We continue our discussion of broadcast audio workflow with multi-award winner Robert Edwards. We look at the many challenges that come when a live audience is added to the broadcast mix.
Other articles in this series:
In part one we talked about considerations for general purpose audio workflows across news, sports and chat shows. In part two we look at the differences in the bold and extravagant world of Light Entertainment. We’re not only adding music, lights and movement, but a real-life audience full of real-life people, who all need to be part of the audio chain before we even get near to the broadcast mix.
People always talk about how live sport drives investment in television.
They talk about it because it’s true. Capturing an unpredictable story as it unfolds in front of you is easy to buy into, and being able to translate the raw energy in a stadium to the listener sat in their slippers at home is a beautiful thing. We can all get on board with that, and we all do.
But light entertainment has similarly big aspirations. It too can be unpredictable, it is also big and loud, and it also feeds off the energy of the live audience. But while there is a lot of crossover in terms of equipment, translating that energy is very different.
Everybody In The Place
The noise from a sports crowd is an unfailing presence. No wonder that during the Covid pandemic broadcasters employed AI-generated crowds to build atmosphere back into live sports.
But while the audience in a football stadium adds a collective mass of excitement, the audience on an entertainment show is not about the heaving masses; it’s far more nuanced. It nudges viewers along and influences their connection to the performance and from an audio mixing perspective you need to have much finer control.
For almost 50 years Robert Edwards FIPS has mixed across live news, sports and entertainment and everything in between. A double BAFTA winner, Edwards is a Fellow of the Institute of Professional Sound and inherently understands the impact on production when an audience is ushered into the studio - even before he starts thinking about the broadcast.
“As soon as you introduce an audience everything is more difficult, but your first priority from an audio perspective is nothing to do with the broadcast mix,” he says. “Studios have a duty of care towards the audience and need to be able to get the audience out in a hurry in the case of an emergency, so a robust public address (PA) system is fundamental.”
For light entertainment shows with a few hundred audience members, the broadcast mix engineer is also likely to be responsible for that PA mix, which not only covers Health & Safety announcements but also enables everyone in the audience to hear what’s happening on the show, including foldback mixes for on-set talent and audience members. While it sounds like a lot to be across, it does have its benefits.
“In small audience shows you might only have a couple of boom mics or maybe three or four other fixed microphones in the audience. In that scenario it's relatively straightforward, so the person that is mixing the show will often be taking care of the broadcast mix and the audience PA side.”
“Having hands on the PA as well as studio foldback provides more control of the output because you can listen for coloration bleeding into the broadcast mix and adjust the level of the PA accordingly. It gives you immediate control over how everything sounds.”
Covering All The Angles
In live entertainment it’s never enough to just capture the big laughs; and if that’s all you want, you could always add them in post-production. It’s always there on the shelf if you need it.
“But to really add value to the production you need to hear a whole range of reactions otherwise there is no point having a live audience there. Anyone can pick up a round of applause; you need to put some thought into the placement of audience mics to capture the small titters from the three people in the front row, or wherever pockets of laughter might break out. For that you need very good mic coverage.
“In a typical 6,000 square foot studio where a third of the studio is audience, we would use at least 10 microphones to split the audience front to back, and we would make the PA speakers at the back slightly louder than the front to make sure the whole audience can hear what is going on. We wouldn’t add any delay to those speakers because the aim is to get the reaction of the laughs when the jokes land, and to keep the intimacy.
“At the other extreme, just last week we rigged 24 audience mics in a London West-End Theater just to capture every audience reaction, from the smallest laugh to the biggest applause. It sounded great, and made the post-production so much easier and quicker, as nothing needed to be added.”
Doing The Splits
Stepping up to a bigger production inevitably introduces more equipment. On bigger shows the sound supervisor may not be able to pay as much attention to the PA or what the audience are hearing, so the production will service the audience by adding in a PA desk.
“On live television the broadcast mix has to be paramount,” says Edwards. “You don’t want to be mixing the PA to the detriment of the broadcast mix, so if it’s a complicated programme the audience will be serviced independently with a separate PA desk and operator, and if you've got any musical contributions, you've also got to think about foldback for the artists. If it’s a straightforward set up such as a few in-ear monitors, the PA desk might also cover foldback, but for big music shows you have to drive the foldback feeds with a dedicated monitor board and operator. Essentially it is teamwork where everyone has their own mixing challenge, while always remembering that the broadcast mix takes sound priority.”
