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Behind The Scenes At BBC Radio 3’s In Tune

Finely Tuned
Published November 2017
By Hugh Robjohns

Senior Studio Manager Neil Pemberton listens to a balance during soundcheck for a live performance by Fado singer Ricardo Ribeiro.Senior Studio Manager Neil Pemberton listens to a balance during soundcheck for a live performance by Fado singer Ricardo Ribeiro.

Keeping the BBC’s flagship classical music show at the top of its game requires serious engineering skill — and the ability to cope with the unexpected!

One of the key programmes on the BBC’s classical music station, Radio 3, is In Tune, broadcast live on weekday afternoons between 16.30 and 18.30 and hosted either by Sean Rafferty or Suzy Klein. I make a point of listening most days because it covers such an eclectic and interesting range of music; some is drawn from the BBC’s own archives and some from commercial releases both new and old. There are also fascinating studio and ’phone interviews with luminaries from the world of ‘serious music’ and, best of all, the programme always features several tracks performed live in the studio by at least two different (and usually quite dissimilar) acts.

Presenter Sean Rafferty amends his script.Presenter Sean Rafferty amends his script.These recitals vary from soloists — opera singers, pianists, and other instrumentalists — through countless trios, quartets, and quintets, and on to choirs of varying types and sizes, and even sometimes quite large world-music and jazz groups of all flavours, too. In my experience the sound quality is always outstanding, but I was fascinated to find out how the programme’s technical staff of just two cope with such wide-ranging recording challenges within a live show, working in a ‘general purpose’ studio under very finite time constraints, with minimal setup and rehearsal time, and with absolutely no option for retakes.

Broadcasting House

Of the 120 staff in BBC Radio’s Music Operations department, a team of around 25 are routinely rostered to work specifically on the In Tune programme, and they spend the rest of their working time on a wide variety of other music studio programmes for Radio 3, 6Music and Radio 2, as well as some location recordings and outside broadcasts. On June 1st, the day I visited, In Tune was in the hands of Neil Pemberton. Neil is a Senior Studio Manager (SM) — that’s ‘BBC-speak’ for a role that most would call a recording engineer — and he has worked at the BBC since 1980, almost all of it with Radio 3.

Like many of his colleagues, Neil’s work — which has garnered several prestigious Gramophone Awards — involves mixing orchestral concerts most days, both in recorded sessions and live broadcasts, and mostly across London’s many concert venues. He is also part of the team working every year on the BBC Proms (see Sound On Sound November 2014 for my article describing the technology and challenges involved in broadcasting this world-renowned concert series), and estimates that he works on In Tune about once a month. Not all of Neil’s work is in the UK’s capital city, though, as he often finds himself working in concert halls all over the country, as well as occasionally on international tours with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It all sounds like very nice work to me!

Balancing Act

The first act appearing live on June 1st’s In Tune was to be Ricardo Ribeiro, a Portuguese Fado singer in London for his UK debut, supported by a trio of guitarists (Luis Guerreiro on Portuguese guitar, Carlos Manuel Proença on Fado guitar, and Daniel Pinto on acoustic bass guitar). They were due to arrive for a soundcheck at 15.45, and their opening performance was scheduled just three minutes into the show at 16.33 — which didn’t leave Neil with much time to set up!

In Tune is usually broadcast from a suite on the eighth floor of Broadcasting House called 80A. This is quite a large general-purpose radio studio which accommodates one of Broadcasting House’s two superb and well-maintained Steinway grand pianos. As well as In Tune, the studio typically hosts anything needing a piano (of course), as well as programmes like World On 3, Loose Ends, and occasional Woman’s Hour programmes for Radio 4, as well as a few Radio 2 ‘specials’.

In anticipation of the band’s (and my!) arrival, Neil had already set up four eight-channel Gear Technologies Hearback personal headphone monitoring units to enable the musicians to balance...

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Published November 2017