Imagine mixing the world's biggest bands in front of an audience of millions — with no soundcheck. It's all in a day's work for BBC in-house engineers.
These days, summer time is festival time. If you can't get tickets, or just don't fancy the mud, there are plenty of opportunities to catch big festival performances on the radio, online and even on TV. This year has also seen high-profile special events such as the Jubilee and Olympic concerts, all broadcast live.
As a live sound engineer doing these events, I know the pressure is huge, but it's even worse if you're mixing for broadcast, where people have the ability to pick over your mix at a later date! On a festival stage, a band will finish and 20-30 minutes later the next band will start playing. In this time, all the previous band's equipment will be rolled off and the next band's gear set up. It will be quickly line-checked, which just involves making sure the microphones and DI boxes are actually working. The engineer might get five beats each on the bass drum and snare. Guitars will be checked, backing tracks run, keyboards quickly played. The vocal check will consist of nothing more than a few 'one-twos'. None of this will involve the musicians — the first time they are heard will be on the first beat of the first song in the set. In the old days, live broadcast wouldn't start until the second or third song in a set, giving the mix engineer the chance to settle down and get comfortable — but these days, with the addition of visuals, the money shot is the band walking on to a huge roar and into the first tune. There's no time to get settled, so it truly is seat-of-the-pants flying!
For most of us in the UK, the most important provider of live music remains the British Broadcasting Corporation. Through the national radio stations, TV and the Internet, the BBC outputs an incredible array of events, including festivals, concerts and live studio performances. I caught up with the 'Beeb' at this year's T In The Park (TiTP) festival in Scotland. The BBC have been covering this event on radio and television for several years, and record performances across four stages, broadcasting on Radio One, BBC3 and Red Button.
My first point of contact was Sam Cunningham, who is the Live Music Manager for Radio One and 1 Xtra. Together with Producer Andy Rogers, she is responsible for the production and delivery of live music on both networks. "I'll usually start planning on a festival such as Glastonbury or TiTP about nine months ahead of the event, securing the Outside Broadcast trucks and the live mix engineers and coming up with a budget. I'll then liaise with our shows — [radio DJs] Zane Lowe, Fearne Cotton and so on — to establish what content they want. Next step is getting those bands to agree to be recorded. Our engineers have such a good reputation, this usually swings it with bands who are worried about being recorded without soundcheck. I make sure our engineers are hooked up with the PA companies and are receiving accurate channel lists so they can get on with their pre-production.”
The rise of the Internet and digital TV has prompted major changes in the way festivals are covered. "Back in the day, our output only went on the wireless. Now pretty much everything is visualised, and on-demand services mean that our work is there to be viewed and listened to often for many weeks after the initial recording. This heaps even more pressure on our engineers to deliver perfect mixes from the opening chords of a set.”
Even a quick look at the BBC's TiTP setup makes clear how much work and equipment are involved in covering a large festival. The main stage and the slightly smaller NME stage both have full-blown broadcast trucks. Each is operated by two mix engineers sharing the mixing load and two support engineers taking care of the patching and assisting the mix engineers. There's also a dedicated engineer in the truck overseeing the broadcast output. At TiTP, there are also four-man crews working on the King Tut's stage and the 'BBC Introducing' stage, making a total of 18 engineers — not to mention support staff and, of course, Sam and Andy, neither of whom is frightened of leaving Broadcasting House to get their feet dirty!
At TiTP, each truck is managed by a senior engineer. The main-stage team is led by veteran Miti Adhikari, who is sadly soon to retire. Miti is currently Senior Music Balancer for BBC Audio and Music, and, like most of the engineers at T In The Park, is based predominantly in London, working mainly at the BBC studios in Maida Vale. The sessions from these studios have been the main stay of live music for many years on BBC radio, having been the home of the famous Peel Sessions, amongst others. Each session is a fast affair, often taking only three or four hours to record and mix several tracks. The skill and speed with which the engineers work on these sessions is evident when you see them at festivals. Miti: "It helps the live broadcast side of things, because the bands get to know you and your abilities, and feel a lot easier about being mixed live in some field somewhere! I'm lucky in that I hide any inner turmoil really well. When other people are under the impression that I am calm, they act in a more serene manner, which in turn reduces any stress I feel.”
