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Adventures In Television Recording

John Harris draws on personal experience to reveal some of the problems encountered when recording TV pop music programmes.

It's every band's dream to appear on TV but when it actually happens, there can be more problems than you ever anticipated.

An appearance on TV is an exciting prospect for anyone, but in the field of rock and pop there are a number of extra problems to overcome in terms of sound recording not usually experienced by other performers. There was a time when the sound of bands recorded live on TV was universally derided for its poor quality, but with the advent of programmes like the 'Tube' which lay a greater emphasis on getting it right in the sound department, as well as from the visual angle, others have had to follow suit. I spoke to Mike Warne, head of sound at HTV Wales about the particular problems that a typical regional TV station encounters when it comes to recording rock and pop acts live. Mike has had a lot of experience in this field from studio broadcasts through to outside broadcasts with such name acts as UB40, Big Country, David Essex and the Belle Stars, and has just finished work on HTV's latest rock show 'Rock Solid', which recorded and filmed bands live in front of a studio audience, and he explained the role of the Sound Department.

The Problems

What problems do you usually experience with bands that you don't find with other forms of recording?

One problem is with backline and foldback volume. (We generally provide the latter.) The studio floor is generally a place where you can talk and work in an atmosphere of quiet whereas with a rock group all the problems you don't get normally appear at once. Cameramen can't hear talkback from the director, and soundmen on the studio floor can't talk to each other because it's all too loud. Everyone's trying to hide from this wall of sound! But the main problem for the Sound Department is the lack of separation between instruments and vocals. This is the obvious reason for overdubbing in a controlled recording environment, but more often than not we have to do it all in one go!

However, from the performers' point of view the volume is necessary in order to get the right feel, and set the adrenalin going which is so important in order for the band to turn in a good performance. In almost every live recording I've done for TV a compromise has had to be reached on the volume, to the detriment of the performance. Also, unless the programme is geared up for rock bands the foldback is generally of a very poor quality.

Because the studio area is so large it means that the sound levels go up because the group has to get the right feel and this means HTV have to provide a larger foldback: an extra 200W per person, for instance. So we're having to re-learn all about PA and foldback.

So, would you say that the whole attitude is changing?

Yes, I'd say that in the last five years we've been using bigger studios and going into bigger gigs where there are larger areas to mike up, larger volumes to fill and levels have gone up considerably. The problem we have with level is that the volume you're used to is greater than the level at which we'd like to work so a compromise has to be reached. Again this is due to the fact that the cameraman might not be able to hear the director, or there's too much overspill if you've got a weak vocalist.

The Recording

It seems that every TV recording session is different in the way in which you're recorded, whether straight onto VTR, 2-track, or 24-track. It's dictated by the budget for the show.

It's the budget and the time, really. We've got a contract with the IBA to provide a certain number of programmes in a week which we have to meet and the turnover we have here is really incredible. It's the soundman's job to get the rig in early, do the band checks, if we're lucky we'll hear each number once, or even twice (what a luxury!) and then it goes down straight to VTR although sometimes we do a mixdown from 24-track to VTR. The big difference between recording groups live from the studio floor (usually about the size of a 500 seater gig!), and a recording studio, or indeed a live gig is that in the last two environments you can set the mics up where you want and aesthetics don't enter into it. In television, if I put a mic up directly in front of your mouth, the director will say 'Sorry sound, we can't have that, I must see the singer's face.' So I'll reply that if we do that, all you'll hear is the overspill from the other instruments, and maybe we'll reach a compromise, but sometimes the aesthetics of TV make quite impossible demands on the sound.

We have to achieve a balance between good pictures and good sound, working around cameras and lighting. Sometimes mic placement will cause a shadow thrown perhaps from a boom stand, and we'll have to compromise the mic position as lighting are having to compromise to let us in and the director has to compromise his shots likewise. We're all part of a multi-pronged team striving for perfection without anyone actually getting there and sometimes you feel cheated when you can't get that extra something!

Would you like to have more time?

Yes, I think I would, but one aspect of the business which people who record live gigs may have noticed is that the very fact that it's live and there is only a limited amount of time, draws out of you a higher standard of quality than that which would normally have been the case. In a recording studio you could spend a couple of weeks recording backing tracks, or a day on the drums, bass and so on, but that's a luxury that we can only dream about really. To tie up a sound room attached to a studio in a television centre for such a long time is just not possible.

