AES Delves Inside Mixing Late Night TV

The Audio Engineering Society held its annual Convention at the Javits Center in New York City on October 29 to November 1, with lectures, panels, and a show floor of the latest products from the Pro Audio industry. My role at AES each year is to make sure the hottest events are covered for the show daily magazine. This year, the session that stood out was the Grammy Soundtable: After Hours—Mixing for Late Night TV. You can read my coverage here or at its original location here.

The faces of late night television have changed dramatically over the last few years, ushering in a new generation of hosts. In 2014, Jimmy Fallon moved up from his NBC late night gig to take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. David Letterman, who hosted Late Show with David Letterman since 1993, retired earlier this year, handing the show over to Stephen Colbert, the comedian, actor and former star of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.

Late night television’s hosts weren’t the only changes though—with these new shows also came complete overhauls of the show studios, which are designed first for visuals, then audio, giving the shows’ sound engineers a special challenge of mixing clear audio in the smaller studios.

In this year’s Grammy SoundTables panel, moderated by Will Lee of the CBS orchestra and Late Night with David Letterman, a panel of sound engineers discussed their positions in late night television and how they adapt to each show’s unique challenges. Panelists included: Harvey Goldberg, Late Night with David Letterman and Late Night with Stephen Colbert; Josiah Gluck, Saturday Night Live; and Lawrence Manchester, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

“In general, making music for TV is not always the best acoustic environment,” said Goldberg. Since Colbert took over, Goldberg said he could tell what acoustic changes were made to the theater when it was redone. The same occurred at Fallon’s studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York.

“Jimmy (Fallon) wanted the new studio to sound fantastic, for both him and the audience,” said Manchester. While each show has its own unique format, one of the most common challenges each producer faces is mixing audio in a short time span. For Manchester, Fallon’s writers will come up with a musical segment a few days (and sometimes a few hours) before filming, leaving him with the challenge to create a plan as fast as possible. This is usually for Fallon’s musical impressions, or collaborations with guests throughout the show. “The experience relies on ample time—you don’t have a lot of time in late night but that forces you to come in with your best plan,” he said.

Over at SNL, Gluck said they usually start figuring out recording plans on Thursday— two days before the live performance. For the 40th anniversary special, Gluck said they used a lot of wireless for the musical performances to add flexibility to the show.

Surrounding Stockhausen’s Oktophonie

By Kelleigh Welch

*Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of Pro Sound News.

New York’s Park Avenue Armory, known for its 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, hosted a week of performances in March of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Oktophonie, which immersed the audience into a space-age experience of light and sound.

During his lifetime, from 1928 to 2007, Stockhausen composed more than 370 individual pieces, and his music is seen as a significant contribution to the age of modern and electronic music. Sticking to his electronic innovation, Oktophonie was composed and recorded prior to any performances, and was intended to be played back for the audience in a surround sound environment writ large. As a result, there were no performing musicians present at the Armory; instead, the “performance” was the mixing of playback within the surround environment itself.

Walking into the hall, attendees were each given a white robe and directed to sit on one of the many cushions on the floor surrounding a DiGiCo SD8 console, where sound designer Igor Kavulek and sound projectionist Kathinka Pasveer controled the performance. A total of 32 Meyer Sound MSL-4 loudspeakers and 24 600-HP subs surrounded the audience in a virtual cube, projecting sounds in various patterns throughout the performance.

According to Pasveer, the composition is meant to depict a war between Michael and Lucifer, with loud and frightening bomb sounds within the music. During WWII, Stockhausen was stationed at a field hospital in Bedburg, Germany, where he experienced the terrors of war first hand— witnessing bombings and gunfire at only 16-years-old—and he recreated this fear through the composition.

“It’s about war,” Pasveer said. “It’s about the invasion of two groups, the Michaels and Lucifers, and this music is the background of that scene. That’s why there are the sounds of bombs, exploding objects and airplanes. It’s war.” It is a composition inside a composition—originally written as one part of Stockhausen’s Dienstag (Tuesday), which is part of a larger, seven-part opera titled Licht (Light). Oktophonie, named after the octophonic audio arrangement with eight channels playing back through speakers that surround the listener, can be played as part of the Dienstag opera, or as a separate piece, as it was performed at the Armory.

When composing Oktophonie, Stockhausen intended to place the audience into the center of a virtual cube, surrounding the listeners in speakers with four channels projecting from the base and the other four playing 45 feet above the audience. As the piece is played through the speakers, the sound moves in various patterns from front to back, side to side, and in spirals.

“It’s a square with another square on top,” Pasveer said. “This (composition) is produced by Stockhausen with eight layers of music. It’s all specialized in the studio and then he mixed it back to eight channels, and those eight channels are played back into the hall.”

