LIVE FROM NEW YORK
On TV, it comes across as a seamless comedy show that opens with the familiar line, “Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!” But behind the scenes, NBC's Saturday Night Live is a patchwork of dialog, voice-overs, musical scores, musical performances and audience responses that only a team of seasoned professionals could put together week after week for nearly 30 years.
“It's an enormous crew and they do a complicated task,” says SNL technical consultant Stacey Foster. “With as little rehearsal as we get, we have to divvy up the tasks to give people a slice of the pie that they can handle.”
As accustomed as they were to producing the show on the SSL 9000 J console that had served them well for several years, Foster and his team felt they could benefit from a large-scale digital mixing board. After surveying all the major products, they settled on the SSL Axiom MT Production (MTP) Digital Console.
“Here at SNL, we constantly evaluate where we are, technology-wise,” says Foster, who is employed by Broadway Video, the production company headed by SNL creator Lorne Michaels. “We've been taking a hard look at digital recording consoles in the past two to three years, and we felt that, for the first time in our particular application, we found a board that did what we wanted it to do and how we wanted to do it. It wasn't a complicated decision to arrive at.”
It's not surprising that SNL would choose a digital board. After all, it's hard to imagine a production environment better suited to a digital console than a weekly variety show that demands a full spectrum of audio services. At any given moment, SNL is a conventional tracking studio, a post facility or a live mix room. Among its many advantages vis-a-vis an analog board, the Axiom offers instant resetability, unprecedented versatility, a digital signal path and a design that allows the engineer the luxury of never having to leave the sweet spot. While all those features were pivotal to Foster and SNL music mixer J. Vicari, the console's brand name also weighed heavily in their decision.
“The decision to go with one digital console versus another can be somewhat subjective,” says Foster, “based on your long history of 15 to 20 years working with a company — as we've done with SSL — and knowing that they have a great organization, great support, etc. This is particularly true with digital consoles. One of the reasons you buy digital products is to take advantage of software upgrades, so we wanted to be sure that we bought from a manufacturer that's going to be around to deliver the upgrades.”
Before settling on the Axiom, Vicarit test-drove one at Backstage at Soundstage in Nashville during production of a DVD celebrating the 25th anniversary of SNL.
“It sold itself to me,” says Vicari of the Backstage Axiom, on which he worked on 5.1 mixes of music from the show's archives. “The board is very simple to use. Anybody who knows the signal flow of an SSL 4000 or 9000 could run this console.”
Since the installation of the MTP earlier this year at NBC, Vicari has mixed various shows, including SNL, MTV's Total Request Live and NBC's The Colin Quinn Show.
“I'm doing three, four shows at a time,” he says. “Right after the board was put in, we hit the ground running and haven't stopped since.”
Hardly a month goes by without some big news from the Hit Factory. As one of the largest and most lavish studios in the world, the New York powerhouse is in a better position than most of its competitors to test high-end, cutting-edge products.
Among the latest consoles that have made their way up the facility's storied freight elevator are two Solid State Logic XL 9000 K SuperAnalogue boards for its new Studio 6 and Studio 7, each equipped with 80 inputs and 5.1-channel capabilities.
“One of the reasons we purchased two consoles was to allow clients to go back and forth between the two rooms,” says Hit Factory CEO Troy Germano. “This necessitated making both control rooms identical to accommodate our clients.”
Other features of the XL 9000 K include an optimized signal path to address the needs of higher-sampled recordings, a new automation computer that offers an online mix-and-compare function and SSL's Advanced Photo-Realistic Total Recall.
SURROUNDED BY GLASS
Michael Riesman, the multifaceted musician/conductor/arranger/producer/engineer best known for his longstanding work with Philip Glass, is taking the composer's recorded works to the next sonic frontier: surround.
Riesman has been working on 5.1 mixes of several Glass works, including “La Belle et La Bete,” a performance piece that Glass wrote a few years ago to accompany Jean Cocteau's 1946 film classic of the same name. Although Glass' score is not being released as the “main” soundtrack to the film because of French copyright laws that prohibit the alteration of recorded works, the DVD medium made it possible for the Glass piece to appear as an “alternate” soundtrack on the French-language disc.
“This film has elements that lent themselves to mixing the soundtrack in surround,” observes Riesman, noting that the project was originally recorded on 48 tracks. “There's the beast's domain, which is a magical realm that we'd struggled to render in the 2-track mix. There are beasts roaring off-screen, disembodied voices and other special effects. There are also bells, celestes, triangles and glockenspiels, which we were able to put in the surround field around the listener.”
Asked how he likes working in surround, Riesman says, “I love it. I wish I could do everything this way.”
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