With the assistance of sub-bass cabinets beneath the stage, they made a wondrous noise, rich and full. The atmosphere was genuine enough, and the band seemed sufficiently relaxed to have a good time — obviously attention to details like monitor-mixes pays off. As for the recorded sound, London dwellers can hear Thames/Electromusic's improvements for themselves on Thursday evenings up until May 7th. The rest of us will have to wait a little longer.
Many thanks to Nich Kantoch of Electromusic for his assistance in the studio.
Feature by Jon Lewin
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