As he explains, working on outside broadcasts has more than its fair share of challenges, but can bring unique rewards. "The headline acts on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury are always special moments. The interaction between the band and 60,000 people creates a vortex of energy that lifts everyone involved to a higher plane, including the balancer in his mobile. I've mixed headlines where I don't particularly like the music, but you cannot help but be carried away by the energy. Everyone involved, including the stage crew, gives it just that little bit extra. Live8, for me, was the most challenging stage to mix ever, but the cherry on the cake was mixing Pink Floyd live to the world. It was their reunion, I grew up with their music and knew it note for note, and I totally nailed it.”
Conversely, says Miti, "The hardest acts to mix are the bands who cannot play well live. It's very easy to start blaming yourself for a mix that isn't happening when the reason is the performance coming off the stage. Of course, the reverse is also true. You can easily not understand the dynamics of a band's performance and blame it on them not being match-fit!”
I asked Miti to talk me through his mixing process and reveal some of his secrets. "There are no secrets! I could tell you exactly what compressors I use, how I route my buses, reverb, effect settings and so on, but you won't get the same sound. I actually look at it from the musical perspective, almost like an arranger. In any given four-bar section, something has to take centre stage, and I try to highlight that by either pushing something forward or pulling several things back. I'm not afraid of spill. I've often been asked to mute mics that are not used, but I like to leave them open and use the ambient noise to my advantage. With audience mics, if your mics are placed well you shouldn't have to move the fader more than a couple of dB at the ends of songs.”
The other stage being broadcast live from TiTP is the NME stage, which on the day is the province of the indomitable Simon Askew. "Miti and I are Radio One's main mixers, so Miti usually handles main and I do second stage, and the desks are set up our own way. Our mixing buddies could be any of a dozen colleagues in our group, either top-flight mixers, or up-and-coming young 'uns that we're bringing up to scratch. On a typical festival day, I'll mix either three or four bands. We share mixing between two of us, and our stage guys might get a mix or two earlier in the day. I've been working with some of my colleagues for 25 years, we look after each other. That and proper planning and preparation, and a laugh and a joke before, during and after, usually gets us through. It's pretty scary at times, but it's what we do and we love it.”
Although the logistics and contractual wrangling occupy the production team for months prior to a festival, Simon's own planning is surprisingly spontaneous. "I'll make contact with the PA company a couple of weeks before, and leave the preparation until maybe a couple of days before — info always seems to change up until the last minute. I usually arrive on site the afternoon of the day before, but it depends which truck I am using. Sound 1, our SSL 9000 analogue desk [truck], needs to have everything plugged up, and any extra outboard needs to be rigged. Sound 2 has a digital SSL C200 and any extra outboard is onboard my MacBook, so it takes as long as it does to boot and rig the stage crate [stage box], greet old friends, make new ones, plumb into the splits [actively split feeds from the PA company stage box], rig some audience/ambient mics and secure meal tickets for the on-site catering. It varies somewhere between an 8am and 11am on-site [time] and 11pm to 2am off-site.
"During the previous band, I'll have a look at the drum kit and guitar amps on the rolling risers backstage, what mics they're using and where they're placed. Back in the truck, during the typical 30-minute changeover, I'll go through every channel and check it looks right. I'm totally relying on my stage colleague, who's on a radio headset. He's my eyes, ears and mouth, and liaises with local and band crew whom I'm completely relying on. If there's a technical issue on stage, there's a good chance I'll spot it first, being in a truck, so I'll pass it onto my colleague, who'll tell the crew.
"All faders are up, audience mics are shut. Volume is set medium loud. The monitor engineer is probably checking the lead vocal and his various mixes, and guitar and drum techs might have checked/hit their responsibilities. Anything I hear, I'll check gains, EQ and compression, and put into a space. Then the line check will start. I'll get between five and 30 kick-drum beats. I'll set gains, phase, and get it in a space, I'll check the spill on other mics, and look and hear for any coloration. Snare next: check phase not just with the bottom mic but also the overheads. Again with toms, phase is even more critical. This process continues for every line, and hopefully you've a full house. I'll double-check compliance feeds and prepare for the start of the show.
