Por que o Grammy soa incrível e às vezes dá errado

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Michael Abbott supervisionou o áudio no Grammy por décadas. É uma posição extremamente alta pressão, então eu esperava que o Abbott tivesse a personalidade para combinar. Mas quando eu o conheci nos corredores de uma feira no mês passado, percebi imediatamente que ele carregava um comportamento legal e laissez-faire. É desarmante, o que torna fácil esquecer como a elite é seu currículo - pelo menos até nossa conversa começar. Depois de gentilezas foram trocadas, a primeira coisa que Abbott disse me pegou desprevenida. "Eu tenho uma reputação que me precede", ele riu. “Eu fiz tantas coisas incríveis e me envolvi em alguns desastres também”.

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A Abbott não apenas mixou e produziu áudio para programas como The Voice e Shark Tank, mas também fez debates presidenciais e programas de premiação, como o ESPYs, o Country Music Awards e o Oscar. Estas são algumas das transmissões de maior prestígio na televisão, e pode ser fácil esquecer quanto trabalho vai para o que você ouve em casa. Enquanto milhões estão presos ao drama visual e aos doces que aparecem na tela, é trabalho da Abbott administrar uma equipe que manipula centenas de canais de áudio, microfones e às vezes milhares de entradas em vários estágios, tudo para garantir que você ouça cada voz e instrumentar com clareza e precisão.

Como membro da Academia de Gravação (e um Governador da Câmara do Capítulo de Chicago), eu queria saber o que significa fazer com que o Grammy soasse bem antes do show de domingo. Aqui está o que acontece nos bastidores para tornar o áudio da maior noite da música o mais suave possível.

Esta entrevista foi editada e condensada para maior clareza.

Com que antecedência os artistas planejam suas apresentações no Grammy?

Muitas das performances não são definidas até quase aparecerem no palco. Todos os artistas estão tentando fazer sua própria declaração e seu próprio impacto sobre ela. Alguns atos nem querem dizer o que estão fazendo antes do tempo. Depois que os artistas ensaiam, não permitimos alterações porque temos que bloquear o que estamos fazendo. Certificar-se de que todos, desde a iluminação até os diretores-assistentes e que o som esteja na mesma página, é um grande negócio.

Há dezenas de milhões de pessoas assistindo ao Grammy, e artistas podem vender 300 mil unidades após o show. É um modelo de mercado totalmente diferente agora. É tudo streaming, então você não tem o mesmo elemento de exposição. Mas é um momento de definição de carreira quando você é nomeado para um Grammy e está na TV. É atemporal para sua carreira.

“Sam Smith entrou e disse: ´Oh, nós queremos 40 cordas´”. Você é o coordenador de áudio do Grammy. O que isso significa?

A mixagem é de 5% do que eu faço. Eu faço interface com todos os artistas, representantes e engenheiros para o show. Eu sou meio que um fulcro. Tem as bandas e os produtores me dizendo o que eles querem fazer, e depois tentando resolver o que podemos fazer.

Os artistas têm idéias grandiosas, e todas essas ideias vão se agitar, mas temos que pensar na capacidade da sala, do palco, do tempo do segmento e do tempo necessário para configurá-lo. Todos esses fatores devem ser levados em consideração antes de aparecer no site. Então, quando você chegar ao local, ainda há muitas minúcias e detalhes para ser trabalhado. Como se não pudéssemos ter cabos subindo e descendo um palco se houvesse peças entrando e saindo durante a performance.

Qual é o exemplo de uma performance em que um artista teve uma grande visão que teve que ser mitigada?

Sam Smith entrou e disse: “Oh, nós queremos 40 cordas.” Havia todos esses músicos de cordas e cantores em um arco ao redor do palco, todos tocando um para o outro. Eu tenho um tempo limitado para configurar isso. Nós usamos microfones que captam o som do violino? Ou nós colocamos microfones de fita que captam vários jogadores ao mesmo tempo? Eles queriam microfones lá em cima, então parecia ao vivo, mesmo que alguns deles fossem pré-gravados.

