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The 2019 Grammy Awards Make Some (Carefully Controlled) Noise

Dan Daley • March 2019Production Profile • March 5, 2019

61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Feb 7, 2019. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

From the floor to the rafters, the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles was a beehive of activity the week ahead of the Grammy Awards telecast, which took place on Sunday, Feb. 10. Underneath that high-tech apiary was the steady thrum of media coverage, like the score to the film Jaws, that kept the various issues around #MeToo and other cultural imbroglios bubbling. Just that morning, a story about Arianna Grande’s putative pullout from the show — if she was even ever actually formally scheduled to begin with — was roiling the pages of Variety and Billboard. But that’s not what was front and center among the troops and generals who put on what is, and has been for 61 years, the biggest concert of the year for the music industry.

Dolly Parton and Kacey Musgraves used a Shure AD2/SM58 and AD2/Beta 58A, respectively. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS courtesy Shure.

“It has to be perfect, first note to last,” says Ed Cherney, the noted engineer and producer, and the Recording Academy’s audio consultant, standing outside the Staples’ truck loading dock under a flawless blue sky with no hint of clouds, the kind of perfection that everyone involved works to create metaphorically inside the venue during the show.

Michael Abbott has overseen the audio at the Grammy Awards for decades. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

A few hundred feet away, past the NEP Denali trucks that manage the show’s broadcast, Mike Abbott, the show’s chief of audio, is more specific, focusing on esoteric-sounding rubrics like “failure mitigation” as he sat in his office, the same one used as the dressing room for the referees for the NHL and NBA games that make up the Staples Center’s bread and butter. A fitting location, since in the 30 years he’s been supervising the event’s sound apparatus, he’s had to make critical rulings on any number of technical conflicts and questions that arise around it.

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay performed using Shure AD2/KSM9 wireless. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS courtesy Shure.

That’s not surprising — the show has spanned several generations’ worth of audio standards and practices. This year, the acronym soup of MADI, AES, DT12 and SDI formats that have connected all of the separate domains of the show at different analog and digital technical epochs over three decades — including live sound — have now been thankfully consolidated into a network, running on Calrec’s Hydra II platform and culminate at NEP’s underground Denali truck farm. On that rides 336 microphones — 56 inputs each per side of the bifurcated stage — including performer, audience, effects and dialog mics, and 20 Shure Axient Digital, 20 channels of Sennheiser D6000 and Audio-Technica 5000 series wireless, as well as 32 various line-level sources, managed by an audio crew that includes 16 stage A2s, eight monitor/foldback mixers and techs, five FOH system engineers and two FOH house mixers.

The annual Grammy Awards telecast is the most complex audio production in television. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

On top of that, artists will bring in favorite gear like wireless mics whose various vintages might skirt a decade’s worth of spectrum reallocations — one artist once brought their own entire foldback console and antenna system — and compel Abbott to either accommodate them or steer them to other solutions, a process he describes as a kind of pro-audio liar’s poker. “They want comfort, we need robustness; there’s only so much extra hardware that we can fit in,” he says.

From left, FOH music mixer Ron Reaves consults with Grammy broadcast house mix audio advisor Leslie Ann Jones during rehearsals. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

‡‡         Out in Front

FOH mixer Ron Reaves is in his 17th Grammy Awards production; nonetheless, he finds new perspectives on it each year. “I’ve been doing more broadcast mixing lately and it’s really not the same as I thought it was,” he says, noting that the experience has better informed his FOH mix. “They’re mixing on near fields with an 8-inch woofer up there and I’m on double-18-inch subs down here.” It’s more than a simple academic difference: Reave’s FOH mix is the default audio in the event of a loss of the broadcast mix, something that has actually occurred a couple of times, if only for a few seconds or so, over the years. “So I’ll also keep an ear on the broadcast mix as we go along, for comparison,” he says.

The music mix console used by FOH music mixer Ron Reaves during the 2019 Grammy Awards. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

Reaves is piloting a DiGiCo SD7, the same console he’s used for the last seven years. For the Grammy Awards, he relies exclusively on the onboard processing for dynamics, EQ and even effects, though not necessarily for purely esthetic reasons. “I like a lot of the Waves stuff, but the Waves interface between the DiGiCo consoles and the Waves server leaves a bit to be desired,” he says. “In fact, with this latest software update from DiGiCo, you can no longer run Waves natively on the console. But also because it’s easier to stay onboard instead of looking for this or that plug-in. I don’t have time to do that.” Though when he does go externally, it’s usually with the Waves C6 multiband compressor.

