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Audio on the Airwaves


photo: Bill Richert

Live recording is a difficult and demanding art and science under the best conditions. And engineers will tell you that getting the “best conditions” is extremely rare. Recording live music for TV broadcast adds another layer of complexity to the proposition, even though the environment is often more controlled. Recently, we looked at three music-for-TV productions to better understand the peculiarities of their recording needs.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 40 years since there’s been a network television program regularly devoted to jazz. That’s changing this month when PBS (who else?) launches its Legends of Jazz series, produced by Larry Rosen. So far, there are 13 half-hour shows in the can featuring a wide range of top jazz talent. Each program features an interview segment — handled with great intelligence and aplomb by Ramsey Lewis, himself a superb jazz artist (as well as a leading Chicago radio DJ) — and then performances by the featured players, who change each week depending on the theme. There have been some intriguing and historic pairings so far, with several highlighting players from different generations: “The Golden Horns” features Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti; “The Singers” has Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling; “Altos” has David Sanborn and Phil Woods, etc. One of the most intriguing is “Jazz Masters 2006,” which brings together Tony Bennett, Chick Corea and the late, great Ray Barretto.

The production is top-notch all the way through. Though the pilot was shot at Henson Studios in Los Angeles more than a year ago, the show’s current home is the studios of WTTW in Chicago, a top provider of original programming for PBS. The audio director for Legends of Jazz is a veteran of literally hundreds of studio and live jazz recordings through the years, Don Murray. He is quick to note that the production’s television aspect greatly affects the audio side. “I understand that the look of the show has priority, obviously, so I talk to Larry [Rosen] about it and I talk to the director, Jack DeMay, and find out how they want the musicians set up visually; then I try to adapt my recording to get the best look for the show,” Murray says. “In some cases, if I were setting up for a record date, I certainly wouldn’t set things up the way we do for the taping. For TV, all the instruments are very close to each other: The bass is like five feet away from the drums, and the piano is 10 feet away from the drums with no baffling, and the lid on the piano is totally open. So it’s set up for the look of the set — and it does look great — more than for how I’d like to record it.”

Widespread Panic takes the stage as part of Austin City Limits’ 31st season

photo: Scott Newton/Austin City Limits

During tapings of the show on WTTW, Murray is sequestered in a control room off the 100×80 soundstage, in visual contact through the line feed on a monitor. He has a Sony Oxford console there and records to Pro Tools|HD. Meanwhile, Rosen is out on the floor, dealing with the artists, the director and camera crew. As the show’s producer, Rosen is instrumental in shaping the broadcast, making recommendations about areas to discuss, suggesting songs that could be played, etc.

“Obviously, we try to figure out as much as we can in advance of the taping,” Rosen says, “but we’re still doing most of it right then and there. It’s not a recording session exactly, yet it’s not a concert, either. They’re dressed for a performance and their head is into a performance space more than a recording studio space. The typical day is the artist comes in the morning, we set up the band and go through the music, then do a couple of dress rehearsals, bring an audience [of about 60 people] in and do the show. We’re shooting with six HD cameras, and we always shoot and record the dress rehearsals, too. We’ll do some different angles that we can subtly cut into the performance, so between the rehearsals and the show, it’s almost like we have 12 or 18 cameras.”

From his standpoint, Murray tries to find out in advance if any of the artists have a preferred microphone he or she likes to use. “That’s never been a problem yet,” he comments. “The last thing I want to do is create any tension for the artist during a shoot. Like David Sanborn has a little setup where he uses a Shure SM98 in the bell of the horn, so I went with that. In that case, I hooked up a 98 on Phil [Woods], too, so they each had the same mic on their horns. With Benny Golson, I could use what I wanted, so I chose a really nice Soundelux ELUX 251, which has this rich, mellow tone. Chris Botti sometimes brings his own mic, but he didn’t this time, so I used an old RCA 77 ribbon mic, which sounded great on him.” Murray doesn’t get a soundcheck per se, so he works on getting his levels while the musicians are working out the tune before the first dress rehearsal.

