To make a splash with a new season of musical drama Nashville, the producers opted for a high-risk strategy: live music segments, performed as the show aired.
About now, UK television viewers are waiting with bated breath to find out which of her suitors prime-time country-music queen Rayna James will choose: longtime love interest and guitarist in her band Deacon Claybourne? Or Luke Wheeler, the George Jones stand-in to her Tammy Wynette avatar? Then there’s songbird Layla, who at the end of last season had just learned that her new husband is gay — but still a really good singer-songwriter. Avery and Gunnar get in a fight over spilling Avery’s secret relationship woes to Scarlett, but Avery later opens up to her when Scarlett’s car gives out.
Like Dallas, Knott’s Landing, Falcon Crest — and, for that matter, Coronation Street and EastEnders before it — Nashville plots play off the same kinds of crises and foibles that have fuelled soap opera since it was born on radio in the 1930s. Except, like the city it’s turned out to be the greatest-ever advert for, the show has some of the best-sounding music on television. That’s not surprising, considering it draws on some of music production’s deepest wells in Nashville, still the music recording capital of the country, if not the world, in terms of the number and quality of studios and those there who derive a living from them. But for the premiere of Nashville’s third season last September, the show’s music did the same thing the music industry has been doing in the real world: it went live.
Nashville’s producers planned to insert two live-music segments into the pre-recorded third-season premiere episode (Episode 301, in script shorthand) as it played on national television. The content and purpose of those two songs was integrated tightly into the script, along with a verse-plus-chorus section of one song by country-rockers Florida-Georgia Line bolted onto the tag of the episode. Dialogue on the pre-recorded show would provide lead-in and -out transitions to and from the live segments, and they had to fit seamlessly into the flow of the programme.
“Everything had to be timed down to the second or even tighter,” recalls Mike Poole, who has engineered and mixed projects for artists including Loretta Lynn and Martina McBride, and was featured in this magazine in December 2010 talking about his work with Robert Plant. Poole has been recording the show’s music — by which we mean the two or three original songs that are part of each episode, as distinct from the show’s score — since the first season, and also mixed last year’s and this season’s. This role has seen him work first with Americana icon T-Bone Burnett, who produced the programme’s music for that first season. Then last year and this Poole worked with Buddy Miller, another Americana luminary whose production and performance portfolio includes Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Miller took over production duties from Burnett at the beginning of the second season after co-producing the music for season one. (Burnett’s wife, Callie Khouri, is, not coincidentally, the creator and executive producer of Nashville.)
During the season, songs are recorded in various Nashville studios, and versions of them are mixed as needed. For instance, one song may have its production elements stripped down to acoustic guitar and a single vocal to be portrayed as a demo in a scene in a publisher’s office one week, only to reappear a week or two later as a fully produced master track being played back in one of the real studios that also act as show sets during filming (which all takes place in Nashville). It may come around one more time with another mix iteration to represent a live concert scene.
“In our normal workflow, we’ll send the pre-records [ie. finished music tracks] to the set and they’ll shoot to those, with the actors lip-sync’ing as closely as possible on set. Then they go to post-production [in Los Angeles] where music editor Jen Monnar matches sound to picture, to make sure the lip-sync is perfect,” explains Poole. “It’s critical that when a song is sung on screen that the vocals look natural and authentic. It’s necessary to achieve the realism you need to make everything believable.” He gets the tracks back locked to picture, and since US broadcast is largely in 5.1 now, he then does a surround mix of the stems, using the surround channels mainly for whatever ambience is called for in the scene in which they are used — a club, theatre, festival or studio environment.
The workflow for the live insertions was sparser, yet more pressured. Each live performance would have to fit into a precisely defined time slot as the programme ran. It would start simultaneously at 10pm on the East Coast and 9pm in the Central time zone. The entire production process would then have to be repeated for the Mountain and Pacific time zones.
The live segments were set in the city’s Bluebird Café, the nearly mythical hub of performing songwriters and known for those who have been ‘discovered’ there, including notably Garth Brooks. In reality, the club is tiny, but not so the set that Nashville built to mimic the 90-seat venue. Located in a warehouse in north Nashville, which houses a number of other sets used on the show, it mirrors the club’s cluttered décor, tiny tables and cramped stage, but offers enough space outside of the lens’s view for camera dolly tracks and fishpole boom microphones. “Unfortunately, it also sounds a bit like the Bluebird — kind of boxy,” Poole laments. “So the vocals have to be greased up a bit, to give them some ambience. That’s part of the job — figuring out how to create the sound of the environments in a way that looks and sounds realistic and yet flatters the music.”
Usually, when music is shown being performed on Nashville, viewers are hearing a carefully crafted recording, even though the musicians on camera seem to be playing it note for note (see box). But for the live segments, the playing and the vocals would be completely live, with top-of-the-line musicians including Michael Rhodes on bass and guitarists Pat Buchanan on electric and Colin Linden and Marc Copley on acoustics.
