View of the stage of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in the Altice Arena, Lisbon from the live sound mixing position (photo: Ralph Larmann)
Depending on your point of view, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is either a cheesy pageant of songs that have no relevance to today’s music scene or a fun, well-intentioned attempt to celebrate national identities while at the same time trying to bring together the countries of Europe and beyond through the power of song. Either way, it is the world’s biggest televised music event, this year pulling in approximately 186 million viewers through a TV production that involved an extensive wireless microphone, commentary and sound distribution set-up and the first trial of immersive audio technology for a live broadcast.
The first ESC was held in Switzerland on 24 May 1958. Conceived by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) as a way to unite countries still recovering from the Second World War through a common medium, it was originally known as the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix. That first competition featured only seven countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It was won by the host nation with the song Refrain, sung by Lys Assia, who died in March at the age of 94.
This year the Contest was hosted for the first time by Portugal, which has been competing since 1964 and finally won in 2017 through Salvador Sobral performing Amar pelos dois. Partly conceived as a TV broadcast event - but with a strong radio presence as well - to show off the EBU's Eurovision distribution network, which was established in 1954. Coverage of the ESC has grown in recent years to include the semi-finals as well as the Final itself. All shows were staged at the cavernous, 20,000 capacity Altice Arena, which was built just outside the centre of Lisbon for Expo 98.
TV and radio coverage was hosted by Portugal’s national public broadcaster RTP (Rádio e Televisão de Portugal), which brought in Auditiv Audiovisuais Lda to design, provide and oversee the sound system for the broadcast. The PA and front-of-house mixing systems used in the auditorium, plus the press conference area, were supplied by Italian company Agorá. Auditiv is an equipment hire, systems integration and recording/post-production company with credits including the Portuguese version of The X Factor, Got Talent Portugal 2017 and the Final of the Festival da Cancao 2017, the competition that selected Salvador Sobral to compete in the ESC that year.
The production team of the 2018 ESC on stage at the Altice Arena. Click to enlarge. Image: Ralph Larmann
Auditiv managing partner and head of sound for the project, Daniel Bekerman, came to this production after previous experience on large-scale live events for broadcast, including several Olympic Games - notably London in 2012, Sochi 2014 and Brazil 2016. The ESC, however, is something very much unto itself, so Bekerman brought in Oskar Johannson, who headed the audio department for the 2016 Contest in Sweden. Robert Edwards, who first worked with Bekerman on the London Games, was appointed senior event engineer.
Bekerman says Johannson's involvement gave everyone involved a head start in getting familiar with some of the specific technical features that have been used for the ESC in recent years. "He gave me the help to understand a few particularities about Eurovision," Bekerman says, "because there are some specific redundancies used that we don't usually use in the shows we do. The system inside the Arena was two completely different loops that played together at the same time. We could swap between them without it being noticeable. I could swap between one desk and another on the PA or the monitoring position and the singers didn't notice."
This, Bekerman adds, is the advantage of having a digital installation. The Arena system was based on 32 circuits of Audinate's Dante Ethernet-based audio over IP (AoIP) protocol, while the broadcast installation used MADI (Multichannel Audio Digital Interface). Each loop in the auditorium supported a DiGiCo SD7 digital mixing console for front of house (FOH) mixing, the monitor mix and the mic test room, as well as three SD racks and additional Optocore interfaces.
Planning for the production started in November 2017; the set-up at the Altice began this April. A TV compound was built at the Altice Arena to accommodate two outside broadcast trucks supplied by Belgian location facilities contractor Videohouse. The company's big HD vehicles OB ONE and OB TWO are identical in construction and equipment, allowing them to be used in a master unit/back-up set-up. This was the arrangement in Lisbon, with the audio feeds from the Arena - both music and presentation - mixed on the 24-8-24 Lawo mc² 66 desk in the sound control room of OB ONE, which was the master truck, with OB TWO acting as the mirror. "The two trucks received all the microphone signals at the same time, with the systems working on split feeds," Bekerman explained.
