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Look back in hangar – the audio for Top Gear

Supervision of the audio for the BBC’s Top Gear is a balance between the needs of broadcast and live sound reinforcement. Dave Robinson is an editor with a reasonably-sized story.

“Some say he has MIDI sockets in the back of his head, and that he’s fully CobraNet compatible. All we know is… he’s called Dave Pollock.”

Ah, if only it was Jeremy Clarkson introducing the sound supervisor at Top Gear. No matter: 13 series of the leading BBC2 show down the line, Dave Pollock is certainly one skilled operator. “I’m trying to get it right for the audience, for the 400 or so people in the studio and the viewers at home. For three people talking there’s quite a lot on the mixing desk, but that’s because I’m doing audience, PA, VTs and communications. I have to maintain the balance so that it’s loud enough for people to hear the PA in the studio, but not so loud that it howls or leaks into the broadcast. It’s about 5dB between the two extremes.”

Those presenters can talk all right. The banter between James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson is relentless during rehearsals, as is the swearing and controversial remarks between takes. (Yes, PSNE can testify to hearing Clarkson insult Gordon Brown off-air – a remark that made it into the news channels.)

“The one advantage we do have,” continues Pollock, “is that people can see that it looks like an aircraft hangar, so it’s OK if it sounds like one – as long as it doesn’t sound too much like one. I could make it sound really good in the hangar, but then the people at home would think it sounded really rubbish.”

Hangar 38 at Dunsfold Park in deepest Surrey is where the weekly filming of Top Gear takes place. The building is rigged at 7am in the morning (in between shows it is used as a working hangar, believe it or not), then the presenters and guest for the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ slot turn up a couple of hours later. When PSNE was there, Brian Johnson from AC/DC was the star: that sequence will be filmed and edited (in a second truck) while May, Hammond and Clarkson rehearse the studio set pieces. When they are not taking the rise out of each other, that is.

The studio audience starts arriving at 1.30pm, then filming starts shortly after a brief warm-up at about 2.30pm. It takes the best part of 3.5 hours to capture an hour-long show: much of the news and banter won’t make the final edit. And 3.5 hours is a long time to be standing around in a hangar, PSNE can tell you.

Pollock’s been at the show for the last 13 series. “It’s fun. I like it for two reasons: I have an interest in cars and in the programme anyway, but it’s a good excuse for me to meet up with my friends from 021…”

His domain during the recording is a scanner truck parked up at the side of the hangar. He operates a Calrec Bluefin Sigma desk and controls PA levels, broadcast mics and everything besides from there. “We use a lot of standard outside broadcast mics: Sennheiser 416s, Neumann B5s, a mixture really. The 416s are used for general audience applause on tall mic stands dotted around the studio, because the audience move around. On the main truss in the centre, we have a couple of Behringer mics to capture the laughter, as well as a wide-angled stereo mic, which is an Audio-Technica AT836, which gives a wide angle, keeps things loose. Then there are a couple of mics, one behind Jeremy’s chair, a 416 behind the sofa, and one behind the chair, for when they read the news: quite often they’ll turn around and start chatting to people in the audience behind them.”

Top Gear used to be filmed in a warehouse with an old paint shop attached. “Now they have more space for a bigger audience, bigger screens, but the downside of that is that you need a bigger PA system, and in an aircraft hangar that doesn’t help you at home. When it rains you can hear the rain and things rattle in the wind. In the summer it gets hot so we need aircon; in the winter, we need heating, which is noisy…”

The PA system has been supplied for the past few years by VME of Knutsford. It’s a Kling & Freitag system comprising CA106 compact speakers plus all the clamps, cables and stands as necessary. Six speakers are mounted on the central ‘stage’ truss, then two in each corner of the hangar so there’s plenty of coverage on the set. Two K&F SW112 SP subs are hidden under the stage. The Kling & Freitag system is powered by Lab.guppen IP450 amps and zoned by a BSS Soundweb.

VME also supplies Sennheiser SK50 belt packs and SKM5200 hand-held radio mics for the team. As PSNE went to press, Dion Davie from VME reported that older Bose 802s, used for additional reinforcement at the side of the set, were also being replaced by CA106s. So now Top Gear is purely a Kling & Freitag zone.

The PA is all zoned via BSS Soundweb, while the VTs (video tape pre-recorded sequences in old parlance) are sent on a separate path. They are played at a much louder volume with less processing for the studio audience. That’s partly why Pollock has his work cut out: the PA for the studio recording always seems suddenly quiet compared with the VT sections. “It’s the old battle between getting enough volume for the crowd, so you get a good response and enjoy the day’s recording, while bearing in mind the viewer at home.”

“I’m riding [the fader] for the presenters [during the recording] but the big one is a channel for the audience. I’m keeping that closed most of the time, but using it for colouration – so when there’s laughter or applause, I whack it up and then chase the tail to keep it as clean as I can. You have to feel it, you have to gently chase it and anticipate the gags. But that’s standard Light Entertainment (LE) practice.

“Television sound is always a compromise, you are always trying to create the best sound in an environment that is not ideal. Anybody who does LE sound has these problems – it just makes it harder in an aircraft hangar!”