Hank Neuberger, left, with Guy Charbonneau at last year’s Coachella Music Festival
Hank Neuberger began his audio career in the 1970s in Chicago, working as a producer, engineer, and studio executive at Chicago Recording Company, where he still holds an Executive VP title. In the 21st century, however, he has become something of an audio nomad, lending his considerable production talents to the summer festival circuit, cast albums, Grammy telecasts, and events of all shapes and sizes. He is a Grammy-winning engineer and a first-call audio supervisor for the biggest events in the business. Mix caught up with Hank, today the president of Springboard Productions, as he was in Los Angeles meeting with AEG and advancing the audio/video capture of this spring’s Coachella Music Festival…
Let’s talk Grammys. You’ve been doing this for a while, and last year you won an Emmy…
It has been my privilege to supervise the broadcast audio for the Grammys for almost 20 years. We were very fortunate to win the Emmy for sound for a special last year. We have a very dedicated team that is responsible for that kind of an achievement. The most important guys are the guys with their hands on the faders, the music mixers. Those are Eric Schilling and John Harris, and our production mixer Tom Holmes. Our mission is the same. The Recording Academy takes it very seriously. We want to make sure that when those artists come on that show—it’s the biggest audience many of them will ever have at one time. We want to make sure their sound is spectacular, nothing less than a perfect balance of the song they perform on the show. We do a lot of advancing, not just with the artist, but with the technology.
This year we’re aiming for the February transition to digital broadcast, which kicks off a week after our show. In practice, a lot of the networks have already kicked it in. We’ve been anticipating for a couple of years and last year we specifically produced our soundtrack on the Grammy telecast in the format required for digital transition. What that means in practice is that we produce one soundtrack on site, a 5.1 surround track that is transported to CBS, which then transports that around the country and around the world. That means our mixers are simultaneously monitoring in 5.1 and 2.0, the way the 2.0 would be derived from the home viewer’s listening position.
We are very careful to simulate the exact downmix parameters that the CBS broadcast chain employs throughout their transmission. The same metadata parameters so that we can anticipate what it will sound like in 2.0 because the networks in most cases are only transmitting the 5.1, and they are relying on the downmix algorithm that home viewers are using to listen out of two speakers.
How do you top last year?
We just try to do it again. The Recording Academy is so single-mindedly dedicated to the excellence of the music that we present…one thing we do on this show that no other show does is that we created a, parallel premix world for artists and their producers to prebalance their rehearsal so that we have a starting point when they hit the stage. We’re able to spend more hours per artist in prebalancing, and we think that pays off.
Is that why you have the two mixers?
That’s part of it. Three days of rehearsal and the show is so daunting that it’s just too much for one brain.
And they work in parallel?
They work in the XM/Effanel truck and a mirror room that’s generally referred to as the ORB. The Offline Remix Booth.
Tell me about the pre-telecast?
The other thing I do in Grammy week, and this is the second year, is we produce a live webcast of the pre-telecast, where about 100 awards are handed out in advance of the Grammy telecast. Last year we did it for the first time. That will be available at grammy.com. All those awards, plus performances, the day of the Grammys.
And your other lives?
I’m still in the studio business. I still carry some arcane titles, like Executive VP of CRC, where I started back in the ‘70s. And also with Glenwood Place Studios in Los Angeles, where we were fortunate this year to have fabulous clients like Kanye West and Britney Spears and Alicia Keys and Courtney Love. Great clients. But as everybody knows, the studio biz is a constant uphill battle. We love it, we take great pride in the work we are able to do in those environments. I just produced a cast album at CRC for a brilliant musical called Million Dollar Quartet, which is a musical based on the night in 1956 where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips. There’s a brilliant musical doing great in Chicago right now and ready to go around the country. I’m still in the studios, I love that, and I know how important it is for all studios to diversify and do anything in professional audio that is rewarding. Just working with one segment of the pro audio business is generally not enough.
What about the studio business? Common refrain is budgets, budgets, budgets. Is it as simple as the budgets disappearing? How complicated is it?
There are a lot of pressure points, and people are aware of most of them. The budgets for recording artists to make new recordings are going down. Costs for operating a recording studio are going up. Hence my comment that depending exclusively on musical recording artists to keep a studio in business is a very difficult challenge. Finding other segments, whether theatrical films, or TV or game audio of other soundtracks mixed to picture are some of the obvious ways studios can diversify.
Here’s the punchline: the rates for music recording in the mid-‘70s were basically a $100 an hour. Studios today, even at the high end, go for about $100 an hour, 30 years later. Costs have gone through the roof. Property taxes have gone up incredibly. Every other cost…the rates are the same. This is a very difficult area to rely on exclusively.
I’ve seen cameras, mastering and other means of trying to diversify…how do you feel about HD cameras in recording?
Where I think there is possibility for expansion is that anything locked to picture needs to be mixed in surround. So mix-to-pix, and we’ve said it before, is a growth area. Surround mixing is challenging enough that it can’t usually be done in a bedroom or a garage.