Kavulek said the size of the room allowed him to project the sound at a higher volume, but it also placed on him the challenge of choosing the best speakers for the job. Originally, Kavulek said he wanted to use a different set of speakers, but when he couldn’t acquire enough for the performance, he decided to follow Stockhausen and chose the Meyer MSL-4s and HP-600s. “Stockhausen always worked with Meyer Sound,” Kavulek explained.

In his note to the audience, Park Avenue Armory Artistic Director Alex Poots said Stockhausen would project a small image of the moon during other performances of Oktophonie, and Stockhausen wanted the setting of this piece to take place on the moon. Through the lighting choreography created by the show’s Lighting Designer Brian Scott, the illusion of the moon moving around the Earth was created.

The performance itself was meditative— it fully engulfed you into the lunar atmosphere as you slipped in and out of your own thoughts, letting your imagination define the intentions of the composition.

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Streaming Builds Up Steam, Heats Debate

The article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Pro Sound News.

The article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Pro Sound News.

Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Pro Sound News.

By Kelleigh Welch

Taylor Swift took a big stand against the rising music streaming services recently, when she pulled her entire discography from Spotify just days after the release of her fifth studio album, 1989. Her reasoning was that art should be paid for, and that streaming services are scamming the artists from earning a fair wage for their creativity. However, despite Swift’s popularity, it was estimated in some reports that pulling from Spotify would lose her a cool $6 million, along with a loss of her place in one of the few growing segments of the music industry.

The debatable business models of these online services can arguably be blamed on the record PRO_12_14_Final 33labels and services equally, and Swift’s stand highlights how the services are affecting the industry— both monetarily and technologically. When it comes to online music streaming services, the verdict is still out, but there’s no doubt that their rise in popularity is changing the way consumers listen to music, with some even saying that streaming could pull the music industry out of its downward spiral. Nielsen’s Soundscan reported that during the first six months of 2014, revenue from streaming sites rose by 52 percent, while CD sales fell by 20 percent and digital downloads were down 13 percent. Numerous big media entities are joining the race— YouTube and Amazon each recently announced their own streaming services, while Apple spent $3 billion to buy Beats Electronics and its streaming service which is heavily tipped to be rolled into iTunes early next year, and YouTube’s parent company, Google, recently took control of Songza, another radio-based platform similar to Pandora.

Pandora Media, with more than 77 million users, is a radio-based model, where users can create a station based off of a song, genre, or artist. Spotify is on-demand, where users can create playlists and listen to entire albums. The Pandora paradigm works well for users looking for new music, but its smaller library will guarantee repeats throughout the day. Spotify gives users more control over what they’re listening to, so they’re not skipping over the songs, but with a much larger library, many of the songs Spotify offers won’t get played. Unlike traditional radio, streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify can keep a much more detailed history of every time a song is played— information that dictates the royalties it pays.

David Kelln, a British Columbia-based audio engineer, commented, “I like the idea that what I actually listen to is where the royalty money goes, because each play can be logged.”

Pandora pays about 50 percent of its revenue in royalties, while Spotify is closer to 70 percent, according to Quartz News. How much of that actually goes to the artist depends on the contract between each musician and the label. “The way I would love to see it done is that content is available to any internet streaming broadcaster at a set royalty rate. Then the competition is between those who provide a good service with an interface I can navigate easily,” said Kelln.

The other big question related to streaming services is audio quality, and whether users are willing to pay more for a high-resolution streaming service (if the site provides it). Pandora’s upgraded service, Pandora One, offers a higher resolution of audio with a monthly subscription (compared to its free version), but there are exclusive high-res audio sites, like Tidal (www.tidalhifi.com), which streams hi-res audio files for a subscription fee of roughly $20 a month. “The technology of audio streaming is no big deal at all,” argued Tony Faulkner, owner of London, UK-based Green Room Productions. “Netflix can stream 4K video with surround audio, so audio is a walk in the park. The problem is that the main commercial companies could care less about sound quality—it’s nowhere on their agenda at all. They are only interested in the bottom line of their business model.”

“To me, streaming is just radio reinvented, where music is not presented in a linear way. It just differs on the way you interact with it and the way you get it on your listening device,” said Paulo Mendes, a sound engineer and audio systems consultant in Lisbon, Portugal.

Regardless of the listening device or the quality of the audio, one thing is certain—music streaming is growing, and the industry has to adapt. “Artists are now faced with a dilemma. They can either stop making music, which is obviously absurd, or they need to reinvent the way their work is paid and controlled,” said Mendes. “I don’t have an answer, but if this reinvention fails to see the light, I guess that a recorded song, despite its record media, will become just a lure to live show ticket sales.”

