Austin City LimitsKEEPING MUSIC TV REAL FOR 35 YEARS 3/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern
Now in its 35th year, Austin City Limits remains the flagship for how live music should be presented to viewing audiences. When artists perform on ACL, there are no special effects, no panels of judges, no props, no dancers — and no second chances. It is live music in its truest sense, warts and all. This, no doubt, is why the show continues to thrive, why free tickets for tapings are snapped up, why artists of all genres are eager to be booked and why the show is carried on 97 percent of PBS stations.
And although some things have changed since the show debuted in 1974 — it's now high-definition and in 5.1 surround sound, for example — much remains the same, from the simplicity in approach to some of its staffers.
The original concept or philosophy of the show is unchanged: “a platform and showcase for new and original music not found in other places,” says Terry Lickona, the show's producer since 1978. “It has evolved light-years from the 1970s showcase for Austin and Texas and the outlaw music of Willie Nelson, who did the original show. Now there is a lot of indie rock and rock — and anything goes, musically. It just has to be original and good. We look for artists who have something to say as songwriters, singers and in virtuosity.”
In addition to booking talent, Lickona organizes staff, budget and funding. Austin City Limits is a lean, mean operation: six full-time employees and another 30 or 40 freelance and part-time people who come in as needed. Produced by KLRU-TV, the show has always taped on the University of Texas campus, where they have a permanent set. That will change in two years, when ACL partners with Live Nation to tape their shows in a new downtown Austin venue.
Austin City Limits tapes 18 shows per year; some air as full-hour performances, and others as two half-hour segments showcasing two artists. “We generally tape one artist on any particular day and only double up if their schedules are not flexible and they need to do it on the same day,” explains co-producer Jeff Peterson.
“What separates us from a lot of television shows is that we give the artist creative control of the song selection, order and what gets said from the stage,” Peterson continues. “They look at the show that night or we give them a DVD and work with them on what they want to include and fit into the time slot. It's important to our philosophy to present the artist in a way that best represents them. It's their song list. They can change the order of the songs, and we have to cut songs from a 90-minute performance, so all bets are off as to how the pace is maintained.
“We try to keep it as close to the original performance as possible, but we don't want the artist to have something less than acceptable to them going out to the public,” Peterson continues. “So, within reason, the artist can do overdubs. If they're not doing the mix, when the audience is gone they can re-cut a guitar solo, or vocal overdubs are okay to a point. From a legal standpoint, we have a clause that conditions their ability to mix. They may have a certain reverb or certain philosophy about harmonies or how out-front the vocal will be; they developed this over the years and we try not to get too much in the middle of it. It's always a matter of subjective taste.”
Peterson has co-produced ACL since 2005, dealing with all of the legal aspects, negotiations with artists and attorneys, and technical issues such as taking the show to nonlinear for the coming season. He started out as audio supervisor in 1978, holding that position until 1983, then becoming music mixer and technical supervisor. “When I came onboard, everything was analog,” he recalls. “We had a Studer 16-track 2-inch recorder, using timecode on 16, which would bleed into 15, so we basically had 14 tracks. We had to bring in one or two submixers for larger bands. We submixed the drums and keyboards to get it all down, and two audience tracks for stereo audience. At that time I worked directly for KLRU, and I determined patching and controlled the level separate from the rough mix.”
Audio director David Hough has been with ACL since the show shot its pilot. “We did our upgrades and conversion to digital in 2000 and 2001,” he says. “We now have a Pyramix capable of recording up to 56 channels, which is quite a step up from 35 years ago. For the first 12 years, we recorded on a Studer A-80 16-track and a Neve 1073 16-channel desk, which we were very lucky to have at the time. In those 12 years, the biggest artist we did was Roy Orbison, who had two drummers and a percussionist. I had to submix all the drums to one track. Our next upgrade came in 1987, to a 24-channel Studer and a 36-channel Neve. Then the Studer 820 with Dolby SR allowed us to record for a full hour without having to ask the band to pause for a little bit when we had to change the reels.”
Even today, 56 channels can pose a challenge. “We've had a couple of bands go beyond that,” he recalls. “Pat Metheny came out with a very large setup, and we somehow found more tracks. The Dixie Chicks also exceeded it. They all change instruments, and we brought in another 16 tracks just to record them. That was a fun show to do. [Producer] Lloyd Maines came in afterward to help with the mix.”
