Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


PBS’ Soundstage Steps Into the Digital Age


When PBS’ Soundstage first hit the air in 1974, the idea was inspired — an hour-long television program that featured some of the era’s best-known musicians performing their hits and some of their deep album cuts. Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Bonnie Raitt and Harry Chapin were just some of the artists who lent their talents. In fact, Soundstage made Chicago’s WTTW television station a musical hotspot for 11 years.

Joss Stone

Photo: Bill Richert

The first incarnation of Soundstage went off the air in 1985, and it may have remained in the mothballs if it weren’t for Joe Thomas, a music industry veteran who had become enamored with all things hi-def and was looking for ideas. As a Chicago native, Thomas grew up with Soundstage and remembered how much it influenced him as a youngster. Five years ago, he approached WTTW management with an idea to bring Soundstage back and update its look and sound. Today, it is broadcast in hi-def with full 5.1 sound.

With an agreement in hand, Thomas’ first step was building out a studio/performance space at WTTW that balanced intimacy and technology. The director and producer turned to T.C. Furlong of T.C. Furlong and Associates, a live sound company that has been in operation in the Chicago area since 1973, and the duo outfitted the room with a Meyer P.A. system that didn’t overpower the 400 or so audience members.

Thomas then made sure that the audio was captured with enough accuracy and fidelity to ensure a successful 5.1 mix. Frank Pappalardo, who had worked with Thomas at a number of Chicago-land recording studios and has dozens of engineering credits, stepped up to accept that responsibility. Pappalardo works out of HD Roadie, a mobile recording truck that is parked outside of the WTTW studios during the recording of each show.

Pappalardo gets a split from the stage and records up to 94 channels of audio into Pro Tools. He will often add a handful of analog outboard devices to the recording chain, including an LA-2A and Avalon mic pre’s; more often than not, he’ll use various plug-ins to add warmth to the track as it goes into the digital domain. “A lot of what I’m trying to do is make it sound like it used to sound,” he explains. “That’s your chance to make it sound good.”

Director/producer Joe Thomas in the HD Roadie truck

As the band plays, Pappalardo mixes the show through a pair of Yamaha DM2000 consoles. “I’m trying to do the best mix that I can. It’s not a crucial mix, but it is the mix that the director is hearing and what gets printed to a couple of the cameras, so that when the video editor begins to edit, he is not editing to camera audio, he’s editing to the mix that I did,” he explains. “So it’s certainly listenable, but I’m not catching every solo.”

In addition to the usual complement of stage microphones, Pappalardo also has a nice selection to capture the audience and room ambience. A pair of Shure SM89 shotgun microphones off the edge of the stage provides the main live audience track. It’s crucial, he explains, because “a lot of things that I see on television that are live don’t seem live to me,” Pappalardo explains. “The whole audience sound is really important to us. If there are reactions, we make sure and grab them. If there is clapping, we make sure we get it. I hate when I see a concert on television and you see a zillion people clapping their hands and you don’t hear any clapping.” Pappalardo also has a Shure VP88 stereo mic at the front-of-house position and a pair of Shure SM91s over the audience that also enables him to capture room sounds.

At the end of a performance, the crew heads back to the HD Roadie headquarters in St. Charles, Ill., where the audio and video are prepped and finished for broadcast. Pappalardo first backs up the performances to Tascam DA-98s and another set of hard drives, and then gets ready to mix in the box, using Pro Tools with ProControl and a handful of plug-ins. The first mix he finishes is a stereo mix.

Frank Pappalardo records every Soundstage show to Pro Tools.

“I start the process without looking at the video,” he reports. “I start with EQ and compression to get things in the ballpark, and then either I’ll look at the line cut that was done that night or, if the editor is ahead of me — which doesn’t happen too often — I’ll get the edited video and take a look at that. When I get it to about 80 percent, Joe [Thomas, director] comes in and helps me fine-tune and tweak the mixes. A lot of times, the tweaking has to do with audience. If there’s a shot and there’s bunch of screaming, you have to have it in there.”

After that mix is finished and approved by Thomas and the band, Pappalardo sets up for the 5.1 mix. “I find 5.1 easier to do than stereo,” he says. “If you’ve done great stereo, it’s really fun to do a 5.1 [mix] because now you’ve got five different places to put things, and part of mixing music is finding a place for everything so that they don’t step on each other, either frequency-wise or placing them in the stereo spectrum so you can hear them.”

Pappalardo starts with the room mics to give listeners the sense of sitting in the performance space and then starts moving the lead vocal, kick drum and bass guitar into the center channel. “Those are the things I feel should be solidly grounded in the center,” he reports. “One thing I don’t do that I’ve heard other people do is put the lead vocal primarily in the center channel. I think that’s a mistake because I don’t think people always have their 5.1 systems set up right.

“Then I start pulling little things out to make it seem more dimensional,” he continues. “I’ll take my overheads out of the front and pull them back just a little tiny bit so you get the sense of the drum set coming out at you. Of course, the sub is a big deal and the kick drum and the bass guitar go in there.”

He also takes this opportunity to warm up the sound again. “A lot of the plug-ins I use have algorithms to simulate analog,” he says, including ones that mimic favorites such as the 1176 compressor/limiter and a Pultec EQ. He also uses the Sony Oxford EQ, ReVibe and D-Verb plug-ins, along with a Sony 777 outboard digital reverb unit.

Once the 5.1 mix is complete, Pappalardo uses a Dolby E encoder to create a metadata bitstream that is printed, usually, on tracks 3 and 4.

Although technology has made the process easier, it hasn’t made it perfect. In fact, Pappalardo recalls a time when he listened to a Soundstage performance at home on his surround system. “I was horrified. I heard things like transmitter compressors clamping down on things and then letting them go slowly. I heard a lot of weird things,” he says.

To make it right, in Chicago at least, he investigated and found a Distressor on the signal path that was aggressively set. “That will drive you nuts because we work really hard to make it the best-sounding thing you ever heard, and when you start hearing compressors pumping because of the broadcast, it gets pretty depressing. All you can do is do what you can do to make it better.”

Sitting in one of the HD-ready post rooms, Pappalardo finished up the mix on a Soundstage show that features Jewel. After playing a second of it, he pauses. “I’ve been a recording engineer for 26 years or something and I’m looking for an emotional response. If you get something really right and it’s working hand-in-hand with the video, you can get to that point where the hair on your arms is standing up because it’s that good. That’s what I’m striving for. It’s not about whether the kick drum is loud enough or if the vocal is right. I’m trying to get an emotional response. It’s an experience rather than it just being another live show.”