All That Jazz

By Kelleigh Welch

The original article in Pro Sound News.

The original article in Pro Sound News.

Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of Pro Sound News.

At 4 p.m., the hall is empty. Everything is ready for the big night—the orchestra’s stands  are perfectly arranged under the stage, the microphones are cleaned to add a little sparkle, her elaborate costumes are neatly arranged backstage—all just waiting for the show to start. The crew is expected at 5:30; the plan is to hold a brief rehearsal, let the musicians settle in, and practice a few numbers with Tony before the doors open.

It’s the final night of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s four-night residency at Radio City Music Hall. Tom Young, the long-time production manager for Bennett, invited me to the historic hall before the show to see the set up and talk about working with the two platinum performers on their unexpected collaboration. With only the occasional patter of  footsteps of a venue employee, Young and I saw the silent side of the legendary room—the Art Deco walls echoing back tales of past performers that had passed through—as we dug into just how he helped bring the performance to life each night.

“Radio City—it’s probably my favorite music hall,” Young said, who, as a native of the New York City area, holds extra affection for the 6,000-seat venue. “I was actually a design  consultant when they did the renovations because I had mixed here so much.”

With an age difference of 60 years, the pairing of famous crooner Tony Bennett and pop superstar Lady Gaga might seem an unlikely match, but with her classical training, Gaga really stepped out and showed her versatility in Cheek to Cheek, the jazz album she and Bennett recorded together and released back in September, 2014. As a longtime fan of Gaga, I’ve known her talents from trolling the Internet for underground, acoustic performances, but with Cheek to Cheek, she’s able to really showcase her abilities front and center—breaking herself away from that meat-dress image she created back in 2010. Now on tour, it comes as no surprise that for the New York City stop, Bennett (a native of Astoria, the northern neighborhood in Queens), and Gaga (of New York City’s Upper West Side), would choose Radio City. Acknowledging the setlist of songs that relied on the acoustics of a room, Young said Radio City’s performance hall is capable of supporting that need.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at the 2015 Grammy Awards

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at the 2015 Grammy Awards

“The room is so responsive—you can hear everything, even the grooves on the cymbals; that’s my favorite,” Young explained. “My goal is to capture a good performance. I have a lot of experience and I know that every room has its own personality.”

“Tony does this one number a cappella with no mics at all, and the room really helps make that impact even stronger. Tony owns the art of intimacy—it’s like he’s performing just for you,” Young added.

The stage set up for the Cheek to Cheek tour is fairly minimal. For reinforcement, the tour relies on each venue’s house system, so for the Radio City performances, they used a QSC-powered JBL VerTec line array system (which Young was instrumental in adding to the venue during the redesign). Young controlled the PA with a Yamaha PM5D console, while monitor engineer Jimmy Corbin manned the monitors on a DiGiCo SD7.

“The show is really all about the music. We fly sidefills but don’t use wedges for the main stage. Tony’s coming from a singing background and is very comfortable matching to the house PA,” said Young.

Working with Bennett and Gaga’s show also requires careful mixing with the three live bands. Young explained that the tour has three separate show sets, labeled A, B, and C, which are chosen based on the venue. The A show (used at Radio City, Hollywood Bowl in LA, and the Royal Albert Hall in London) includes a quartet on stage right for Tony, a quintet on stage right for Gaga, and a 38-piece orchestra that rises up on the elevator platform at the front of the stage. Show B, which is the most common of the shows, has an extra 13 musicians added to the mix. Show C eliminates the orchestra all together.

“I’ve been doing this orchestra thing for a long time; I know the music and its sensitivity,” said Young. “The challenge is knowing which mics should be on at various times.”

Young has partnered with Bennett for a number of years, and because of this close relationship, Young said, Bennett trusts him with the sound at each show. “He has a lot confidence in what I do,” Young said.

While Corbin has worked with Lady Gaga before, Young noted it is his first time working with the 29-year-old artist. Gaga, known for her eccentric outfits and catchy pop music, took a big turn in her career by partnering with Tony Bennett for Cheek to Cheek, which allowed her to show another side of her talents.

“This is a new genre for her and she’s done really well with it. She’s a legit singer, and you can see it through her performances,” Young said. Of course, even with a change in genre, it wouldn’t be a Lady Gaga show without seven costume changes.

For wireless microphones, both Tony and Gaga use Sennheiser SKM 5200 transmitters with Neumann KK 105 S capsules. Occasionally, Young said, he also uses DPA and Shure microphones when needed.

At the end of the day, Young said his main goal was to make sure everything sounded perfect for the audience.

“Your biggest comparison is trying to make the live show sound as good as the record,” he said, “but what’s gratifying about the live performance is that you have an immediate response from the people and performers.”