World Music Cafe’s Carl Cadden-James (left) and Will Smith Sr.

photo: Brian Flanagan

After the show is recorded to Pro Tools — usually about 40 tracks of music and 15 of dialog and effects — “we take it back to L.A. and work on it at Firehouse [Studios] in Pasadena, which is a totally Pro Tools digital facility with a fantastic Meyer 7.1 surround system, and we mix in 5.1 and stereo,” Murray says. “After I finish my premixing at Firehouse, I take the drives back to New York, where we’re doing the post at Creative Group. At post, I have a Pro Tools|HD system that I use right on the dubbing stage, so I can adjust any parameter of the mix. I actually have my whole mix there; everything is in the computer, and Larry can listen to the final mix with picture and we can change any aspect of it.”

Naturally, Murray does a conventional stereo mix and a surround mix for the hi-def telecast of the show (and DVD release). “I try to set up my surround mix as if you were sitting in the audience and listening to the band, where the band will be pretty much out in front, in very wide stereo, but also wrapped around [to the sides] a little bit. Then I have the ambient mics in the back and sometimes audience mics are in the back, so if you’re sitting in the sweet spot in the surround, you basically feel like you’re in the room. I don’t really mix with too many gimmicks of instruments coming out of the rears; that doesn’t seem appropriate.”

I ask if the changing visual perspective in the edited program ever affects how he places the music in the surrounds. “When we get to the final dubbing mix and I can see the final cut,” Murray answers, “then there might be something that doesn’t make sense the way I have an instrument placed in the surround, and I can change it then.”

Rosen adds, “In some situations, too, we’ll use split screens while the artists are playing duets, so the placement becomes paramount and really has to reflect what’s up on the screen.”

Cable TV’s insatiable hunger for original programming has meant there is more live music of every style to be found than ever before. Coming from the growing iN DEMAND Networks, leading purveyors of video-on-demand, pay-per-view and HDTV programming, is MusicLab at World Cafe Live. This show, produced at the Philadelphia facility World Cafe Live, combines conversation between musicians with original live performances. The venue is a three-tiered 400-seat music hall/club that was built in the shell of a 40,000-square-foot art deco building and is equipped with a Midas Legend 3000 console, Clair Bros. curved line array (and monitors) and a modern, computerized lighting grid. It is home to an extensive education series that is spearheaded by Tom Emmi, president of the production company Ace Entertainment, and includes songwriting workshops, jam sessions, artist residencies and more. The iN DEMAND show incorporates elements of all these, though it’s obviously designed to be an entertaining television program. Among the artists who have already been taped for future broadcasts are the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, keyboardist Chuck Leavell, pianist Chick Corea, banjo ace Béla Fleck and Jethro Tull mainstays Ian Anderson and Martin Barre.

Sound recording and post for MusicLab at World Cafe Live are handled by Carl Cadden-James, who is VP of engineering for StarCity Recording Company in nearby Bethlehem, Pa. — a fabulously appointed, multiroom Pilchner Schoustal — designed facility that Mix readers may recall from our September 2003 cover when the studio was known by its original name, Angel Mountain. Studio A at StarCity is ideal for mixing the sort of high-resolution 5.1 sound required for the MusicLab at World Cafe Live program: It contains an SSL 9000 K Series console, Quested 4×12 5.1 monitoring and a staggering array of new and vintage outboard gear.

Robert Cray and Keb Mo at Legends of Jazz

photo: Bill Richert

Cadden-James notes that the first two programs in the series, which were recorded by another company but mixed at StarCity, were captured on Pro Tools, but now that he’s in charge of both recording and mixing, he’s gone a different route. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a 100-percent Pro Tools guy; I’ve used it since ’94 or something. But computers are funny. I still feel a little more comfortable with some kind of dedicated in-a-box kind of thing, so specifically for this show, I purchased an Alesis HD24 for the main recording. It’s weird, after lots of really bad experiences in the ’90s with ADATs, I was a little gun-shy, but I work for producer Jeff Glixman [who runs StarCity], and he had used an HD24 on a nine-camera shoot of a really big band down in Trinidad. Jeff is probably the best critical listener I’ve ever worked with in my life; his skills are absolutely uncanny and astounding. Anyway, he used it on that project and he thought the converters sounded really good and everything was stable, so that’s what we’re using.” Cadden-James says that he’ll continue to mainly use Pro Tools for his studio work at StarCity, “but when we have large orchestra dates, I’m going to run the HD24 in the background behind Pro Tools, should disaster strike.”