Poole miked the stage as he would an intimate club but with recording in mind, using garden-variety mics, but lots of them. The kick drum got a Shure SM91, SM57s were on the top and bottom of the snare, a Shure KSM137 on the hi-hat and a pair of them as overheads. A Ramsa 5 cardioid lavalier was pinned to the resonator of the banjo (a favourite of his for stand-up bass, as well), and the guitar amplifiers mostly got SM57s. The bass and keyboards went in through direct injection boxes. The acoustic guitars also went direct, from their pickups, though they had dead 57s in front of them for visual effect. All vocals were sung through Shure SM58s, and ambience was gathered using two Shure SM98 mics set in the set’s ceiling, which had been recessed to accommodate lighting fixtures, and a Shure VP88 cardioid stereo microphone placed near the FOH mix position. (The prominence of certain brands reflects long-standing promotional arrangements; thus Shure and QSC provide the live-sound equipment used in shoots, and Gibson all of the guitars, though for the live shoot the musicians’ personal instruments were used.)
There was also one more thing unique to this project to take into consideration: visual continuity. In the world of film and video production, there is an entire line credit dedicated to making sure that an actor who begins take one on Tuesday morning wearing a black tie isn’t wearing a red one when the scene finishes three days later. In this case, all of the microphones and their positions had to be exactly the same during the live songs in September as they were when the scene begins in the pre-recorded show, which was shot in mid-July.
All the mic signals and other sources were piped over fibre-optic cable into the TNDV Vibration OB van, a large truck equipped for mixing surround, where the music would be mixed live for broadcast through the truck’s Studer Vista 5 console, as well as to the set’s QSC 122 wedge and Shure IEM monitors, mixed by on-set FOH mixer Les Banks off of a splitter feed from the truck.
In fact, the entire show was being sent to broadcast via a second truck, TNDV’s Aspiration, on location and connected to Vibration via MADI for audio between them, with the show’s mastered and ready-to-air QuickTime file having been sent ahead to the location. The final product, with the live interstitials inserted, was fibered to ABC/Disney’s master control facility in New York and then uplinked to satellite for distribution. At that location, however, was another copy of the episode, known as the ‘crash reel’, which played in sync with what was being sent from the truck in Nashville. It included pre-recorded versions of what would be the live-feed segments, ready to go in the event the location broadcasts failed.
This setup was put together the day before the broadcast, to let the cast and crew rehearse the performances and practice the timings. During the dress rehearsal they also taped a safety version of the Florida-Georgia Line tag segment, which was sent to New York four hours before the broadcast to form a mini-crash reel for the tag. “Everything had to be backed up, because this was live,” says Poole. “Who knows what could happen? And this was for prime time.” During each rehearsal pass, Poole and broadcast mixer Michael Davis in the Vibration truck refined and updated the automated moves they were compiling for each song. This included a particularly tricky one, handled by broadcast audio mixer Steve Johnson in the Aspiration truck, that would have the first song’s sound drastically cut from full spectrum to a dull thud via a radical low-pass filter setting as Davis lowered the vocals in the mix, representing an abrupt scene point-of-view shift from the inside of the club to an exterior shot on the pre-recorded show, with the action now taking place outdoors.
Timing was crucial: the filmed versions of the songs, part of the crash reel, would be running in sync but unseen unless there was a problem with the live interstitials, in which case a switch would be flipped and the national audience would see the pre-record, all locked to the master clock in New York. But back in Nashville, after experimenting with vertical interval timecode (VITC) from the truck, but failing to achieve reliable lock, it was decided that they would be better off manually cueing the live segment, working from the click track of the recording made during the recording of the back-up filmed version. It would give drummer Greg Morrow his starting point to maintain the BPMs (87 and 73, respectively) for the two mid-tempo songs. Poole would watch the time code at the bottom of the video monitor and manually start the count-off and click-track feed into the drummer’s IEM at a predetermined point in the reel. “He’d hear two clicks and than he’d count a one-bar count-off out loud,” he explains. “He’s like a machine, so we felt good about the song length staying what it needed to be to fit.”
Poole went through his countdown process and the song began. Then he and Davis began what Poole calls “an active mix”, with Poole mixing the musicians while broadcast mixer Michael Davis handled the lead and backing vocals.“Audio from the QuickTime file was considered unity gain, and we set our levels to it,” says Davis, a veteran of many live broadcast music mixes for events such as the Americana Music Awards and the CMA Awards, and who was called on for this project by Buddy Miller, whom he worked with on another ABC live broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium, country music’s own live-music Mecca. As a result, he wasn’t nervous about doing a manually cued start. “Mike [Poole] and I are from a generation that would routinely roll stuff live,” he says with a confident Southern drawl. “We had an assistant watch the SMPTE timecode on the bottom of the screen and when it hit a certain point, to tell us. From that, we had calculated the number of seconds till we hit the space bar on the pre-recorded music to send the click track to the drummer and pre-rolled accordingly. If we got it within an eighth-note, we’d be cool.”
That kind of confidence apparently appealed to the network TV representatives on site. “It worked in rehearsal, and that’s all they needed to see,” smiles Davis. “We knew there could be problems, but you just don’t think about it.”