Minha primeira inclinação é que tem que ser à prova de falhas. Neste caso, as pessoas não serão capazes de dizer se é ao vivo ou não. Você precisa pré-gravar essas strings, o que é algo que normalmente nunca faríamos, mas neste caso, a divisão no conteúdo excedeu o que podemos fazer, então tentamos pré-gravá-las. Bem, eles também os querem ao vivo. Acabamos usando o microfone de fita, que tem um padrão polar de 8.

Outro ator queria 12 vocais de fundo, e para todos eles ter microfones, e eles queriam que eles fossem ao vivo. Eu disse: “Você sabe, eles estão se movendo por todo o palco e o desempenho vai ficar marginalizado. Eu acho que você precisa pré-gravá-las. ”E nós fizemos. Então eles apareceram e disseram que os queriam ao vivo, e eu disse que não podemos fazer isso.

Eu sou o cara que tem que tomar essas decisões com base no que eu sei. O representante de um artista pode ter uma ideia do que eles querem, mas sei que na execução não podemos fazer isso. Eu não consigo obter 12 microfones vocais em cima de todos os outros microfones trabalhando ao mesmo tempo porque é muito complicado.

Veja este post no Instagram Grammys 2018. Ore x

Uma postagem compartilhada por Sam Smith (@samsmith) em 28 de janeiro de 2018 às 8:33 pm PST

Eu tenho que atenuar as expectativas até certo ponto, mas também tenho que abraçá-las. No final do dia, quando eles saem do Grammy, eu quero que eles pensem que eles tiraram o melhor do que eles queriam encontrar no show. Se eles saem felizes, eu fiz o meu trabalho. Produtores me mandarão presentes. Eu tenho alguns fones muito legais.

Bom fones de ouvido ... muitos deles?

Você conhece essas latas de Rubbermaid?

Oh vamos lá. Cheio de fones de ouvido?

Sim. Eu provavelmente tenho quatro desses. É estupido quantos fones de ouvido eu recebo. É ótimo! Eu amo isso! Eu uso o Audio-Technicas. Eu gosto desses os melhores, e em aviões, eu prefiro Bose.

O que você diria que é a circunstância mais desafiadora para você? É quando você precisa se concentrar em uma voz por vez?

Minha observação é quando você tem um piano em um palco e essa é sua única instrumentação e, no caso de, digamos, uma Adele em que tivemos um problema com o microfone de piano, você não tem para onde ir.

Agora, nesse caso, tínhamos a voz e também as cordas, e as cordas eram o problema. Mas musicalmente, você preferiria ouvir as cordas reais do que uma gravação. Há uma diferença nos sons de piano de um Bösendorfer, que é como um terremoto com seu baixo registro, para um Steinway, que é tradicionalmente um piano de som sombrio, para uma Yamaha que é mais brilhante e estridente, para um Fazioli. Todas essas coisas têm tons e timbres muito diferentes, e a performance ao vivo faz a diferença.

Os microfones de piano caíram nas cordas do piano, era o som da guitarra. Isso fez soar desafinado. Merda acontece. X

- Adele (@Adele) 16 de fevereiro de 2016Assim você não tem nenhuma redundância para performances no Grammy?

Nós temos redundância. Em cada um dos nossos sistemas - temos dois - há reprodução redundante. Ele dispara sem problemas porque tiramos o timecode da máquina principal e o alimentamos em uma entrada bloqueada no switch. Portanto, se a primeira máquina parar, ela alternará automaticamente para a segunda máquina.

Esse é o procedimento operacional padrão para todas as nossas reproduções de música e todas as nossas reproduções de videoclipe. Há uma grande quantidade de atenuação de falhas que está em vigor, porque todas as falhas que experimentamos antes, não só neste show, mas em outros shows. Nós temos metodologias, mas quando você combina humanos e tecnologia, é inevitável que algo irá falhar.

