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63rd Annual Grammy Awards

Yu Howe • May 2021Production Profile • May 8, 2021

Multiple stages were set up around a central hub, which avoided the usual 90-second band changes squeezed between commercial breaks. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Production for the 63rd annual Grammy Awards broadcast was a blend of the familiar and the radically different, the latter based on pandemic-related restrictions and a new approach from a new producer. This year, due to Covid protocols, the production moved from the Staples Center to the adjacent L.A. Convention Center, where Halls A and B were home to the performance stages. “The vision of the new producer, Ben Winston, was such that the Staples arena could not provide the social distancing required,” said Michael Abbott, once again the audio producer for the broadcast. “We’d have to construct a stage 50 feet high to build it over the seats at Staples. We just couldn’t fit the set in there.”

Album of the Year nominees HAIM performed “The Steps.” Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

No Easy Task

The Staples Center didn’t have the capacity necessary to accommodate the new set concept, with four performance stages and a huge gramophone entrance stage. Moving into the L.A. Convention Center presented challenges of its own, shared ATK Audiotek FOH tech Jeff Peterson, who managed ATK’s return as the primary audio vendor for the Grammys. “We weren’t able to do any pre-hanging, because the convention center roof has limited weight capacity. The whole show was set up on ground-supported trusses for the lighting rigs and audio. But as there was no audience for us this year, we didn’t need to hang P.A. to cover an audience that didn’t exist, so really what we were tasked with was filling the hall with enough sound so that everybody knew where we were in the show, while keeping it under control so it wouldn’t pollute the recording and the broadcast.” ATK C6 cabinets were deployed with JBL subs for the task. “We also had five separate stages worth of monitors, and two monitor engineers doing monitors for five stages, and all of the equipment that entailed,” Peterson added. While only a few acts required monitor wedges on stage, and there were sidefills for the big dance numbers, most artists opted for their own in-ears or one of the numerous sets of Shure SE215 universal in-ears that were used a single time, then retired. At the peak, one act had 36 performers using wireless monitor mixes.

Awards were handed out at this small outdoor stage. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

The production offices and production hubs and tech stations normally housed in the Staples underground — including RF mic and Pro Tools workstations — were moved to a truck farm of five 40-foot Gelco trailers outside, alongside the two trucks from Music Mix Mobile (M3) used for broadcast music mixing and two Denali trucks for the final broadcast audio and video. Longtime Grammy Awards show veterans ATK provided the bulk of the audio infrastructure — mics, P.A. and monitors — and for the first time, ATK’s Versacom division provided the enormous comms system. “We had basically the same size of crew as in previous years, just socially distanced over a greater space,” said Abbott. “The signal flow was consistent with 2020, itself much the same as previous broadcasts, though a Dante network was introduced last year for the RF microphones.” The Dante network was interfaced with ATK’s ample inventory of Focusrite RedNet gear, with additional RedNet hardware resident on the Denali trucks.

Most of the performers used Shure Axient wireless. Here, Best Pop Vocal Album winner Dua Lipa uses a blinged-out Axient Digital KSM9 handheld. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Multiple Delphi TAC12’s and an 1,800-foot, 75-strand tactical fiber cable linked the inside stages to “Split World” from a fiber demarcation location outside the trucks. RedNet D64Rs provided Dante-to-MADI conversion for truck farm consoles (two Lawo 56 consoles, operated by broadcast music mixers John Harris and Eric Schilling; and a DiGiCo SD21 console for RF mic monitoring, operated by network IT manager Ian Gutierrez) and the outside stage console (DiGiCo SD10 console, operated by FOH production mixer Mikael Stewart). Inside, ATK went straight into their racks with the analog split and used DiGiCo’s optical network to feed three desks (one DiGiCo SD10 console for performance stages FOH, operated by FOH music mixer Jim Ebdon; and two DiGiCo SD5 consoles for monitors, operated by monitor mixers Andres Arango and Michael Parker).

The musical performances were pre-recorded, in most cases blending Pro Tools tracks with live performance. All lead vocals were recorded live. “We had three acts that were produced out of house and 21 performances that we taped over four-and-a-half days,” said Abbott, “resulting in 50 mixes with the multiple passes. We had another 75 mixes on the Friday before the show on Sunday that we had to get approvals for. Some acts required seven passes with their notes. A couple of the acts had multiple takes, which required us to mix all the different takes, so they had the same sound field when the post house did video edits between takes.” The “In Memoriam” segment was taped over three days, with assembly in post to make the tribute seem like one continuous act. “With great attention to detail by everybody,” said Abbott, “it turned out very nicely, and movingly elegant.”