During the taping of the shows, Cadden-James is holed up in a sort of caged area where mic stands are usually kept. “We roll in, grab a table and plop all our equipment on it,” he says. “The place is really nice; a beautiful facility with a very nice stage and a good sound system. They have a mic splitter in the cage and from there [the signal] goes out to the house mix and the monitor mix. I’m in there with a pair of headphones and a small Mackie board, and I have a couple of True Precision 8 mic pre’s. I brought down all my own microphones except for [an Audix] D6 supplied for Charlie Watts’ kick drum and an Audix I-5 snare mic. I go directly from the True mic pre’s into the Alesis.

“Of course I put up some room mics [Neumann U87s], which are really important for the surround,” Cadden-James continues. “I’m a graduate of the Jeff Glixman school of surround mixing, so I like a really solid front wall, with an adventurous-as-you-can-be kind of perspective above and behind, without breaking the front wall focus because you’re going to be looking at the TV screen in front of you. But we’ll bust out the keyboards and make them a bit enveloping. I’ll use a Lexicon 960 surround reverb to give, say, a B3 some dimension.”

MusicLab at World Cafe Live is three-camera shoot, and Cadden-James says that in posting the show, “I believe there are times when altering the mix based on the perspective of a particular shot is appropriate and times that aren’t. It’s complicated because you’ll have a stage-roving camera on a big jib moving all over and you literally could have your perspective start up above and to your left and then roll around and go to [a musician’s] right, so what do you do with that? I really tend to maintain the placement focus based on how the musicians are onstage, because a fair amount of the time, the shot will bounce back to a more open shot showing all the musicians, or larger groups, at once. Now, if the camera is focusing in on something, the object of the moment may get better prominence volume-wise, but I tend not to move the placement around much.”

Austin City Limits’ audio director, David Hough, and Sharon Cullen,
audio supervisor, at the Euphonix System

photo: scott newton/austin city limits

Cadden-James does both a 5.1 and a dedicated stereo mix, working from a Pro Tools transfer. “In both my SSL 9000 K room and my surround post mix room, which has an SSL Axiom MT Plus, I have a Dolby DP570 [Multichannel Audio Tool], because I like to always take into consideration what’s going to happen to those reverbs for the 5.1 mix when we crush them down [into stereo]. So I find that to be a very valuable tool.” He says that the ambience of the show is a combination of the room mics capturing the actual World Cafe space and his own taste in reverbs, based on the look of the show and the music being played. “I just want it to be as cool and listenable as possible,” he says. “I want it to sound great in a home theater environment.”

Though Cadden-James has periodically had to deal with odd requests from the video side of the production — “Some camera people actually asked if I would take down a microphone that Ian Anderson needed to use because they didn’t want it in the shot!” — he says that so far, everything has run smoothly with both the live recording and the post. “When you get to record musicians of this stature and caliber, you typically don’t have bad instruments showing up or poor performances. I’d have to be really stupid and make mistakes to make it sound bad,” he says with a chuckle.

Can it really be true that Austin City Limits has been churning out its exceptional live music program for PBS for 32 years? Believe it — from its humble pilot episode in 1974 featuring recent Austin transplant Willie Nelson and its early years mostly showcasing Texas country, folk and roots performers, Austin City Limits has gown to perhaps the most reliably great music program on TV, and regularly features high-caliber national and international acts (as well as plenty of down-home pickers and singers still). All but two episodes have been shot at Studio 6A at the PBS affiliate KLRU (originally KLRN) on the campus of the University of Texas. The wonderful set, with the Austin skyline at night and actual greenery in the studio, makes the program look like it’s shot outdoors — a nice illusion.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is flanked by bassist Gerald Veasley and guitarist Chuck Loeb performing at World Cafe Live.

photo: Brian Flanagan

Austin City Limits audio director David Hough (pronounced “Huff”) has been with the program for its entire history and has instigated a number of changes in the technology used to record the show. “In typical PBS fashion, we’ve had the best equipment that money can buy — as long as it’s 10 years or older,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, that’s not really true. We do have budget constraints — but so does everybody — and we have occasionally relied on equipment that has been donated, but we’ve never had to make any serious compromises. I think the show has always sounded good.