Given that there is going to be failure, why would you not ask everyone to provide a pre-recorded version of their set?

It would admit that there’s going to be failure, first off. There is a value in failure mitigation. For example, we have one spare microphone, and if the mic dies, the stage manager is the only one who has that microphone, and he knows when to go out and hand it to somebody.

“Isn’t this what being live is all about? It’s the train wreck.”I was doing a show many years ago where I had Chubby Checker onstage, and he started clapping with the microphone in his hand. All of a sudden the battery went flying out the back, and two people with mics came out from stage left and two people with mics from stage right, and I was like, “Noooo!” That was a learning experience.

I think you lose the moment. Isn’t this what being live is all about? It’s the train wreck. I mean it’s the basis of reality television. The reason people watch reality television is because they want to see a meltdown. At some point, people watching a music show want to see a failure.

We had a failure with Metallica and Lady Gaga in 2017, and I got raked over the coals for that. But you know what they do now? CBS shows that clip as a promo for this year’s show. It shows Gaga and James Hetfield singing together on one mic! Now, had his mic not died, that moment wouldn’t have happened. That’s the live moment you can’t get on a sterile, pre-recorded track.

So you know, to a degree, how things are going to run, and you have to allow for improvisational moments.

You put processes in place and hope for the best. There’s something about live television that can’t be replicated in a Netflix-streamed show or even a comedy show that they’ve recorded and edited.

Grammys audio by the numbers

4 — performance areas

4 — outdoor trucks for handling audio

9 — audio workstations total

60 — 53-foot trailers bringing equipment in and out

70 — people handling audio during the live telecast

192 — audio tracks handled in the outdoor trucks

350 — microphones used

1,800 — microphone inputs used during the week

3,300 — microphone cross patches done over the week

*Some figures estimated

It sounds like there are a lot of moving parts. How many stages are there?

There are the main left and right stages. And then there’s a center dish stage that’s very small, about 12 feet in diameter, and a passerelle downstage. So there are four performance areas in total. And all of those have unknown cables going to them during setup because we never know who’s going to sing on what stage at what time. We have to be prepared when we’re building the show to make sure we have enough connectivity with all of those positions, which we do.

What’s the transition process like between performances on different stages?

First, you have to get everything off the stage that finished. That takes three to five minutes. And then you have to put things back up on the stage, which is another three to five minutes. It’s another one to two minutes to check everything once it’s set up.

So each transition takes about 10 to 15 minutes. But then we also do transitions between stages. It’s a very fast-paced show in the sense that a lot of set changes are going on. It’s heavily matrixed, and you have to be very cognizant of what else is going on at the same time so you don’t do things like inadvertently pull patches.

How many people are on your team?

I’ve got 46 people that work with me split up over nine workstations. Everything from comms to RF coordination to signal connectivity to the mix positions. On top of that, there are probably another 22 stagehands.

What are consoles?

You’ve probably seen a photo of a console before, maybe in a recording studio. It’s an expansive board with rows of sliding faders, knobs, and buttons that have a wide variety of purposes. Larger, professional boards — like the kind Abbott uses — give you direct physical control over almost any aspect of the audio, which is necessary when you’re working with a lot of individual tracks at a quick pace, like at the Grammys.

Abbott started on analog consoles, but he has moved to digital. Analog consoles tend to have limited mixing features. When used in a large-scale setting, an analog console might have to be supplemented with a bunch of outboard gear that provides effects and advanced routing options. Digital consoles have signal processing chips instead of analog circuits, which gives you increased freedom with configuration, along with robust tools for processing, automation, and more.

A console snapshot is a saved configuration of how a digital console was previously set up. It’s a template that allows you to store and recall the state of a console down to volume levels, EQs, and effect settings. Abbott saves snapshots after every show he does so he can recall all his setup work instantly, instead of having to start from scratch every time.

Where is everyone located?