Riedel MediorNet display screen next to production monitors in Videohouse OB truck. Click to enlarge. Image: Ralph Larmann
Videohouse's Guy Haegeman was the broadcast audio system engineer, supported by his colleagues Ricardo Figueira (broadcast intercom engineer) and Thijs Peters (sound guarantee in OB ONE). RTP supplied one of its own engineers to supervise sound guarantee in OB TWO. Videohouse also provided a technical operations centre (TOC) based on a Lawo Nova 73 compact console, with its own Riedel intercom frame. Both OBs ONE and TWO have Riedel Communications Artist systems and these were connected on a ring to the frames in the Arena, including the TOC.
From the start of the ESC in 1956, all contestants had to perform with an orchestra provided by the host country, although each entrant would often be accompanied by their own conductor. Since 1973 pre-recorded backing tracks not featuring vocals have been allowed, although an orchestra had to be in place for anyone who wanted to perform with one. In 1999 the requirement for orchestras was dropped but remains an option.
Backing tracks have become more the norm, partly because it helps reduce the cost of hosting such an expensive live event and broadcast, although the stipulation is that all vocals must be live. The playback system for this year's Contest was increased in size compared to recent ESC shows. "We had three Avid Pro Tools workstations running at the same time," says Bekerman. "The main goal was that we could lose one or even two machines and still have sound. This is possible because the system jumped between the DAWs; if I lost the first one, the second would immediately take the signal."
The backing track was important for carrying timecode, which was used for synchronising the lighting, pyrotechnics and other computers on the production as well as the sound. "I think timecode is the heart of all these systems working at the same time," Bekerman comments. "We have computers running on the live sound desks with effects, opening and closing channels, slaved by timecode because we were changing snapshots between the musical numbers."
The winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Israeli entry Netta, using a Sennheiser SKM 6000 hand-held mic. Click to enlarge. Image: Ralph Larmann
The hall PA and broadcast audio systems were specified and implemented by Auditiv. Live sound contractor Agorá brought in an L-Acoustics K2 line array loudspeaker rig as the main FOH PA system. Also part of the system were the DiGiCo SD7 consoles,supplemented by the same manufacturer's SD10, SD11 and SD12 desks, plus some Mackie boards. Other key suppliers were Sennheiser, which provided the wireless microphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs), and intercom/commentary unit developer Riedel.
Sennheiser has a long history of supplying microphones for the ESC and continued this association with the Contest in Lisbon, working alongside local distributor Magnelusa. The heart of the performance mic system was the company's Digital 6000 wireless range. Singers used either SKM 6000 hand-held mics; 68 were provided, each with D 9235 dynamic capsules; or any of the 115 SK 6000 body packs connected to custom headsets. In-ear monitoring was based on 17 of Sennheiser's SR 2050 two-channel transmitters, in conjunction with A 5000-CP circularly polarised antennas, and 122 EK 2000 body packs. Volker Schmitt, director of customer development and application engineering for Sennheiser, says the EK 2000 IEMs were used to provide a good stereo image for "the talent".
Despite the relatively high number of wireless devices available, Schmitt explains that a rotation scheme had to be used during the show. "There were two rotations for the hand-helds, three for the body packs and six for the IEMs," he says. "Bodypacks and IEMs had more rotations because of the time needed for dressing and undressing. The remaining microphone systems were back-ups in case of any issues."
Sennheiser carried out a spectrum survey of the Altice Arena and its environs prior to the start of rehearsals. Schmitt says that because the Digital 6000 is designed to be free of intermodulation, all mic frequencies could be placed in an equidistant grid, meaning the spectrum was not "polluted" with intermodulated products. "In general the RF system design was planned so that we stay away from standard frequency banks of available products, in case an ENG crew entered the venue with an unauthorised wireless system," he comments. "We even had spectrum available in case we needed to change frequencies."