But surround in music-only has proven too tough. There are 80 million surround systems in the home…
It’s not in stand-alone music. There is no way to buy standalone surround audio. There is game music and anything sunk to picture. If I want the new Coldplay in surround, I probably can’t get it. But anything in Guitar Hero or Rock Band I can. Any concert. Blu-Ray DVD. The formats for audio-only surround are pretty much in classical music only. Very little pop music.
Is the mantra Diversify or Die still valid?
Yeah, but it’s different today for people involve in the creative and technical fields. You have to be constantly re-training, constantly learning new things yourself on these things, because…we used to think we knew everything about audio, but now not only don’t we know everything, we know much closer to nothing than we ever have. The tools are changing everyday, the software is changing, the delivery formats are changing. You have t open your mind to new ways of thinking about helping musical artists find their audience. That’s why we all got into the business in the first place. We were part of the support system for artists and audience to get together. That’s what turned us on creatively and technically. Those tools are evolving so fast that all of us have to constantly re-evaluate.
So what excites you today?
I think there are a couple of things that are happening that are good. We’re finally at the point where music in movie theaters is exciting. The opera has had a great resurgence in this. We’re going to see digital delivery and projection in theaters blow up in the next few years. I’m very excited about 3D in theaters and that technology. Music 3D in surround sound. So if you can’t get to your favorite artist performance….this really gives us the opportunity to reach a younger audience, the 12- to 16-year old who doesn’t’ have the money or their own car. Or jobs to spend money on high-price tickets. We can reach them in their hometown theaters and expand the reach of some of these great musical performances.
There are more and more coming out. Fall Out Boy is coming out next week. What a great opportunity if you can’t be all over the country. A great compelling experience: Loud, big screen, in your movie theater.
Okay, festivals. You got in early.
We were fortunate to hook up with AT&T Blue Room website when they did Lollapalooza 2005 with the promoter C3 Presents. Since then I’ve done about 20 multiday festivals over the past four summers as the festival circuit has grown and become a dominant feature of the summer touring environment. We’ve shot now at Bonnaroo, Coachella and last year we had great success at the Rothbury Festival, a very special event in northern Michigan and the Mile High Festival in Denver. The reason I mention those two is that in addition to the live webcasts, we were able to pull feature-length TV programs out of Rothbury and Mile High that have run on MTV’s high-def network Palladia and Fuse Network. We’ve delivered high-def shows from the festivals. Last week we put Rothbury and Mile High together with AEG’s production of Operation Kuwait and did a live webcast for Myspace on an Army base in Kuwait featuring Disturbd and Filter and other artists. We packaged those three together and on NYE we webcast on the American Forces Network for the service men and women around the world. Dave Matthews, OAR, Widespread, Jason Mraz. That was very exciting to deliver that to all the troops.
Well, you extend the life and reach of the festival, which has always been a problem in coverage.
You’ve hit on it. That’s what I think we’re all looking to do in the New World Order. If we can give these performances ‘legs’ and let them live in addition to the experience of being there, then we can help the artists be showcased throughout the year. We can help the festivals and help the whole model grow by keeping people thinking about it. We want our fans to keep coming out and seeing their favorite artists each year. This is a good thing. If you believe that music is important, and you think it is a good thing to have in our universe, then you want to help your artists find audience and help their audience find them. So trying to keep these performances alive throughout the year we think is a valid contribution.
I’ve been to so many shows where I came out just glowing. I remember Dave Matthews and his DVD…
Dave has had some fantastic sellers. Central Park. DMB is the greatest. Last summer we had them at both Rothbury and Mile High. They were on fire. Tremendous moments. They graciously participated in both the TV specials on our shows. They kick ass. So exciting.
I did another show with DMB last December from West Point, two nights on campus and a live webcast. We were all so proud to be associated with those nights. That band in front of that audience of 4000 cadets, many of whom would be going to Iraq within the next 18 months. Do they deserve a free Dave Matthews show? I think so.
Can you talk about hi-def and the importance of sports and entertainment driving new technology, new production. Where do the dollars go?
Sports continues to push the envelope. Their production is second to none, whether football or NASCAR or golf. Just astounding.
always say to young people that if you’re getting into pro audio, there’s a lot of people who need pro audio. If you’re getting into just music, then know what you’re getting into, because that’s just one slice of the pie.
Finally the transmission and distribution to the home has caught up with the production ability.
Final question, how nice is it to be a Chicago boy today…
First of all, Chicago is the best and most beautiful city in America, and don’t tell anyone because we don’t need any more people moving there. The great thing about Chicago right now, besides being the home of the President-elect, is that Chicago is the candidate city for the Olympics 2016. The U.S. representative and one of four candidate cities. We are very hopeful that the U.S./Chicago next October will be named the host for 2016. Talk about production, talk about matching an incredible event to literally the most stunning city that is ready for this…we have our fingers crossed that this comes to pass. It would be great for production, great for the U.S. and great for Chicago, and as a Chicago boy, something I hope comes to be…there you go.