To deal with this an audio network will include stagebox splits. A stagebox split is where an IO box on the studio floor takes in all the studio mics and splits each feed into three or four different directions. One set of signals would go to the broadcast desk for the on-air mix while the same set of signals would go to the PA desk for an independent audience mix. Similarly, shows with bigger musical elements might also have feeds going from the broadcast desk back into the splits, containing replay feeds or timecode.
The Eurovision Song Contest, which Edwards has mixed in Portugal, is a good example of this.
“Musical shows like Eurovision or X Factor will have music tracks that are cued by the television production, so the queuing of those will be kept within the sound control room. The music playback feeds would come from the broadcast console and be added to the microphone splits which are coming in the other direction, and shared between the same desks. The final broadcast mix also adds-in the other elements including presenters, vocals and audience.”
There are several technologies which broadcasters use for playback such as SpotOn and QLabs, but ProTools, which dominates the recording and post-production world, may also have to be integrated.
“At Eurovision in 2018, ProTools was used for the playback of all the music stems. While all the vocals are live from over 70 radio mics, I had 24 orchestra stems going to air, all of which were shared via the splits to the PA desk and for foldback.”
“It’s vital because those playback streams also have time code associated with them for screens and lighting queues, and any redundant playback systems will run in parallel with the same timecode. Spot On running on a PC does a similar job and is used widely across smaller light entertainment shows in the UK and America, whereas QLab is a Mac based system that has additional features to be able to run audio along with lighting and video content.”
“Typically, playback systems generate timecode for screen and lighting cues, as well as use a 5.1 multichannel mode. This is really efficient as we can run multichannel audio files to produce a synchronous stream giving us six full frequency channels of audio to use from a single cue. “
Close The Gates!
Giving up control of the PA also means giving up control of how it impacts on the broadcast mix, so sound supervisors will also keep something up their sleeves to deal with any additional spill.
Noise gates are the traditional way to deal with unwanted noise and are a standard feature on broadcast desks to remove unwanted noise, such as electrical hum or coloration, to whatever threshold it is set to. But sound engineers have other solid tools to help deal with this.
“The idea is to preserve the broadcast from any influence that foldback and the PA might have on it. Active noise reduction is essential, and there are industry standard third party boxes from companies like Cedar who do this very effectively. They not only get rid of background noise and fan noise, but they can also tidy up the spill from the foldback which is picked up on the mics, which also makes the microphones sound cleaner.
“Another useful tool is automix, which consoles often have built in but are all versions of the Dan Dugan automixer. An automixer is essentially an intelligent gain control tool which can automatically manage a multi-mic environment and free up more thinking time. It’s also great at minimizing spill and maximizing intelligibility.”
Most broadcast consoles will also have Audio-Follows-Video (AFV) functionality, which is famously well-used in fast-paced sports broadcasting. This feature allows faders to be opened and closed automatically using GPIO triggers and is often used in sports when the audio has to track specific camera shots, like in motor racing.
But this feature is also very useful to add more layers to the entertainment presentation.
“On many big shows there are often crowd reactions or discussions that go up on handheld cameras and it's always nice to have a tickle of whatever that live camera is,” says Edwards. “The audio follows video element doesn't ever need to be dominant in the mix, but if you can reflect that crowd audio as a layer on top of the main mix it can add a subtlety which makes a big difference.”
We’re In This Together
Despite the challenges and problems, successful entertainment shows are always built on the backs of their audience members.
Shows like Dancing with the Stars, Strictly and Britain’s Got Talent can launch and re-energize careers, while musical extravaganzas like the Eurovision Song Contest connects dozens of countries, scores of performers, hundreds of crew members, thousands of audience members and millions of viewers who all need to be kept in the loop in real time.
“In light entertainment you're dealing with people on both sides of the camera and there’s a requirement for everybody to feel like they are in a professional and well-controlled environment. On a show like Britain's Got Talent, we create a fixed control room, a fixed sound area and we build fixed facilities. We build a studio center for the period that it's on and everybody in the studio has a function. We can interact very easily with other departments, run physical connectivity, or run a network cable into them.
“Entertainment needs a lot of cross pollination between departments. For instance, make-up and wardrobe departments are key to dressing radio microphones into the costumes and in turn, that can have a big impact on how good the eventual mixed sound is. There's a whole infrastructure that goes on in the making of those shows where you need those bodies to be physically located near each other.”
For entertainment, that physicality applies to production as well as the audience and the bond between them is closer than you think.
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