Thomas Dolby Part 2
Completing our look at a typical TV music programme recording session.
After last month's introduction to the TV South studio in Gillingham we can now look in more detail at the technical equipment involved in a typical studio setup, and the way it was used in the recording of Thomas Dolby's first concert with his three-piece band.
The recording was being made using four video channels. Two related to portable shoulder mounted cameras, one at each side of the stage, which were occasionally taken onto the stage for close-ups of the performers, keyboards or projection screens. The third was a podium-mounted camera in front of the stage for two shots, and the fourth a rostrum-mounted unit about 12 feet above floor level at the back of the studio floor.
Live sound mixing can become complicated, and in addition to the onstage foldback mixer there was a PA mixer next to the rostrum camera, and a TV sound mixer in one of the sealed control rooms. With more conventional bands, each mike on stage would be fed to a splitter box so differing mixes can be made. In the case of a largely synthesised band direct injection is the order of the day, and so the danger of feedback is removed and problems are generally simplified.
The other control room is, of course, for vision control. The basic staff are a director and a vision mixing engineer, although increasingly there's a need for a vision effects engineer capable of using the QUANTEL and other sophisticated MPU controlled effects generators. The vision mixing engineer's job can be likened to that of a sound engineer, although in most cases the desired result is the correct choice of output channel rather than a correct balance between several outputs.
Although the vision mixing engineer has in the past had control of basic effects such as superimposition of two pictures, crossfade (where one picture becomes brighter as another fades out) or fade to black, the position is no longer so simple. There are scores of different types of cross-fade, including diagonal, fan wipe, box inserts, standard key and chroma key and highly specialised digital techniques (such as used on Top of the Pops or Kenny Everett's show) and so the exact requirements of the job will depend on the technology available (a point which has not escaped the attention of the broadcasting trade unions). 'Off the Record' specialises in various types of wipes and inserts boxed in by a glowing, neon-like surround, an effect which can add an air of high technology to the most basic of techniques.
The band got as far as the end of the first song before having to re-start it due to a technical problem apparently in the TV sound mix. Frantic consultations between the stage managers and control room staff were facilitated by radio mike/headphone sets, basically a headphone/microphone combination attached to a walkie-talkie which avoids all the old problems of walking across the studio floor while attached to the wall by 20 yards of cable.
The second song had been underway for all of a minute before everything ground to a halt again. After a certain amount of cursing and some glib padding from the floor manager, everything got under way again and, to everyone's credit, the whole event was very enjoyable both as a concert and as an exercise in TV production. Dolby's echoed vocals blended smoothly with the overall sound mix, and the emphasis on deep bass rhythms from the Simmons kit and Micro-moog produced a powerful impression.
The Jupiter 8 and Simmons pads were shared between two keyboard players (often at the same time!) and Dolby was able to make setting changes on the PPG's Volker-Craig VDU between numbers. The slide projectors were also synchronised to one of the PPG's 8 channels, but a definite human feel was preserved despite the high technology approach. The final number before an encore of 'Science' emphasised this, with a long 'drum solo' on computer and electronic drums and unusual percussive settings on the Jupiter 4.
The final number before an encore of 'Science' emphasised this; Dolby had chosen to cover Joni Mitchell's 'Jungle Line', complete with a lengthy African drum solo on the computer and suitably tribal percussive presets on the JP4.
While Dolby's computer 'Henry' provides much of the interest of his performances, it has been and continues to be somewhat erratic under stage conditions - witness the problems during the recent Marquee concert. However, the richness it can give to a live performance without resorting to backing tapes makes a Dolby concert ideal television material.
In the future musicians will have to think long and hard whether they, too, are ideal television material. Video as a medium is still relatively young but developing fast, and to neglect its potential as an artistic and a commercial tool is to severely limit the possible appeal of your music, whatever its style.
Feature by Mark Jenkins