"The goal is getting the first number. You may even be live on air if it's a headline, but you really want that first number to be usable. The next few seconds are critical: I've reduced my monitor volume to medium, and my hands are on faders I'm expecting to have something appear on next. I prioritise vocals, melody, drums, bass, but hopefully the tune is a bit of a builder. I don't go anywhere near a solo button: any adjustment is done in the mix. If something or everything is sounding like a dog's dinner, there's a reason for it, but it's not necessarily me, so I won't panic. I might turn it down more, check compression chains and output bits and pieces, hunting down visually and aurally, including the odd solo if the mix is under control. Sometimes bands just aren't on it from the off, so it might take them a number or two to get in the pocket.
"Because of relationships built and experience gained during [radio] sessions, we have a fairly good understanding of how the bands want to sound. If it's happening on stage and you've got it all, it's fine. You might have a representative from the band with you, which is welcome if they're familiar with the live setup, but occasionally they're studio engineers who might not have seen the gig and can distract!”
The hardest acts to mix, says Simon, are often the headliners: "They're bigger, they've been around the world and have their systems spot-on and just recall their desks. As a result, their line checks are so fast you're always catching up on Nexus mic gains, and you might not even hear any instruments — just IDs on tracks.”
In constant communication with the trucks is fellow engineer Ian Painter. He is what the BBC call a studio manager, although, as Ian says, "To everyone else, I'm a sound engineer, working in radio broadcasting. The outside broadcast work is only a small part of what each of the BBC staff working at TiTP do, and all work the rest of the time at various studios around the BBC. We're a flexible bunch who regularly rotate across the duties, and are all mix engineers in some capacity: every senior BBC mix engineer has done stage at some point in their career. All of this helps develop the camaraderie and level of trust we rely upon when stuck together in a muddy field.
"Festival sound for PA and broadcast is a team effort. It pays to at least be aware of what all around you do or may require, from your colleagues in the truck, to the stage crew who've had to re-patch 80 lines with two minutes to go! There'll be times when everyone will need to help each other, whilst at the same time not treading on people's toes or effect pedals. Be nice to the stage crew and band techs: they are the ones with any updates to line-list info, their day may well be tougher than yours, and you'll probably need to ask them for a favour at some point — 'More kick drum for broadcast please!' Plus, in this small creative world, you'll certainly work together again in the future.”
So what does the role of stage manager involve? "It encompasses everything from rigging an SM58 to mixing studio sessions and concerts. We roll in and set up on the final rig day before the festival begins. Any earlier and the stage wouldn't be ready for us. Any later and we wouldn't be ready for that all-important system line check.
"Rig days are a steady and methodical six to eight hours. Show days are a crazy and unpredictable 10 to 14 hours! A rig day would include placing and connecting our stage boxes, rigging the audience mics, checking our comms systems, and conducting a line check with stage monitors and front of house. I will often give some consideration to how I might have to reposition or re-plug at short notice, so clear labelling and redundancy are worth a little rig time — in case someone comes in overnight and places guest side-fill [stage monitors] or lights in front of your lovingly placed audience mics. Finally, make everything safe for people to work around!
"The onset of digital, remote-controlled stage crates has made for a much faster setup — fewer cable runs and faulty analogue circuits. We can also claim to be isolated from the stage, so the days of us plugging into the stage and causing unwanted hum on the PA are over, mostly! It has certainly helped at the truck end, as we are able to complete a lot of labelling and routing offline, prior to getting on-site. This all helps, when changeover times on show days can be less than 30 minutes.
"By prior agreement, the PA company will have a split rack on the stage, providing us with a feed of all the microphone lines. We plug from that rack into our stage box, one-to-one, using XLR looms. The stage box is connected to the truck by way of fibre-optic cable, sending up to 64 channels of MADI per crate. Essentially, our stage box is a great big analogue-to-digital converter, all remotely controlled at the truck end.”
Ian has one final tip: "Always rig for the de-rig. Once the final band has finished their encore, everyone unplugs and packs up at the same time; you'll want to get your gear off-stage swiftly. Besides, there's a bar to get to and Miti's buying!”
The last word, as usual, goes to Mr Askew. "I guess it looks pretty glamorous from the outside. It's not. It's hard, 24/7, and budgets all around are being slashed. We think we're doing a good job, and providing a valuable service to the public and the bands we're representing. It's always live with us — I can't remember the last time I mixed a concert afterwards, so you're hearing it as it happened. It wouldn't happen without a small army of very dedicated and professional people, 110 percent committed to public service broadcasting and the love of music.”
