Grammy sound team goes for a knockout

Digital tech helps mixers triumph in a show that feels like a fight

“At the end of this show you kind of feel like you were in a fight, but you won,” says veteran Grammy mixer John Harris.

“We’ll have 20 acts and there are no throwaway acts,” says Harris, who has been mixing the Grammys for 20 years. “They’re all equally important and worthy of our time and effort.” Because there are so many acts, rehearsal time is limited to just an hour each in the days leading up to the show. Rehearsals leading up to the show be grueling and the show itself is pressure packed.

But digital sound tools and clever use of logistics have let Harris and fellow mixer Eric Schilling effectively double their rehearsal time — and with that time, polish the mix in ways that were impossible not so many years ago.

The Grammy show uses some 180 stagehands working around the clock in the days leading up to the broadcast. The sound crew numbers around 30. The setup includes two identical music production trucks from Music Mix Mobile, which is co-owned by Harris.

The show is mixed onsite in Dolby Digital 5.1 and only that mix is “backhauled” from Staples Center to the network in New York, where the 5.1 is downmixed to stereo. The 5.1 mix gets handed off to iTunes and to the acts themselves.

The Grammys began using two sound trucks years ago, explains Harris, who shares mixing duties this year with Eric Schilling. “When we do rehearsals we’ll do a mix of the bands, we’ll do all the EQ and the compression and everything and get a blend and a mix the way we think it should be. Then you have to store all those settings and those console configurations because you have to move on and do another act.” When the practice of using two mixing truck began, says Harris, the mixing desks were still analog. They could “store” the settings, but only as an image. For each act “you had to physically turn 500 knobs,” says Harris. That required minutes of setup for each act, so while one table was in use for the act onstage, the other table would be prepped for the next act.

When digital consoles came in, it became possible to call up all those settings in seconds. So for some years, Harris was able to mix the show alone from a single truck. “The problem with that was,” he says, “with so many acts, I would get done with rehearsal and I’d move on, and I didn’t give the artists any more attention. I didn’t have time. I couldn’t go back and revisit this mix, revisit this song, refine it and make it better.”

Nowadays, though, the two mixers and duplicate digital trucks have made it possible to extend the mix time. During rehearsals, Truck A is used for the act on stage. The rehearsal is recorded, and once the act leaves the stage, the mixers switch trucks, and mix continues for that act in Truck B, using the just-recorded rehearsal. “We can bring band representatives in who can’t be (in the truck) while they’re performing,” says engineer-in-charge Mark Linett. “So they can do that while the next band is being recorded in the other truck.” Sometimes the band members themselves or their own mixers go to the trucks to weigh in. That effectively doubles the mix time for each act.

Once work is done on the rehearsal mix, the mix settings are stored, to be recalled in seconds when that band takes the stage to perform. Harris and Schilling tweak the mixes at Sunday’s lunchtime dress rehearsal and sometimes even in the few hours between dress and airtime, when there’s time for five or six acts to squeeze in more rehearsal. The music that goes out over the air is always live, but the mix settings have been perfected in advance.

Well, mostly perfected. “There’s the usual show adrenaline so the (mixer) have to be sort of on their toes,” says Linett. “At dress you get about 90% of what you’re likely to get level-wise.”

During the broadcast, Truck A handles the live broadcast. while Truck B handles line checks for the act about to come onstage and serves as a backup should something go wrong with Truck A. The entire setup is run off generators, so it will continue even if there’s a Super Bowl-style power outtage. If the generators fail, too, there’s an Uninterruptible Power Supply that should keep sound going for 30-45 minutes.

Even with all that advance planning, the Grammys are still live television, and that means heart-in-the-throat moments. Harris remembers one Grammys broadcast when a quick changeover during a commercial break didn’t go as planned. “Aerosmith was coming up,” he recounts. “You could see all the gear up there but somehow one of the big multipin cables didn’t get to where it was supposed to be.” So as the commercial break ended, with Aerosmith about to play, he had no sound. “I’m on communications, I’m staring at (the meters) saying ‘No. No, no. No. Don’t have it. Don’t have it.’ Bonnie Raitt was introducing them and she goes “Ladies and Gentlemen…” and BANG! All of a sudden my meter bridge just cracked wide open, they made that meld, and I have it just as she said “…Aerosmith!” I don’t think I had connectivity for more than second and a half before he hit the first note.

“It’s an adrenaline fueled show sometimes,” he says wryly.

Linett, by the way, is up for a Grammy himself this year: He’s the mastering engineer on “The Smile Sessions (Deluxe Box Set),” nommed for Historical Album. He’lll be working back in the sound trucks during the ceremony, he says, but he’ll be keeping an eye on the announcement, which should come during a commercial break. “So if we do win I should be able to at least get up there for a picture with my fellow producers.”

For technophiles, here are some details on the tech setup, courtesy of Dolby:

The Denali Summit and Music Mix Mobile Trucks

• The 2013 Grammy’s production will use NEP Broadcast’s Denali Summit truck, which is one of the biggest in the business, and two identical trucks from Music Mix Mobile.

• The Summit is equipped with a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher, software from Playback Innovation to run the EVS playback system, the Ross XPression graphics system and a Calrec Alpha audio console.

• Inside the arena, the production uses DiGiCo mix consoles that are linked by fiber to two Music Mix Mobile trucks outside the Staples Center. These trucks are equipped with Avid Icon D-Control audio consoles.

• Dolby equipment, including the LM100 Loudness Monitor is in all the mixing areas including the Music Mix Mobile trucks and the Denali Summit broadcast trucks.

The Music Mix Mobile trucks are used as two acoustically identical control rooms

• One main room used for tracking rehearsals and the live broadcast

• A second off-line remix room for mixing of the rehearsal tracks during the next rehearsal

• Two primary audio music mixers (John Harris and Eric Schilling) alternate performances

• This allows for the production to include even more live performances than if there weren’t two trucks.

Dolby E and the Grammys

• Audio backhaul from L.A. to N.Y.C. is achieved using Dolby E

• Only Dolby DP571 encoders and DP572 decoders are used

• Audio metadata is monitored and set using the Dolby DP570 Multichannel Audio Tool according to the specific requirements of the CBS Network

• Music mixers use a combination of Dolby LM100 and Waves WLM loudness metering to meet CBS’ level/dialnorm specifications