“We started off doing the audio on analog 16-track Studers and we had a 16-channel classic Neve [console] — actually it wasn’t classic then; it was new. I think all the stuff we bought was a year used. We had a contractor for the first few years who provided most of the equipment.

“Then, by the time we did Roy Orbison in 1982 or ’83, we realized we just didn’t have enough channels. At that point, we were putting together submixers and outboard things just to get the drums down to two channels or one.

“But our next big changeover of equipment came in 1987. We went 12 years on the 16-track. Then we got a budget to get a Neve 32-channel console and a 24-track Studer 820, which was a great machine. In fact, we still use it to transfer tapes for the New West Productions [DVD releases of Austin City Limits programs]. We converted to a digital console in 2000 — we chose a Euphonix System 5, which has been just great; I love it. The funny thing is we still ran analog 24-track for two more years, I guess because nobody figured out that with digital you didn’t have to buy tape,” he says with a laugh. Now, not surprisingly, the show is captured on Pro Tools|HD.

Hough says that the transition to digital started “when [engineer] Nathaniel Kunkel was in town to help mix the Lyle Lovett show we did that year. He actually was encouraging us to go digital. And the [Digidesign] salesman was very clever — he dropped one off: ‘Here’s the first one for free, kid; just try it out for a few weeks.’ We used it for editing and mixing down to chase the videotapes. That was one of the hardest things about post-production: trying to chase the video back with the analog gear. Everything is so simplified now that everything is sitting on a hard drive.

From left: Legends of Jazz Dave Valentin, Larry Rosen, Eddie Palmieri and Ramsey Lewis

photo: Bill Richert

“After we got the Euphonix in 2000, we ended up going to the [Merging Technologies] Pyramix [DAW], and we’ve been running that for the last two or three years,” he continues. “It locks to timecode like a bandit. It’s also very efficient in doing the 50-plus tracks embedded into one file. We also now have a Nuendo system based around their Dual Opteron processor. But we’re mixing down to Pro Tools.”

On the day of a shoot, Hough says, “We get the musicians in the studio as early as we can. Typically, load-in would be 9:30 or 10 o’clock. We’ll get it all set up and, depending on the size of the band, do line checks and soundchecks, and hopefully get a little lunch. Then we come back and do a full camera run-through from about 3:30 to 5, before the actual taping that night before the live audience.”

For most shows, Hough is handling the recording and mixing in the control room off the soundstage, but occasionally bands will want to have their own personnel and equipment on hand, or at least approve Hough’s mix. With a typical show, it takes him a couple of days to mix the show and then another day to do post editing.

“Some of the larger bands that are on tour are very particular and will bring house consoles, monitor boards — everything on the stage,” he says. “That’s what Coldplay did. That was an interesting show because it was such a short turnaround. PBS normally requires eight weeks for evaluations, tests and publicity — mostly publicity, I think — and Coldplay we turned around in seven days before it went on the air. They wanted their mixer, Dan Green, to work on the mix, so I realized the thing to do would be to show him how to use the Euphonix board and let him do what he does, so that’s what happened. And he nailed it. When they left that night, Dan gave us the approval we needed.”

Though Austin City Limits is broadcast in stereo only at this point, “I’ve been mixing it in surround for the last couple of years,” Hough notes, “because Pro Tools and the Euphonix are geared up for it. It’s a lot of fun. Last year we put in the Dolby E equipment, and we have a Pro Logic 2, so I’ve been down-mixing the surround through that gear to Lt-Rt and that’s what’s been going out on PBS. For this next season, we’re getting the Sony machine that’s capable of recording the Dolby E stream, which is 20 bits. Up until this last year we’ve only had a videotape machine that could do 16-bit.”

Hough also believes the show will begin broadcasting in surround soon, perhaps as early as next year. “Everything seems to be moving in that direction, what with HD and DVD releases. We don’t want to be too far behind.”

Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.