The live segment wasn’t completely without its own drama. As the first song began, a surge of reverb was unexpectedly heard washing over the track, and Davis had to quickly pull back the effects-return faders on the Vista. They recovered quickly and the performance itself from the club was flawless and on tempo, allowing the mixer in the broadcast video truck to hit a preset LPF and volume-attenuation preset just as the action moved outside, making the music sound as though it was muffled by the walls of the club; Davis also muted the vocals completely, to keep them from interfering with the scene’s dialogue. In between songs, Davis says they realised that, during the rehearsal sequences, they were using the same Waves reverb plug-in (loaded on the Pro Tools deck and coming up as inserts on the console’s aux channels) and updating it for each snapshot of each song; however, they had inadvertently neglected to isolate the VCA group faders used for the reverb returns. “We had that fixed for the next song,” says Davis.
The show ended with the second live performance, and as the last notes rang out there would be exactly 108 seconds, during the end-show credit crawl, to rearrange the stage for a quick coda by Florida-Georgia Line, which ran for 87 seconds, two seconds longer than planned thanks to some extra time accumulated over the course of the hour-long show, allowing them to get their on-air thank-yous in. As soon as that ended, Poole and Davis set about editing, mixing and mastering a version of the performances for ABC’s Music Lounge web site, which had to be available the next day for downloading from iTunes. Then, it was time to do it all over again for the West Coast.
Nashville’s live segments may have seemed like a novelty, but they’re actually part of a more urgent trend across the wider entertainment landscape. Network broadcast television viewership is declining: the Big Four US nets were down about 10 percent from last year and are down 50 percent in the last decade, as cable, satellite and online distribution modes have destroyed their media hegemony, and even major live events like NFL games are losing attendance. The urgency of live action is being looked at as a way to reverse that trend. NFL stadiums now feature live music performances during games: the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field in Nashville actually built a stage into the venue during a renovation several years ago.
In December 2013, NBC took a huge chance when they broadcast a live three-hour live production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music. It did so well that the network announced they would do the same with Peter Pan in December 2014. Live music has become the saviour of the music industry in the last decade, and now it’s being applied by a wide range of entertainment corporations looking to capture audiences with immediacy and the same emotional hook that Euripides understood: there’s nothing more deeply engaging than action that unfolds in real time right in front of your eye and ears. “It’s something we all knew from touring,” says Michael Davis. “There’s nothing like being there.”
There is a famous story about how the audio crew on several CBS Sports golf broadcasts once inserted canned bird sounds into the show’s soundtrack, to better evoke the pastoral aurality of the golf course. Unfortunately, they didn’t first consult an ornithologist, and wound up inserting the sounds of birds that weren’t native to the regions where the tournaments were taking place. This precipitated a small but surprisingly virulent storm of complaints from irritated birders, and the network apologised.
Nashville is a show that is under a similar but even more intense sort of microscope. Thousands of musician-viewers watch and listen every week and know the difference between the sonic signatures of a Stratocaster and a Telecaster, and are not shy about letting the Internet know when they think they’ve caught a mistake. One of the show’s recording sessions in Los Angeles during the first season used a very rare 1938 Martin acoustic guitar. In an example of how far the show will go to get it right, T-Bone Burnett, the show’s original music producer, retrieved one of the few in existence from Norm’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles and personally escorted it to Nashville.
This obsession can even extend to the scripts’ long-range arcs. “If a character is broke and then a few episodes later a gal buys him a Gretsch guitar, we have to make sure he hasn’t had that nice a guitar before, so he can really get excited about it when he gets one,” explains property master Danny Rowe. “We want to give the writers somewhere to take that.”
Then there are the musicians. It’s not surprising to see bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Eddie Bayers and guitarists Pat McLaughlin or Tom Bukovac show up on screen as part of one character’s or another’s backing band — that is, in between their playing on just about every master recording session in town, including those for the show’s music. And even when it’s not the cr me de la cr me of Nashville’s A-Team, musicians in the background of the show, such as during concert scenes, are no mere actors, with plenty of B-Team demo-session folks happy to take scale from the slightly posher Screen Actors Guild than the American Federation of Musicians.
The music tracks for each episode are, of course, pre-recorded, but the show’s relentless pursuit of verisimilitude means that the singers are singing and the musicians behind them are playing what’s on those tracks note for note, with every musician on stage hitting the notes and the beats precisely, learned from studio mixes emailed to them ahead of each show by Matt Andrews, the show’s Pro Tools operator. During studio and concert scenes Andrews will even send a feed from the Pro Tools playback deck to a ‘dummy’ Pro Tools system or FOH console that’s in the shot, allowing meters and waveforms to move in time with the music.
Danny Rowe also gets copies of the music tracks, but in addition will get photos and detailed lists of what instruments, amplifiers and microphones the musicians in the studio are using, so that the ones used on stage can match them. It can get pretty granular, right down to the specific kind of pickups on a particular electric guitar, and where the microphones are placed in the studio (many of the scenes are shot in Nashville recording studios, where miking guitar amps is considered an art not to be trifled with). “We go to great lengths to match what’s on the track,” says Rowe. “If they used a tweed Fender Deluxe in the studio, we try to get that, or one very much like it, for the session or concert on the show.”