Presenters Daniela Ruah, Silvia Alberton, Catarina Furtado and Filomena Cautela wearing Sennheiser SL DW head mics. Image: Ralph Larmann
Wireless connectivity was provided by 41 EM 6000 two-channel receivers, 74 SK 6000 body pack transmitter and six SKM 9000 COM hand-held transmitters, with 21 L 6000 rack-mounted charging units for charging the SK 6000s and SKM 6000s/9000s. Presentation miking for the four presenters - Filomena Cautela, Sílvia Alberto, Daniela Ruah and Catarina Furtado - was in the form of custom-made SL DW head mics, which featured cardioid capsules and an integrated IEM.
While the majority of microphones were wireless, there were some specific situations where wired models were used. The in excess of 28 audience/atmosphere mics were a mixture of Sennheiser MKH416 shotguns and MKH8040 compact cardioids. Customised e 835-S dynamic cardioid speech/vocal mics were used as part of the talkback system at the mixing consoles in areas including the soundcheck room. These were set up in 'slide-to-talk' mode to make sure that no mics were left open unintentionally.
The Digital 6000 series has an option that enables microphones to be used as part of small, specialised talkback installations. On this production the Command feature was employed to create communication connections between the stage director and staff working on stage, including the liaison manager. The KA 9000 COM Command switch was deployed on special SKM 9000 COM hand-held and SK 6000 body pack transmitters to establish communications.
The stage talkback was linked into the main Riedel MediorNet distribution hub, which handled video and audio signals for commentary, intercom and radio comms. Also included were feeds for the monitors used in the TV and radio commentary booths, as well as displays and projectors round the Altice Arena. The MediorNet installation comprised six MetroN frames, 30 MicroN frames and 24 modular frames connected over Riedel's own PURE XT fibre optic cable, which was designed for large-scale productions such as the ESC.
The production intercom was based on four Artist 64 matrix mainframes, feeding 67 RCP-1128 panels, ten RCP-1112 panels and 24 DCP-1116 panels. Wireless communications were provided through Riedel's Bolero DECT-based system, with six antennas and 32 belt packs. While the Bolero components were connected using AES67 AoIP interfaces, audio transport for all other intercom and commentary equipment was over MADI connections.
Commentary also went through the Artist mainframes, with each of the 40 commentator booths fitted with CCP-1116 panels, plus monitoring equipment and specially designed mic headsets. This year's ESC marked a technological first on the commentary side with 30 countries taking feeds from their respective commentators over SIP (Session Imitative Protocol) circuits, with the installation consisting of a server, codecs and enabling software. Duo and trio ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) codecs were also offered; as Riedel's project manager for the production, Benedikt Leister, observed, some countries taking part have yet to switch over to the SIP standard.
Riedel founder and CEO Thomas Riedel (left) with Jon Ola Sand, EBU executive supervisor of the ESC, in a commentary area. Click to enlarge. Image: Ralph Larmann
Commentary lines were identified using Cymatic Audio units, with tracks played in multitrack form on two Cymatic uTrack players. These signals were carried over MADI to the Artist matrix and from there on to the correct codec. "In total we had 35 different lines in 27 different countries that were using these Line IDs," says Leister.
Riedel additionally provided radio communications based on the RiFace G2 GM 360 universal interface, connecting to a Damm TetraFlex base station which in turn fed 300 Hytera PD605 and 260 Motorola Tetra hand-held two-way radios. The company also looked after IT services, which involved 170 access points with core switches and laptops for the press centre, and accreditation, involving 20 turnstiles with viewing stations and five accreditation positions.
Through all of this effort, viewers as far afield as Australia, which is an associate member of Eurovision and competes in the Song Contest as a guest, saw all the expected bizarre performs and sometimes even more bizarre songs. Unexpected highlights included a stage invasion during UK entry SuRie's performance, while the general favourite, Netta, won for Israel with the child-likeToy. Unbeknownst to viewers at home, the 2018 ESC was the guinea pig for the first ever trial of immersive audio in a live production scenario, so in the future viewers may be able to get involved in Eurovision even more than they do already.
A companion article, "Immersive soundtrack for Eurovision 2018," explains the use of MPEG-H immersive and interactive audio techniques to create a spatial mix for at home viewers. This article will be available as of 19 June, 2018.
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