There are two trucks outside that are 53-foot expandos. Those are the audio and video production facilities. They’re called Summit A and Summit B. Then there are two trucks where all the music mix is being done. The rest is inside — front of house, on the sides, and so on.

Why are all of these trucks outside?

There’s no room. There are typically anywhere from 55 to 60 53-foot trailers bringing equipment in and out, plus all the bands’ equipment for a show that’s about four hours long. There are 18 performances — some bands bring in all their gear, and some we get from an outside company — so we have to keep a path to get things in and out.

So how does audio get from inside the theater to the trucks?

Everything goes upstage right to an analog split system. That then gets cross patched into the front of house sound system and stage monitors. That’s a DiGiCo console platform. They utilize the OPTOCORE fiber network for all that signal connectivity. It’s analog in and then digital out to the PA speakers. And on each stage is a fall back mixer that has about 120 channels. Then the same splitter system sends the music up to two mix trucks that have 168 channels each. It’s the same basic signal just split and shipped into Multichannel Audio Digital Interface (MADI) protocol. Then everything is shipped by fiber to the Summit production truck, which handles all the microphones, the audience mics, the RF mics, everything.

How many channels, inputs, and outputs are you managing in total?

We have 24 MADI, 64 channel paths, 128 AES, 192 analog. That’s 192 channels in, 192 channels out. And then there are five stage boxes that have over 400 channels in and 80 channels out. That’s just one truck. I haven’t gone to the music mix. I haven’t gone to the front of house. Just one example: there are roughly 1,800 inputs that the mics are distributed to. It’s massive. That’s why you have people who have done it 15 years in a row.

Dani Deahl speaking with the Grammys’ audio coordinator Michael Abbott at NAMM. Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Is it a very small pool of people who do audio for these high-profile events?

It’s a very specialized niche, and yes, the people who are consistently doing the shows, it’s a small group. The current crop of people I work with for the Grammys have a combined 500 years of live broadcast experience.

Is that because of the level of expertise that’s needed, or is it because you can’t have any fuck-ups and you need people you trust?

“It takes a certain personality to work under stress and not fold up like a cheap beach chair.”Well first off, there is always going to be failure. You can’t create a 100 percent no-failure situation. It’s impossible. Like I said, any time there’s a human and technology involved, there’s going to be a potential for failure no matter what.

Everybody knows their place. They all know the rundown, the timeline, the schedule, and what’s expected. They show up on time. Of course, their skill sets are essentials needed for a show of this magnitude. But it takes a certain personality to work under stress and not fold up like a cheap beach chair.

One of the things I do is tell people, I want you to put your hand on the console for 30 seconds. When you raise it off, if it’s wet, you shouldn’t be doing this. You’re not in the right state of mind to do this because you’re stressed. When you’re mixing a live show, you’re in a zen state of mind, and you know what you need to do. It’s all very structured and disciplined.

What does it mean?

MADI protocol — MADI (Multichannel Audio Digital Interface) allows you to send up to 64 channels of audio through a fiber optic or coaxial cable over long distances. It supports audio formats up to 24-bit/192kHz without lossy compression. This gives you a simple and robust data stream that can be handled with a single cable.

Dante — Dante is a combination of software, hardware, and network protocols that delivers uncompressed, multichannel, digital audio distribution over a standard Ethernet network with almost no latency. It allows for audio, control, and other data to not just exist on the same network, but be instantly configured and routed to different devices.

Redundancy — Redundancy is a backup of key instruments and pieces of equipment on hand that ensure a live performance can continue in case something goes awry. Much of this is now automated, so if something fails, the backup can very easily take over.

Patching — Audio patch bays are essentially switchboards for quickly and easily directing signal flow. A patch is a unique point in the patch bay where an engineer can decide how to route inputs and outputs. Cross patches can connect disparate audio interfaces, consoles from different systems, and radio frequency transmissions.

