LOS ANGELES, CA—When The Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing celebrated its 10th anniversary and honored T Bone Burnett at its Grammy Week Gala last month, the producer and songwriter’s words of acceptance seemed to serve as a guiding light for what was to come during the live Grammy performances at the Staples Center later that week.
Burnett encouraged his peers to always strive to provide a quality listening experience for those who truly care about what they hear. Perhaps taking his call for excellence to heart, members of the 53rd Grammy Awards audio team turned in a stellar performance on February 13 in front of 27 million viewers watching CBS. The live broadcast, which included 5.1 surround sound, scored big thanks to an eclectic mix of performances by the hottest hit-makers of the moment (Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Antebellum, et al.) as well as a glittering array of legendary recording artists including Barbra Streisand, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan.
The appearances of the latter group notwithstanding, this year’s Grammys felt a lot like those of times past based upon the number of performance segments that were done live and with a purposely acoustic approach. “Lady Antebellum came in with a truly organic sound, as did Barbra Streisand,” Grammys audio coordinator Michael Abbott reports. “They played completely live, nothing was digital, nothing MIDI-ed. It wasn’t like anything you’ve come to expect from a major awards show.”
Abbott was joined by a team of solid professionals, including Ron Reaves and Mikael Stewart (live front-of-house mix), Michael Parker and Tom Pesa (live house monitor mix), Dave Bellamy of Soundtronics (RF frequency coordination), Leslie Ann Jones (live sound supervisor), and Phil Ramone and Hank Neuberger (broadcast audio supervisors). The services of M3 (Music Mix Mobile) were secured for the broadcast music mix, with M3’s Joel Singer and Mark Linett respectively standing in as engineers in charge of the company’s Eclipse mix truck and Horizon remix truck. Tom Holmes gave direction to the overall broadcast mix, while John Harris and Eric Schilling were the music mixers for broadcast.
Once again supplied by award show regulars ATK Audiotek, the house sound system installed for the benefit of the 16,000+ people in actual attendance was assembled using 70 JBL VerTec VT4889 enclosures spread across four main arrays.
With 20 acts crossing a pair of stages over the course of the three-hour show, each step along the path to rolling the final credits had to be carefully choreographed for speed and efficiency. In the days leading up to the event, every piece of gear, musical instrument and production element was prepared and stored on rolling carts backstage. On the day of the broadcast, the gear was brought out as needed. While one stage was being used for a performance, the other was being prepared for the next.
“We tried to use as many hardwired microphones as we could,” Abbott says, offering an overview of the show’s input capacity, which featured 384 cabled mics and DIs, 32 RF systems and 20 audience reaction mics supplied by manufacturers including Audio-Technica, AKG, Audix, Earthworks and Sennheiser. “This was definitely one of the more challenging award shows I’ve done. It was a very shoot-from-the-hip affair. Unless you were actually there and lived with it as it evolved over the four days, it’s hard to describe.” RF systems employed for lead vocals included Shure UR2 setups for artists like Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams and Martina McBride. Sennheiser SKM 2000 and SKM 5200 systems with a variety of Sennheiser and Neumann capsules were used by acts like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Lady Antebellum and Skylar Grey. Several AKG DMS700 wireless systems were employed, and Usher and Justin Bieber both employed AKG CM311 mics. In keeping with Grammy patterns from recent years, an abundance of Audio- Technica mics were in use on the wireless front that included systems for Mumford & Sons, B. o. B., Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe.
As an example of the nature of the show’s dynamic, consider that Barbra Streisand’s performance of “Evergreen” (from 1976’s A Star is Born) started out with three-piece musical accompaniment, jumped to 13, and ultimately went on to include a 30-piece ensemble.
Singing into an Audio-Technica handheld AE5400 cardioid condenser mic, Streisand was joined onstage by Randy Waldman, her piano player of 25 years. Mounted across the bridge just above the hammers, the twin, omnidirectional microphones of an Earthworks PM40 PianoMic System captured the sounds of Waldman’s Yamaha C7 grand piano.
“Working in an acoustical environment allowed us to use a piano with microphones to obtain the rich sonic qualities we couldn’t have had otherwise,” Abbott notes. “When I discovered the Earthworks PianoMic System, I finally found a way to easily capture the true sound of a piano, even with the lid shut. Pianos are a complex piece of equipment to mic, but the PM40 makes it quick and easy.”
In Abbott’s estimation, sound design credits for the show go to “all of us,” this group ranging from Sound Design Corporations’ Paul Sandweiss, who prepares the clip packages, to everyone else mentioned so far and many more. “Sound design is all-inclusive at the Grammys,” he adds, closing the book on this year’s event. “Everyone’s style complements that of the others, and that’s a sound that becomes distinctive in itself.”
The Recording Academy