Viewpoint: Calrec Like “A Breath of Fresh Air” For BSkyB

In the world of broadcast audio, Vaughan Rogers has heard (and seen) it all. He joined British Sky Broadcasting Limited as a sound supervisor about six weeks before it went on the air in 1989. A year later he was promoted to Head of Sound. He offers some thoughts the increasing complexity of mixing audio.

Initially, I was part operational and part manager and my job was to develop the technical facilities, which in the early days were very basic! Luckily the expectations from our customers where nothing like as high as they are today, and my task was to develop the sound department and provide some operational guidelines to give some consistency to how we approached things.

The other big part of my job was purchasing equipment; this not only included big-ticket items like new audio consoles and outboard gear, but lots of basics too. Every good soundman has his “tool kit” of adapters, cables, etc., and we started with nothing! In between I was still mixing programs and preparing the weekly sound department schedules. We had no PCs or Internet in those days, it was just me, my typewriter and a bottle of correction fluid. Even then we all shared a great team spirit, and everybody in the sound department wanted to make this new station work and we did whatever it took to keep us on air.

I had no managerial experience and to be fair I don't think I was a particularly good manager, I was just doing whatever it took to make it work. Now with 25 years of managerial experience under my belt I approach things in a very different way. It's much more about developing the people and the team and empowering them to take responsibility, and it's also about forward planning to avoid fire fighting. That said, you would need a crystal ball to foresee all the pitfalls in our business…everyday provides new challenges, but that's what makes the job so exciting!

When [Sky] went on air we had studios that had been fitted with Sony audio mixers, and although they provided us with a good mixing facility, they didn't give us the flexibility we needed for some programs. This was definitely true in the Sky News studio, and a decision was taken within weeks of going on air to replace the audio desk with a Neve 51 series console. 

Veteran broadcast audio engineer Vaughan Rogers.

Veteran broadcast audio engineer Vaughan Rogers.

Our relationship with Calrec consoles began a couple of years later, when we were looking to re-equip some of the existing studios and equip new studio facilities. In the past we had installed consoles from a number of manufactures such as Amek, Sony and Neve, which are all good general-purpose audio consoles, but none of them had anything that was a dedicated “broadcast” console. For me, Calrec was a breath of fresh air; a company who build specialist broadcast mixers with staff who speak the same language, and understand the needs of broadcast sound mixers.

Over the past 20 years or so, Sky has used Calrec consoles in all of its major broadcast studios. I believe Sky's close working relationship with Calrec over the years has been a benefit to both parties—we have helped Calrec develop its products by providing feedback on features we would like them to provide for us in the future, and they in turn have worked with us to develop products and make suggestions which we hadn't considered. It has been a win-win situation.

With every new installation we are looking to provide everything we didn't do the last time, and try to future-proof the installation with things we think we will need in the future. That said, there are a few basic things we always require from any manufacturer: the equipment must be reliable, total redundancy is a must; we need expert support for the product 24/7; and it must be intuitive for our sound mixers to use.

In more recent years Sky has championed an Eco-friendly approach to all its studio installations, and set some tough power consumption targets, which manufacturers also need to meet.

Broadcasting has changed a lot in the 30 plus years I have been working as a sound mixer, and the ways which our customer’s view their content has also changed. No longer do we just push programs out to people's TV sets for them to watch when we schedule them, and fewer families are sitting down together to watch TV together. Like most kids, my children prefer to download content to their tablets or PC's to watch when it suits them.

I think modern technology that allows broadcasters to deliver content on so many different platforms is fantastic, and Sky was very much a leader in that area. The one thing that saddens me slightly is that most kids growing up in today's world of music downloads believe that's how music should sound, compressed to death as an MP3 file. Let them listen to a CD and hear the true dynamics of the music as recorded.

My years as Head of Sound at Sky were an exciting time. As a manager I was able to help shape the sound department and influence how we delivered audio to our customers, but with a department of nearly 60 full time sound engineers I didn't really get much time to practice my art—in fact, I don't think I mixed many programs in the last 10 years.

When I left Sky in 2014 it was an opportunity to get back to my roots and do what I always loved doing, working on live TV programs. It hasn't been easy! I realized the last serious program I mixed was on a Calrec S series analogue mixer and I was now confronted with the new Calrec Apollo digital console, it was like going from flying a light aircraft to a jumbo jet. The theory is the same, but on a much bigger scale.

The flexibility of digital consoles has made the job easier in many ways, but the requirements from production have also increased immensely. The complexity of even some of the simplest sports outside broadcasts are now routinely made in 5.1, with ISO records of cameras, providing international feeds for other broadcasters, complex communications and dealing with the lip-sync issues. These provide sound mixers with different challenges and that's before we even start thinking about mixing the program!

I have mixed a few programs over the last couple of months, but I'm still on a steep learning curve with the Apollo consoles. There are a lot of guys who do it week in week out who are much better than me so I'm happy to leave it to them at the moment, 20 years as a manager sitting in front of a desk filling in forms means I have a lot of catching up to do!

Sky has always pushed the boundaries and is always looking for new ways to give its customers a great viewing and listening experience. We pioneered the way we delivered the audio effects on football matches, using more microphones to capture the “thud” of the ball kicks, more crowd effects to increase the excitement for the viewer, and then came 5.1. Sky was the first UK broadcaster to transmit multichannel audio to its customers; which opened up a whole new world for them, allowing us to place the viewer in the crowd.

So where do we go in the future? There have been some major improvements in the way people view their pictures over the past 10 years with HD, 3D and now 4K, but none of these have really affected how we deliver audio to the customer. There have been some noises about whether we could do more in the way of multi-channel sound, perhaps 7.1, but I really don't believe this is the way forward. In reality, only a relatively small amount of people currently take advantage of 5.1 multichannel sound.

There is some work going on with multichannel audio to give customers the ability to take more control of how they listen to the audio at home, allowing them to adjust the relative balance of the sound, and put things into different places in the sound stage, so if you want your commentary only in the left front speaker you can move it, for example, or even listen to commentary in another language. Using the Internet to allow you to interact with others during sports events, for example, is also a possibility. Watch this space!

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