Ribbon microphone — A ribbon mic is a type of dynamic microphone that has a thin strip of metal suspended in a magnetic field. They are bidirectional (giving them a figure 8 polar pattern), which means they can pick up sound well from the front and the back, but not so well from the sides. Abbott used these with Sam Smith between his background performers to catch multiple voices and instruments using fewer microphones.

How has the technology changed for doing audio for live shows?

When I was in the ‘80s working for a network, a lot of this technology didn’t exist. We were using analog consoles. We started using digital consoles around 1994, but they were still connected by analog paths. In 2011, we started using digital consoles, which were connected by a fiber ring array.

The expectations are that you can do things quicker because of the automation and digital capabilities. With a lot of the shows I did, we used to get an “ESU” day, which is “everybody sets up” or “everyone shows up” for eight hours. Then we’d do a run-through and go home. And now we come in at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and start rehearsals immediately because they know that we can program the consoles.

Depending on the type of show, I sometimes take the initiative to come in with a basic template. Like with the ESPY awards, I’ll come in and recall the snapshot from last year and start building from there. I’m doing the music, I’m doing the production mix, I’m doing the recording. It’s a fairly complex show, and the amount of time it would take me to build it again would be... all day. But then sometimes there are problems where you come back a year later and question the decisions you made. You have to backwards-interrogate to see what you’re doing and make sure you’re not leaving a mine for yourself later on.

I use spreadsheets extensively and databases. I’ve got databases for plans going back 30 years. I have hard copies, but they’re also on my computer with all the specs, all the mics used. It’s empirical data that helps me anticipate needs.

What are your favorite speakers?

I’ve been doing this since the ‘70s, and I have specific companies that are part of my audio DNA. I call it audio DNA because these are the tools that I’ve used for years and years. I’m a big fan of JBL. I have JBL in my home. I listen to JBL as much as I can because I know what it sounds like, and the great thing about JBL is they developed speaker systems that all utilize the same type of high-frequency horn. They have such a smooth response. The physics of horns are very complicated. The sweetness and the air that comes from the JBL horns, it’s the best.

The Grammys are generally held in the same space every year. Do you still have to tune the speakers every time?

The sound system is about the same every year, due to weight restrictions, set elements, and everything else. But this year, we’re using a new type of JBL speaker, the A12. Last year, we used the VTX 25. So the processors require different settings, and we’re better off starting from scratch.

But the procedurals are the same. We set up a variety of mics to measure reverberation in the room. You array mics in about 10 different locations in the venue and do measurements, so the front row has the same acoustical energy as 10 rows back, as 20 rows back, and so on. The goal is to have a smooth response so every seat’s covered.

There’s a lot of challenge in the room because there’s a hard surface at the back. We try to steer the energy away from that, into just the seats. In the VIP boxes around the perimeter, there’s glass, and you get some artifacts from bounce and reflection at high frequencies. Any big room is a challenge. The low frequencies bounce around and high frequencies reflect pretty heavily. There are a lot of trade-offs with how we lay things out. We try to place speakers where we get the least amount of artifacts.

So yeah, in a perfect world, if the front of house console snapshot from two years ago is called back up, it should be 90 percent of the way there. Down to the EQ from the podium mics, handheld mics, and so on. To that degree.

How long does it take to set up the system?

We go in on Monday to start loading in. We continue on Tuesday into Wednesday. Then we go into rehearsals for three days, and the show is Sunday.

What is tuning an audio system?

The goal of tuning a sound system is to have the same quality of sound no matter where you are within a venue — essentially, trying to match the acoustic characteristics of a space with the speakers you are using. Ideally, you want to get as close as possible to having the same levels, frequency response, and clarity for every seat.

Certain things that can be changed to affect sound include location and direction of speakers, levels, driver polarity, phase and delay, and filter / EQ.

Audio engineers often use software like SMAART to help them analyze the frequency responses throughout a venue and make changes accordingly. Often, pink noise is blasted through speakers, which is then picked up by reference mics set up at different spots within a venue and measured using the software to make adjustments. Pink noise is used instead of white noise because it’s closer to how the human ear and brain perceive sound, which is in terms of octaves, not absolute frequency.