Andres Arango (pictured here) and Michael Parker handled monitor mix duties on two DiGiCo SD5 consoles. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

In terms of the whole production, “file management became a huge, huge element,” Abbott noted, with oversight by Glenn Lorbecki, a prominent member of the Producers & Engineers Wing of The Recording Academy, who has participated in various aspects of Grammy broadcast audio quality control on behalf of the Academy for many years. This year, in fact, Lorbecki was totally dedicated to file management. WeTransfer was used for the most part to share files with listening positions from Lorbecki’s trailer adjacent to those of performance stage Pro Tools operators JP Velasco and Aaron Walk.

While it’s typical for artists’ engineers to sit in with the M3 mixers to provide input on their artist’s Grammy broadcast music mixes, that was not allowed for 2021 due to social distancing restrictions. Instead, four engineer listening stations were set up in the convention center. The engineers, said Abbott, “would sit at a headphone amp with a video monitor and an intercom station with a footswitch that would go directly to either Eric Schilling or John Harris. In addition, we had four listening and viewing stations adjacent to the four performance stages, where the managers and producers would sit with their entourage. Every act was limited to eight people onsite, period.

“The award show itself,” said Abbott, “where all the awards were given out live, was held outside on the north patio of the convention center. That required yet another unit build, stage, sound system and additional personnel.” To give the performance playback impact for the small live audience, “we got creative,” Abbott continued. “We ended up with a small little sound system that Mikael Stewart operated. We hid speakers — JBL VRX with subwoofers — in the set and in the [décor] that they had surrounding the set — and then they hung a couple of VRX cabinets from the grid of the roof.”

Powersoft 12,000-watt K10 amps provided much of the punch for P.A. and monitors.

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

While the Grammy team was prepared to accommodate remote award acceptance — via an extensive six-figure Zoom infrastructure managed by Jason Denagy (non-linear workflow specialist at Procella Media), with remote QC mixer Paul Wittman monitoring and QC’ing audio for the participants on Zoom — in the end, there were only 13 artists hooked up by Zoom from a potential pool of 60 nominees. “We had eight seconds of Zoom nominee video used in the show, and not one bit of audio,” said Abbott. “The majority of the artists showed up on site; the Academy was really surprised that everybody showed up like they did.”

With such a small live audience outside, and none inside during the performance tapings, embellishment was necessary for broadcast viewer engagement. Producer Winston “had us set up microphones outside and inside,” said Abbott. “He set up people horseshoed around the 5.1 microphone arrays, and Tom [Holmes, A-1 production mixer] recorded various samples,” said Abbott. “That gave us two discrete audience reaction mixes, one for the inside sound design and one for the exterior sound design. They took the inside recordings to post and added them into some of the pre-tapes.” Outside, said Abbott, “We had microphones in the exterior stage, but with the challenges of nearby freeway noise — the noise from the freeway was louder coming from the bounce off of Staples back onto the stage than it was where the actual freeway was. It was a real tap dance.” The exterior audience samples were sent to sweetener Bob La Masney, who integrated them into his playout.

Keepin’ it Clean

Soundtronics Wireless managed RF for the production and provided antennas and some receivers, while ATK provided the bulk of the wireless gear. Shure Axient systems dominated the wireless deployed, with Shure UR systems used for ground-mounted mics and a handful of artist calls for Sennheiser systems. A good number of artists provided their own Shure capsules, or third-party Shure compatible capsules. “We’re very cognizant that microphones can be the vector of viral transmission in this world,” said Abbott. “There was a sanitizing station where the engineer’s sole role was to make sure the mics were cleaned consistently and distributed, which is a new kind of position in all these types of shows.

“For us in the broadcast sector, unlike the touring sector, we understand what kind of a gift we’re given to be able to work. Everybody is very thankful to the production companies for providing a safe working environment,” said Abbott. “I’m particularly proud that everybody brought their ‘A’ game. Unequivocally, I would say this was one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t want to do it with another crew.” 

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