After spending four years in mono, ACL was one of the first programs to go to stereo. “Then Dolby came along,” says Hough, “and now we're up to Dolby Digital 5.1 and ProLogic II. Euphonix has made that very simple. Over the last few years, we've made the slow transition to HD and the last two seasons were in 5.1 HD mode.”
Onstage, ACL uses Shure 57 and 58 microphones. “We have an endorsement [deal], and we've used those mics since day one because they're really good for us, with monitors onstage and the P.A. cranked up,” says Hough. “You need mics with good quality and feedback rejection. We use a few AKGs overhead for drums. All stage mics go through a transformer split that was custom-made in 1987. The Electro-Voice Delta-Max P.A. system that was installed in '87 was replaced by a Meyer P.A. in 2004. We are still using the 1987 Yamaha PM-2800 console at monitors and PM-1800 at FOH. The recording room runs Euphonix System 5B and Pyramix 56-track workstations, as well as a Nuendo system provided by AMD. Surround mixing and editing are done on Pro Tools Version 5, with the A/V option for video reference.”
Taping a show falls under one of two basic outlines, says Hough. “Foo Fighters, for example, are a large traveling group with multiple semis. They are self-contained and provide all the monitors, mics, stage gear and front-of-house board. We take the feed through the Euphonix into Pyramix and Nuendo. We were very open to having their house engineer, Bryan Worthen, for the post-production mix. They have interesting mics built into their drum set — an NS-10 driver in front of the kick, which is great for hitting the subwoofer.
“The other situation is a smaller band or a local band. In some cases, their gear goes to the next gig. They come to us with rented backline gear, and we use our front-of-house board, our mics and our monitor desk, and it works very well.
“The show runs almost in real time, and one of the easy things is that after soundcheck and supper, the show runs straight through. I have moving faders in front of me, and when we did Foo Fighters, though we have automation, they did most of their own dynamics.
“We overdub once in a blue moon, when, in post-production, a bass player may say, ‘Can you punch me in on this note?’ The exception is when we let the artist have total control, like Pat Metheny — his engineer, Rob Eaton, was there for the taping, and the bass player has a full studio, so he spent the day in Pro Tools at his studio and sent it to Rob in New York to mix at their expense. My preference is for them to come to our space. Bryan, FOH for the Foo Fighters, came in on a weekend and knocked it out in half a day with no overdubs. We don't get into polishing the cannonball. If a wrong note is played, more than likely it will go on the air that way.”
The time from post-production to ready-for-airing can vary, says Peterson. “We ask for input from the artist within a couple of weeks so that it is fresh in their mind. It might even be the night of the show if we need a quick turnaround. We can turn a show around in one week if we have to, which only happened once, with Coldplay. Otherwise, we go according to schedule. The producer takes a couple of days to do the initial offline: ordering the songs, talk from the stage — it's very specific. He then makes edit decisions on interviews. The director takes three days, usually, to get it down to the exact frame on every shot and the detail of which camera is shown at which time — to the frame. Editing takes two or three days, and we're still on tape, linear at this point. Except for our workflow, it doesn't affect the product and quality, but it's much more difficult to change something later, so we hope to be nonlinear this coming season. Audio takes a couple of days. If it's one band, we take two days. Two bands could take longer. It's a matter of mixing the music, sweetening and bridging between songs and audience response.”
Over the years, ACL has seen its share of challenges. Some artists have been unhappy with their performances, only to watch the playback afterward and find that they, in fact, played a great show. Some artists are a pain to work with, plain and simple. Most commonly, however, some of them just get nervous.
“When we finally got Johnny Cash, his experience with television in Nashville was horrible, and the description was ‘stop-and-go television,’ doing things again,” says Hough. “He finally relaxed after the second song. I see that with a lot of bands. They fall into the comfort zone. We have five or six cameras going, and one trick we use is to tape over the tally light so that they don't know which camera is on. They play to the audience and the audience gives the energy back to the band. The whole idea of the show is to give the home viewer some semblance of what the experience would be like if they were in the studio.”
At the end of the day, says Lickona, all the technology in the world doesn't matter if the music isn't real: “I suppose we could tape the show in black and white with our old cameras, people would still be happy and artists would still do the show because of the way it's presented.”
Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer.