Music fans will remember the 45th annual Grammy Awards as the one where jazzy chanteuse Norah Jones stole the show, beating out such veterans as Bruce Springsteen in the prestigious Album of the Year category. But the professionals in charge of the audio for the CBS broadcast will recall the 2003 Grammys as the first ever to deliver discrete 5.1-channel audio — and high-definition video — to the home.
Phil Ramone, chairman of the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers (P&E) Wing, says, “Doing the Grammys in 5.1 had been a passionate goal for a lot of us. I've always been after trying to make something happen quicker rather than later, and this time, we were able to do it.”
Hank Neuberger, advisory council member of the P&E Wing, says, “Phil Ramone, Murray Allen [audio advisor for Grammy Production company, Cossette Productions], myself and others had been talking about doing the Grammys in 5.1 for at least three years. We weren't ready then, but we started the brainstorming process. At the Recording Academy, we're the natural ones devoted to pushing the envelope. This year, the planets lined up and we had great enthusiasm on the part of Cossette Productions to do it. CBS was open to it, and we got Dolby involved, because the Dolby E audio-compression process was a vital part of the signal chain.”
In order to achieve the 5.1 mixes without compromising the stereo broadcast signal, mobile recording company Effanel Music set up separate monitoring environments for each mix. Both the stereo and 5.1 mixes were created in Effanel's flagship L7 truck, which is equipped with a Neve Capricorn digital console. Mixers John Harris and Jay Vicari would toggle back and forth between stereo and surround during rehearsals and downtime; their surround mixes were then sent next door to the On-Site Recording (OSR) truck, a smaller vehicle that houses a Yamaha DM2000 console. Inside OSR, Effanel owner Randy Ezratty — who developed the dual-monitoring concept and served as sound designer for the broadcast — would fine-tune the 5.1-channel stems and collate them with audio from the podium and audience mics that were sent to him by mixer Ed Greene. OSR owner Joel Singer worked alongside Ezratty, focusing on the technical aspects of the Yamaha console and the signal chain within the unit.
Although Harris and Vicari generated the 5.1 mixes, once the show began, they turned off their center and rear speakers and concentrated on the stereo broadcast. At the same time, all the 5.1-channel information from the Capricorn was being sent to Ezratty for monitoring and tweaking.
“The mandate on this was, ‘Don't compromise the stereo so it's like we're doing two simultaneous productions,’” says Ezratty. “Prior to the show, I wrote everybody an overview of this, which Murray, Hank and Phil really embraced. In my overview, I said that the 5.1 production should be ambitious: It should sound like we're trying to do something interesting. It should have real spatial content. However, the novelty of it shouldn't overshadow the content.”
In order to make the surround and stereo mixes exciting and consistent with each other, Harris, Vicari and Ezratty were in constant communication between the two vehicles. Just prior to show time, Harris commented, “At first, we came up with some basic concepts for surround and sent those mixes to Randy, but we weren't even listening to them. Randy was the only one hearing the 5.1.”
Vicari added, “It's an ongoing process. Whenever we're doing something in here, Randy's monitoring what we have bused out. Then we combine our thoughts and come up with a plan.”
Before the 5.1 mix could travel from the OSR truck to the CBS Operations Center, it needed to be encoded in Dolby E, the company's newest digital audio-compression technology. To that end, OSR was outfitted with two Dolby DP 571 encoders — a primary one and a backup — as well as a DP 572 decoder for confidence monitoring.
Once the Dolby E-encoded signal arrived at CBS, it was decoded, run through the network's control room and re-encoded into Dolby E. Then, it was sent via satellite as a hi-def MPEG transport stream to the networks' affiliates, which, in turn, extracted the audio signal from the MPEG stream and decoded it again into discrete 5.1. Finally, each station would run that discrete 5.1 mix through a Dolby Digital (AC3) encoder and send it to people's homes. Dolby E can be encoded and decoded many times “without losing audio quality,” says Rocky Graham, Dolby manager of DTV applications.
“We've been involved in 5.1-channel broadcasting before,” Graham continues. “There have been lots of TV programs that are 5.1, and some have been live events, like last year's Super Bowl and a Britney Spears show on HBO. Also, the Tournament of Roses Parade and NASCAR racing are broadcast in 5.1 But the thing that's unique about this is it's the first awards show — and by far the biggest musical production — ever done this way. For Dolby, it's exciting because we've been such a big part of the music industry over the years, and to have that come together with 5.1 broadcasting, which is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to Dolby's history, is a thrill.”
There were technical challenges, however, mostly in the realm of audio and video synchronization. Because of the many stages that the audio signal went through — from the digital mixers in L7 and OSR to the CBS control room and affiliates' studios — the audio crew and CBS' engineering team were especially vigilant about latency. After extensive testing, they determined that a delay of 53 milliseconds needed to be compensated for in the audio stream, so they took the appropriate steps, according to Ezratty.
Working out the synchronization issue was the last obstacle in an enormous production that pushed every crew member to his and her limits. Ezratty says, “This show is over-the-top, technologically. I mean, we had the New York Philharmonic with Coldplay out there, and we had six minutes to set it up! It's not that I'm intimidated by the Grammys, because we've been doing the show for more than 10 years. But because this show has so many other things tugging at it in terms of time, technical needs and gravity for the artists, it's an especially intense experience.”
After the show, the crew received overwhelmingly positive feedback for its stereo and 5.1 mixes, suggesting that the bold gamble of broadcasting a program as complex as the Grammys in surround and hi-def had paid off.
Ramone says, “You feel insulated when you first start these ideas, but the e-mails and compliments back and forth have been amazing.”
Neuberger adds, “We've had surround in movie theaters, we've had surround in our homes for five years, and now we're at the beginning of 5.1 broadcasting. There have been a few shows here and there done in discrete surround, but the Grammys are pushing the envelope and showing that it can be done creatively and technically. Television producers all want to create content in HD 5.1 because they realize that more and more people are going to have that capability in their homes.”