Rehearsals onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS)

There’s enough to keep his attention on the show: 168 input channels are active, as well as eight stereo effects channels. But a lot of the need for fine tuning at the console is obviated by the fact that the assemblage of talent onstage is pretty awesome, and that makes a difference, as does the fact that each artist has to focus only on a single song and the microphones are all top notch. “At this level, it’s like comparing Lamborghinis and Ferraris,” he says as he raises the fader and Alicia Keys pours voluptuously through the JBL VTX P.A., sounding as though it was a 180-gram piece of vinyl on a Thorens turntable, all with minimal processing at this point.

At this show, it’s all about keeping the mix together at the right volume, manageable enough so that broadcast mixers Eric Schilling and John Harris in the Music Mix Mobile (M3) trucks can open up the audience mics wider, something the broadcast’s executive producer will usually start asking for more of within the first hour of the show. “This is a very different audience,” he says. “At a lot of shows, they just want to hear it loud, but this audience can hear the tiny brush strokes in the sound and they want to understand the vocals.”

The FOH team, clockwise from top: Rick Bramlette, Mikael Stewart, Ron Reaves, Leslie Ann Jones, Andrew “Fletch” Fletcher and Jeff Peterson. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

The house level tends to stay around 100 dBA or so, diligently monitored by Leslie Ann Jones, another Grammy Award-winning mixer on the audio crew. The most notable outlier was AC/DC’s 2015 performance of “Highway To Hell,” which came in closer to 115 dBA. Broadcaster CBS tried to rein them in but was told, essentially, “You can fight them or you can just let them be AC/DC for six minutes,” says Reaves. “They’ve only been on television five times in 40 years, so this is a ‘get’.” Needless to say, the band pinned the meters and the audience loved it.

Bill Kappleman, RF A2, backstage at the wireless area. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

Another thing that’s changed over the course of the last few years has been the ubiquity of prerecorded tracks as part of the musical performances. They’ve gone from surreptitious to pervasive and nearly obvious, and while they still elicit a range of opinions their growing presence has resulted in one positive trend: they sound better. “There are more tracks as part of the performances, but they’re better produced now,” says Reaves. “A few years ago, we were getting stereo mixes that sounded like they were mixed in the car on the way to the Staples, but now more often, were getting separate stems that are samples from the records. Coldplay once gave us a 32-track pre-record, but mostly it’s 16 tracks, of which 12 are music and the rest are SMPTE and clicks and counts. Time code on the tracks has become more important because more of the lighting and effects are now tied to that. Even some stomp boxes are now tied to SMPTE. It’s now hard to believe that at one time, tracks were almost verboten.”

ATK flew JBL’s new VTX A12 double-12 line-array boxes, which were used for the main hangs and the delay clusters, as well as 16 S28 subs. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

‡‡         System Design

The sound system is heard mostly only in the house but as Reaves points out, those who are listening to it are a pretty elite bunch. The P.A., which for the last several years had been based on a JBL VerTec 4889 line array, got a major upgrade this year with the switch the JBL’s new VTX A12 double-12 line-array boxes, which are used for the main hangs and the main delay clusters. “On the bottom of all four main clusters we’re using their new A12 wide, which is a wide pattern of the A12, but it’s 120 degrees wide so that we don’t have a hole in the center of the room, because we have to fly our P.A. fairly wide for sight lines,” explains Jeff Peterson, system designer and engineer for ATK Audiotek, the event’s long-time SR provider.

The rear and upper seating area got plenty of coverage, too, thanks to the extensive trussing. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

“The 90-degree cut-off gave us a little bit of a dip in the center, where now with the extra overlap, it’s better coverage,” Peterson notes. “It also covers better on the sides where the main left and right overlaps into the outfills. We still use front fills for volume and imaging because you don’t want to hear a concert coming from 40 feet overhead, you want it to sound like it’s coming from the stage. And then for the sides and the high-up parts of the arena, we have small delay clusters, which are JBL VerTec 4886s, and there are 36 of those up there. In the back of the room, I have four delay clusters with JBL’s VTX A12 — same speaker as the mains, just smaller clusters. And then this year they’ve added a seating section on either side of the stage that’s completely off stage and up stage of the edge, so we covered those sections with a small cluster of four of JBL’s new A8 speakers on each side, covering about 18 feet of audience.”