Do you have a plan of the stage layout to work to?

"...if I put a mic up directly in front of your mouth, the director will say 'Sorry sound, we can't have that, I must see the singer's face."

For all new programmes, whether it's a one-off or a series, we have a production meeting involving all the participants in the programme on the production and technical side: producer, lighting, wardrobe and make-up, electricians, sound, and cameramen. We're all sat down, told the format of the programme and then we have a model of the stage set from the designer, showing what he wants to do, and showing colours worked on in conjunction with the lighting engineer. We then have the floor plan of the stage, and the studio, with places marked where the groups will go, and each section discusses how the programme affects them as far as the producer's ideas go. For instance, when he showed me the scaffolding set for 'Rock Solid' (about 20ft high with members of the band playing at different levels on rickety planks) I said that it would cause problems for groups and sound because everyone was on different levels with limited space for foldback.

However, it looked great and the producer had his way because of the visual appeal.

As you can see there's a lot of preparation for a show weeks before the band come in, and on this particular programme I was provided with cassettes of what the bands were going to play and I had to listen to 48 numbers to give myself some idea of the sound each would require. Obviously my task is to provide the group with the sound they want, and it wouldn't be any good to anyone if I didn't care, or just wanted to do things my way.

There must have been a rush to mix down a lot of songs in a limited amount of time.

Yes. It was quite a strain. After four days of recording the bands onto 24-track while filming was going on I had to mix down for programmes one and two in the series. It wouldn't have been so bad if all the songs were by the same group, but after every two songs the desk had to be reset for a different line-up.

How many people would you have working for Sound on a programme like 'Rock Solid'?

There would be six altogether because of the size of the rig. There were three stages, with two in use at any filming time. Four of the guys were on the studio floor operating Foldback for the band, a small Bose PA system for the benefit of the live audience, and positioning mics. There were two people in the control room, one looking after the multitrack and myself taking care of the SSL.

The Equipment

How do you find the SSL works in the medium of a TV centre?

I prefer them, although it's clearly the kind of desk that was designed for the recording industry. In TV if you're doing a news show where there's only one man and one mic, admittedly it seems a bit of a waste to have such a huge desk, but it certainly proved it's worth on this show and I was able to just split the desk down the middle to cover both stage areas in order to cross-fade from one to the other if necessary.

What do you monitor on?

We have a pair of Tannoy M1000 speakers with the tailored bottom end because with television, the big danger if you have an extended bass response for monitoring is that it will never get to the TV speaker. In the studio you may have the most amazing bass sound with energy below 40 cycles but it doesn't actually get out because the specification of the transmission system doesn't go that low, so the idea of having a tailored bass response which drops off sharply is that it makes you work for the bass, and I don't think it sounds false either. We have to try and go for something which will sound good at home.

Are there any other frequency problems for you related to TV speakers?

"...everybody loves to hate Top of The Pops for it's wooden miming, but that doesn't stop people watching it..."

Well there's some problem at the HF end of the range because the specification of the line going to the transmitter doesn't go much beyond 8-10kHz so we're really struggling here. You do have to compensate for the average TV speaker too. If you think about it, for years it was only about 3 diameter and mounted often on the side of the cabinet. Now you can get sets with detachable cabinets and larger drivers. The curious thing is that the actual transmission system for TV sound is virtually as good as FM radio: it's quiet, interference free, but we waste it all down the other end which is why we have to take care at our end.

Do you ever wish that you could be mixing in stereo?

I do, and I think it'll happen sooner than everyone thinks, but there are going to be a lot of problems for stereo TV sound. Should one paint the stereo picture to match the shot, or follow some sort of ground rule like they do in films where they tend to have a full stereo effect for music and odd effects, but the rest of it stays in the middle? As far as bands are concerned it would certainly give us a chance to improve and be more artistic with the sound.

The Performing Angle

From the performers point of view a programme such as that Mike Warne was discussing, featuring groups exclusively, and geared up for it, doesn't come along very often in regional TV. More often for the group starting off you get a slot on a regional news programme, chat show, or kids programme. All of these can be fun but the way in which each is recorded can vary enormously according to the budget for the programme.