Can you give me some raw numbers for the Grammys? How many mics, how many speakers, how many instruments?

Microphones vary from show to show. I think on this one, it’s in the neighborhood of about 350. For the microphones, there are 3,300 cross patches done over a five-day period of inputs. We use roughly 48 RF microphones, and then 24 transmitters with 75 receiver belt packs.

There are several PA system clusters, 16 deep of JBL A12s. There are four main front clusters, then there are three delay clusters — to make up for the sound traveling to the back of the house — and then there are some ring satellite speakers up high around the top seating area.

Then there are probably another 12 deep times two of dual 18-inch subwoofers. Probably 20 front fill speakers across the front. They’re all JBL speakers.

Are you using the theater’s existing sound system?

We don’t use the theater’s existing system because it’s not arrayed where our seats are. The speaker system they have in there is for when they have basketball and hockey, and we seat people on the floor. The way their speakers are physically hung doesn’t fit our seating plan. We have to bring in everything new. Their speakers are generally not in the way, and they’re flown high enough that we’re not impacted by them being in the way.

What technologies are coming down the road for live broadcast audio?

The next challenge is going to be Dante. The producers won’t pay for the price point needed to do the transition and / or have the manpower.

Michael Abbott backstage at The Grammys. Photo: The Recording Academy

What is Dante?

Well, we started off sending audio with copper wires that we termed as analog. It’s warm and fuzzy. You can feel it. It’s hot. Now, we have fiber, which is nine pieces of glass with light shooting through it that can handle a myriad of signals at once. To now IP addressing, which is what Dante is.

We’re in the networking stage of connectivity through signals. And that is a whole level of management of skill sets that you have to have in place on top of the existing firmament that we use. My producers don’t want to pay for those people. I have a hard time getting them to understand that we have to use digital RF microphones as opposed to analog because of the Federal Communications Commission reallocating the RF spectrum by selling off the bandwidth that we use.

What does the FCC have to do with the type of equipment you use onstage?

The FCC regulates the use of RF. Anything that’s broadcast over the airwaves, they regulate. They’ve auctioned off bandwidth to the telephone and communications companies, which diminishes the frequencies that we can use for our microphones. I think it was two years ago, it first hit the brick wall where we realized we can’t run as much RF simultaneously as we’d like to because the frequencies aren’t available.

It just continues. They put deadlines on when certain bandwidths are going to be cut off. I believe 600 MHz is dead to us. It’s been allocated to public utilities, for wireless broadband services. 4G and 5G networks require bandwidth to get these devices to work. So the FCC is allocating these frequency bands to be auctioned off for billions of dollars.

Do you think that all of this effort is actually worth it? You would, by the sound of it, save so many headaches if you were going to pre-record all this stuff.

Music is tribal. From the Stone Age to African drums to Roman amphitheaters that were built so you didn’t need amplification to Gothic cathedrals where the Gregorian chants were long and sustained because of the amount of reverberation in the room to this day and age where people still connect with all of those same things. If we pre-recorded it, and you played it back as an album, there’d be no soul. It wouldn’t appeal to people.

Se você apenas toca uma música e o artista canta, não há espontaneidade. Não há emoção. É milquetoast. Uma performance ao vivo é tão imprevisível da noite para a noite para a noite. Você sempre terá diferenças sutis, e nunca será o mesmo.

Não há nada como a emoção visceral de misturar música ao vivo. Quando eu costumava trabalhar em turnês ao vivo com quase 200.000 pessoas, foi uma das coisas mais revigorantes ouvir todas essas pessoas aplaudirem e aplaudirem no final da música. Milhares de pessoas dançando e pulando ao mesmo tempo é uma experiência tribal. Você só pode fazer isso com música ao vivo.

Divulgação: Dani Deahl é um membro votante da Recording Academy e tem um cargo não remunerado como Governador na Chicago Chapter Board da Recording Academy.

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