Power amps are located throughout the Staples Center. This set of racks is located offstage left. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

The amps are all Crown I-Tech HD 3500s on all of the line arrays and the I-Tech HD 12000s for subwoofers, all processed in the amplifiers through JBL Professional’s HiQnet Performance Manager software.

‡‡         The Low, Lowdown

“For subs we have 16 elements of S28 in the air, and then we have another eight elements of a new sub called the B18, a companion sub to the A8, but it’s a high-efficiency, single-18 subwoofer that’s under the lip of the stage,” Peterson continues. “The subs are all in a straight line, firing downstage. Up above I’ve played with doing cardioid, but we lose efficiency and impact in certain areas when you do that. Yes, you can steer the energy away from the stage, but you sacrifice some impact and punch doing it.”

If you were to make a graph of the Grammy Award show’s genre balance over the last decade, the hip-hop-ification of pop would become clearly evident as the amount of LFE in both the house and the broadcast has steadily increased. That’s been carefully balanced in the sound-system design. “We don’t hang enough subs to do a hip hop concert — for that you would probably hang twice or three times as many as what we put up,” Peterson estimates. “But because we’re not aiming for 115 [dB] at front of house, we’re not flying that many elements. [The Powersoft M-Force we originally specified is] a wonderful refrigerator-sized subwoofer, but they’re physically hard to hide. And they’ve started covering the front of the stage with hard wood instead of soft wood, so anything I put back there, the lower in frequency it goes, the more everything rattles. So I’m actually going for more of a punchy sub under the stage, and not so much boom, because otherwise that plywood just rattles like crazy. And if you are sitting in front of it, that’s what you hear.”

Rehearsals for the GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS)

‡‡         Monitorworld

Tom Pesa handled the monitor mixing at stage right. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

Monitors saw a significant change in configuration at this year’s Grammy Awards. Each side of the operationally split stage was still assigned its own monitor-mix station, but instead of locating those positions apart and on either side of the stage, this year they are within a few feet of each other directly behind stage left. Mixers Tom Pesa and Mike Parker each had their own DiGiCo SD7 consoles, but in addition to the Shure PSM1000 IEMs that have been the default for in-ear monitors, a new wedge made an appearance, ATK’s LM3 14-inch coaxial, which Pesa and Parker used as cue monitors. ATK’s LM6 wedges were installed below grates set in the stage floor. The wedges announced the presence of artists “of a certain age,” in this case, Dolly Parton’s band and Diana Ross, neither of which use IEMs (Ms. Parton herself does use them now). It’s an increasingly rare but not uncommon situation when performers began their careers before IEMs existed, says Pesa, some of whom might have had a negative experience with them and have stuck with wedges ever since. “It all depends on the artists’ own experiences,” he says.

Mike Parker mixed monitors at stage left. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS.

‡‡         It’s Complicated…

The use of wedges for several of the performances doesn’t necessarily complicate mixing monitors, through Pesa says it “steps up the pace” of the process when both types are used for the same artist. Parker and Pesa build their starting console snapshot to allow the use of 14 wedge mixes and stereo sidefill speakers, as well as 12 wireless and four hardwired in-ear mixes, in any combination, per act.

In addition, with the growth in the number and nature of prerecorded tracks on the show, this year there were two Pro Tools playback stations instead of the one used in the past, with 14 channels of tracks per station going directly to the DiGiCo SD racks for the SD7 desks. However, this also conferred a new advantage, allowing each monitor mixer to preview those tracks even as their counterpart was mixing tracks for an artist on stage.

One of the guest mixers, Sean Quackenbush, FOH engineer for Brandi Carlile, is shown backstage with her custom gold-colored Neumann KMS 105 vocal mic. Photo courtesy Sennheiser

In fact, though, monitorworld has also become a more like a sonic dressing room, as artists’ look to their own monitor engineers to create their personal soundscapes inside their IEMs, a complicated proposition given how elaborate live performances have become and the number of prerecords they require. That’s one thing during a regular tour stop, or even in a festival environment, but at the Grammy Awards it has the potential to drastically slow the entire process down. In some cases, if an artist’s own monitor mixer uses the same console on the road, Pesa says he’s been asked if they can pop in a USB stick with their presets. The answer is no, and for good reason. “We have a blanket policy of no outside introduction of USBs, no file sessions into the consoles,” he states. “It can open a floodgate — if they don’t manage their folders correctly then all of a sudden we have 250 presets of someone’s festival EQ. It’s happened.” However, he adds, both monitor mixers have longstanding relationships with a number of the guest mixers that accompany Grammy artists, which helps to smooth out these interactions.