If, for instance, you were featured on a news or magazine programme, the budget would be unlikely to stretch to a multitrack recording because studio time has to be hired from the sound department. Therefore you have the ridiculous situation of a television centre with one or two 24-track studios available, fully equipped with SSL desks and the most up to date outboard, which you can't use. This leaves you in the infuriating position of having to reproduce something live onto VTR which may have taken you a considerable time to record as a demo for the TV company in the first place. The final recording is invariably inferior, with the result that the programme, the band, and the viewer suffer. It would be so much simpler to use your own master on such occasions if the quality is good enough, but union rules (which are notoriously strong in Television) won't allow this.

There's no way around it unless you have good management or are a personal friend of the producer.

Backing tapes are also not allowed, again because of union rules, although networked programmes like the Whistle Test and the Tube have featured bands using them, provincial television is very difficult on this point.

The Playing

As you may have gathered from Mike Warne, recording live is a compromise from the technical point of view as regards time, but this is equally true from the performers' standpoint. With a time limit usually no longer than three hours the band has to get their gear in and set up, then just as you want to do a sound check everyone disappears for tea break. After make-up, which hides all blemishes under the vast panorama of studio lighting suspended from the roof of the aircraft hanger they call the studio, you return to find that you are to perform in front of a cast of thousands who are in fact, just the technical crew. After standing on the set for what seems like ages while people talk into headset mics discussing camera angles etc, you usually get one run through for the cameras, one for the take, and suddenly it's all over.

Pre-recording is a different thing altogether in terms of recording quality, but you are still limited by time and programme budget. Typically, a day would be allowed for recording two songs, starting at 9.30am (often on a Sunday), and finishing at 5pm. If you deduct lunch and tea breaks (union rules) you're often left with about six hours to record and mix, although if pushed you might get to mix on another day. At least you get to use the obligatory SSL and, if you ask for it beforehand, the AMS DDL as well as the reverb, although you must specifically request the extra card if you want a delay of longer than 300mS.

If you want to avoid getting the sort of sound for your band that you would associate with the test-card (suitcase drums etc) then the secret of successful recording in such a limited time is organization. Working out a rough track sheet before you go in is advisable. Also work out the order in which you wish to record things and make sure that all the parts are well rehearsed, as you'll only get one or two takes due to the time factor. Minor blemishes should be overlooked and only major howlers patched up. If using sequencers, drum machines and so forth, make sure that the parts are programmed, or that you've got a tape machine ready to load the programme from your own cassette machine as using the one in the studio can cause a delay because, with all due respect to TV sound engineers, they can be notoriously slow at wiring things up. Also, the guy who's excellent at recording a situation comedy, or an outside broadcast, although trained to record bands, may just not have the ear for it. Usually, if you show that you know what you are doing, without being cocky or arrogant, the session should go smoothly.

Another important aspect to remember is that the arrangement of the song you perform in front of the camera should be the same as the demo, otherwise the carefully worked out camera shots won't work, and the crew will get very annoyed. Likewise, you will have had to provide the producer with a floor plan of where you're going to stand and how many people there are in the band, so it's no good turning up on the day with a string quartet and male voice choir to mime the keyboard parts.

It's hard enough to get on TV in the first place. Usually you hear that a series is coming up which features bands through friends who work at the TV centre, or via bands who have already got on the programme. Competition is always fierce but it's still worth sending your best demos off to the head of popular music in your region, because if he likes it you may be considered for a forthcoming series, or you may have it passed on to a colleague.

From both the performer's and the sound engineer's point of view you can see that recording live can be a compromise because of the time factor, and the aesthetics of visuals versus sound, although as Mike Warne pointed out a live performance has a spontaneity element which miming certainly lacks.

Yet everybody loves to hate Top of The Pops for it's wooden miming, but that doesn't stop people watching it, whereas the Tube is spontaneity itself. From my experience of TV, unless a programme is well organised for live rock, with a decent budget and enough time to allow the engineer a proper mix from 24-track to VTR then you're better off pre-recording. Better still, using your own Master Tape seems to be getting more popular, unions permitting, even if you do have to play it in front of the TV studio engineer first. Anyway, as you hit the screen you can guarantee that when you play that much practiced solo the camera will either be on the bass player, or the drummers left leg.

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