If you want proof of how good a job Simon and his colleagues do, it's easy to find in videos on the BBC iPlayer and YouTube of bands at this year's TiTP. I returned home after my show on the Sunday afternoon and watched it on my laptop. Miti had done a faultless job — not exactly the same as my front-of-house mix, but close enough. I have mixed this particular band live about 70 times this year. Miti had done it once. It is a testament to these engineers' ability that they turn out such high-quality mixes day in, day out.
Something that has always impressed me about Simon Askew's mixes is the way he captures the feel of a live show, and all the BBC engineers I talked to emphasise the importance of audience mic placement in achieving this. Ian Painter: "The audience sound is crucial to the broadcast, hopefully giving the listener or viewer a better sense of actually being there. There are many possible setups, but for this weekend's TiTP main stage we are using a combination of condenser, dynamic and the ubiquitous rifle mics, arranged at various key points across the stage front. It's a bit of a balancing act between our ideal positioning and minimising PA spill, not to mention claiming some gantry space amongst the lighting, screens and so on. I'd say we aim to combine some definition from the front mosh-pit with the 'width' of the main body of audience further back. The art is then to balance the audience with the sound from the stage — the right amount will actually add to the overall vibe of the mix. The TiTP crowd are amongst the loudest I know, which makes capturing them much easier!”
"There are no hard and fast rules, we all do it differently, but it's easy to spot mine,” says Askew. "I usually have a Rycote [windshield] with a windjammer [hairy cover] front and middle of the stage, along with rifle mics either side of stage.”
The BBC recently upgraded their Music Outside Broadcast trucks with Stagetec's Nexus modular stage-box systems, each configured to provide 128 channels via MADI, as well as various tie-lines and video link-ups. The Nexus system is controlled remotely from the OB truck via a PC running its custom software. The system runs with redundant lines in case of any failures, all connected via fibre-optic multicores to the OB trucks. "It's German, so it's solid as a rock and has awesome mic pres,” says Simon Askew, "but the software control, again with awesome features, wasn't really designed for on-the-fly, no-soundcheck festival mixing! We have to type in all the individual bands' line lists as inputs and again as outputs to have a chance of getting to the relevant mouse- or button-controlled mic pre when that quiet backing vocalist suddenly starts playing tambourine! It's an awful lot of typing and on most stages, especially main stages these days, it has to be done beforehand, or else you'll run out of time on the day. Second and other stages might have a more generic system, but again it's best to have a patch prepared for each band you're mixing.”
The trucks themselves are all slightly different. With two stages to cover at T In The Park, the BBC have brought two trucks along; both are fitted with SSL desks, but while Sound 1 has an older, analogue Solid State Logic 9000 console, Sound 2 boasts a C200 digital desk. Both desks have recall functions, and the C200's recall is, obviously, instantaneous. "Our digital truck [Sound 2] is brilliant, but it's so complicated!” says Simon. "We use parallel systems, so I/O latency and time-alignment have to be thought about. Plus we're doing it in 5.1 and providing compliance feeds for swearing removal. So the first couple of live broadcasts in that definitely aged us. It absolutely rocks now, but being the type I am, I push the envelope and run up to 24 time-aligned MADI inserts via an RME Madiface into my 2008 MacBook Pro running Logic with Waves and other plug-ins... that's quite scary.”
Monitoring in the trucks is via Mitchell & Todd 301A midfield monitors. These British speakers have been designed very much with the BBC in mind, and are used not only in the OB trucks but at Maida Vale as well, alongside the PMC main monitors. They have a 210mm polypropylene bass driver with a frequency response extending down to 35Hz, and a 28mm soft-dome tweeter.
The trucks record to multitrack, but this is just a matter of creating a safety copy, as it will be a 'live mix' that is sent to broadcast. Interestingly, the recording is done using Cockos' Reaper, a surprising choice for many, but one that overcomes the traditional hardware limitations of Pro Tools, and single-platform nature of Logic. Stereo mixes are also recorded to solid-state drives, CD-R and occasionally DAT!