Pesa says they’re sensitive to the emotional needs of artists, especially in an environment like the Grammy Awards, where competitiveness and natural ego issues can create the potential for volatile scenarios. “The challenge is to make the artist comfortable in an environment that’s not their tour,” he says. “They’re under a lot of pressure and we understand that and work with it.” Not that monitors don’t have their own pressures, usually in the form of last-minute changes, such as the time that Paul McCartney’s performance on the 2014 telecast was moved from one side of the stage to the other just before the dress rehearsal the day of the show. “We had to rebuild his input list on the fly,” Pesa recalls, noting that the core irony of the Grammy Awards is that it demands predictability in one of the most unpredictable environments in entertainment. “Some shows are written in stone. This isn’t one of them.”

Each act had their equipment on risers for quick set changes. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

‡‡         Network Matters

Peterson has used an Optocore network for the P.A. drive for the past 10 years and is fine with it, calling it “rock solid.” It carries the control network along with the audio, as well as a separate fiber ring for the three SD7 and one SD5 DiGiCo consoles on the show, backed by eight DiGiCo stage racks for inputs and another four that Monitorworld is using for outputs, a total of 12 racks, with 56 inputs each, for the four consoles onto independent fiber rings. (This year, Reaves at FOH has all of his own preamp racks, so he doesn’t have to share preamps with monitors.) A DiGiCo S21 is ready as a redundant back-up at FOH, which Peterson calls “the lifeboat, a parachute. We don’t have the space to have a fully-redundant concert setup, a whole second console out here, but it’ll get us to commercial if we have a major failure.”

Much of the live-sound world is migrating to Dante-based networking, and lately also to AVB and Ravenna in some cases. But Peterson says a critical broadcast show like the Grammy Awards is fine sticking with older technology, and more to the point, with network technology that’s designed around music. Newer platforms, he says, will use commercial switches not designed specifically for audio data. “It’s why I prefer a dedicated transport layer, something that’s not a generic third-party transport layer, to assure quality of service,” he contends. “That’s my fundamental issue with anything that’s an IP-based audio setup that uses third-party transport layers. I’m not saying analog is better, I just think that technology has advanced faster than people’s understanding of the repercussions of [that] technology. They’re not looking at every potential for failure; they’re looking at the potential for ease of use, flexibility, deployment. All of that’s great, but if nobody looks at how it’s going to fail, and how you’re going to get out of that failure, then you’re going to be blindsided when it happens.”

‡‡         Teamwork Gets It Done

In the highly charged political and cultural atmosphere of the moment, the Grammy Awards are one of those establishment icons that have to constantly worry about lighting an inadvertent metaphorical match. But it’s what television viewers don’t see — the more than three dozen audio engineers and technicians and others toiling multiple shifts 24 hours a day for the better part of a week before Sunday’s broadcast — that really makes the whole thing work. For them, politics is just something you see in the news, and failure is never an option.

2019 Grammy Awards 

FRONT END GEAR

  • Consoles: (3) DiGiCo SD7, DiGiCo SD5, (2) DiGiCo S21, (12) DiGiCo SD Racks
  • P.A. Drive: (6) Optocore DD32R-FX, (2) Optocore DD4MR-FX
  • AC Power Distro: (5) ATK 45kva balanced power, (2) Motion Labs 200a 208v 30a

P.A. GEAR

  • Mains: (72) JBL VTX A12, (8) JBL VTX A12 wide, (8) JBL VTX A8,
  • (36) JBL VT4886, (8) JBL VRX928, (2) JBL AC18/26
  • Subwoofers: (16) JBL VTX S28, (8) JBL VTX B18
  • Wedge Monitors: (48) ATK LM3, (18) ATK LM6; (16) ATK M5 wedges
  • Stagefills: (5) ATK C6 sidefills, (4) JBL F18 drum subs
  • Amplifiers: (19) Crown 4×3500 Vrack and (6) Crown 12000 Vracks on P.A.; (48) Powersoft K10 on monitors

MICS

  • Wireless: (12 channels) Sennheiser 6000 Digital; (16 channels) Shure Axient Digital; (10 channels) Audio-Technica 5000; (10 channels) Shure UR
  • Hardwired: 300+ hardwired mics; 300+mic stands
  • In-Ears: (24 channels) Shure PSM1000 transmitters, (106) Shure PSM1000 beltpacks

 

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