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Vocal Mixing: Lessons From Eurovision

A Broadcaster's Personal Guide By Robert Edwards
Published June 2023

An artist’s impression of the Liverpool 2023 arena (the real thing was not finished at the time of going to press).An artist’s impression of the Liverpool 2023 arena (the real thing was not finished at the time of going to press).

A broadcaster’s personal guide to getting a great vocal sound at Eurovision. Or in a pub.

Over three live broadcast shows, with 37 different songs from 37 different countries, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a unique event that brings together enormous technical resources. Over 500 million viewers tune in to watch an intense competition between the sovereign states of Europe, Israel and Australia. No‑one is harmed in the process, apart from the occasional dent in national pride of those getting fewer votes than the UK. Every country’s entrant wants the live broadcast to capture their unique sound, and that sound must match the publicly released commercial download version on Spotify, TikTok, YouTube or Apple Music. A simple enough task on paper.

Each country’s entry is chosen by the middle of March each year. This gives a couple of months for every department to get their act together to plan how they will manage all the varying requests when it comes to the live shows in May. They include sound, cameras, lighting, screens, costume, set design, logistics, power, infrastructure, accreditation, engineering, make‑up, floor management, security, catering, IT... the list goes on. And that’s not to mention the requirements of 37 different commentaries on‑site, or the 37 incoming voting feeds from the EBU.

Holding The Line

From the very first Eurovision held in 1956, through the UK’s Sandy Shaw and her winning song ‘Puppet On A String’ in 1967 (ask your mum and dad), right up to Lisbon Eurovision in 2018, all the singing, including the backing vocals, had to be performed live.

...the live nature of the singing is further respected by the rule that no form of auto‑tune is permitted.

Things have changed since Covid arrived. Eurovision now allows quite a juicy backing track, and backing vocals can now be on the playback. However, competition rules prohibit ‘lead dubs’ where the track offers too much help for the live lead vocal. It must not appear to be mimed, and the live nature of the singing is further respected by the rule that no form of auto‑tune is permitted.

The overriding challenge from an engineering point of view is to ‘make it sound like the record’ in a live context, for TV and radio broadcasts. There are also further challenges thanks to the very restricted and tightly controlled rehearsal and transmission schedule. As it really is a competition, the rehearsal schedule runs in 30‑minute blocks, one per delegation, to ensure fairness is achieved for each country. There are also just 40, count them, seconds to accomplish a complete changeover from one song to the next during the Postcard films. Artists, microphones and complete sets of scenery are all swapped by a massive army of highly skilled technicians and stagehands. What could possibly go wrong?

Robert Edwards at Abbey Road Studios, where the tracks and stems supplied by Eurovision delegations are checked to see whether they meet the show’s technical requirements.Robert Edwards at Abbey Road Studios, where the tracks and stems supplied by Eurovision delegations are checked to see whether they meet the show’s technical requirements.

Be Prepared

So, what is the secret in getting a great vocal to 500 million radio and TV listeners whilst adhering to such a tight schedule? It obviously all begins with the singer, the song and some serious planning. No‑one should turn up to a gig in a pub or world event without doing some proper homework. What stylistic vibe are they trying to portray? Jazz, country, house, R&B, heavy metal, rock, pop, garage, bike shed? (Maybe the last one is still too niche.)

You need to know how serious the sound is to them. Do they have their own IEM (in‑ear monitoring) moulded earpieces and a system? If not, should you supply them? Do they use monitor wedges, or just rely on the in‑house pub or stage PA? Do they have a proper vocal warm‑up routine, or do they just gargle straight vodka?

Any lead singer’s standard response for a poor vocal performance is always to pin the blame firmly on the IEM mixer or the PA system. This is the number one standard response in the vocalist’s guidebook of excuses when the performance is out of tune and/or out of time. Get over it.

At Eurovision, the delegations are obliged to use IEMs, as the stage area and arena is so huge. That has a positive effect on the sound, as unwanted spill from loudspeakers into the vocal microphones is vastly reduced, which helps to achieve the goal of achieving happy delegations and a better chance of getting that ‘record’ mix. Using IEMs reduces coloration, but the PA design and operation also plays a vital part. Keeping 30,000 people in party‑mode for three hours in an arena without alcohol takes a lot of Kilowatts. It’s arguably easier in a pub gig with free‑flowing lager.

There are hidden wedges built into the Eurovision stage to provide audio energy, and to provide a healthy backup if the IEMs ever fail or drop from a performer’s costume while doing a headstand during the act, and there are also large slung sidefills to help the dancers.

This backstage shot shows the monitor position from the 2018 Lisbon contest.This backstage shot shows the monitor position from the 2018 Lisbon contest.

Head Or Hand

Good planning will involve choosing the right microphone. You can’t go wrong with an SM58 on a cable in the pub, or by aiming a U87 at virtually anything that makes a sound in a studio. But there is a lot of smoke and mirrors regarding the matching of a microphone and capsule to suit an artist’s voice. There is a brotherhood of monitor engineers flying the globe in Club Class, each with a flightcase containing just the perfect combination of microphone and capsule for their headline artist. In truth, the differences between them all are generally quite small, and these monitor engineers are there more to get the IEM mix right, and to provide encouraging and enthusiastic support to the artist in the hotel bar afterwards.

To achieve a level playing field at Eurovision, all the artists from all the delegations are obliged to choose from our deliberately limited range of radio microphones. It’s the Henry Ford choice: hand microphone or head microphone, black or black. It keeps it fair.

Hand mics generally sound better, but for all sorts of reasons, generally based around costumes, staging and styling, head mics are sometimes chosen by delegations. There is a minefield of potential issues in using head mics, including earrings that jangle like the contents of plumber’s toolbag, hairspray applied to the hair and copiously into the mic capsule just before going on stage, or simply that the costume has nowhere to mount any of the IEM or mic packs. Any solution must involve the ability to easily change batteries or to adjust the levels on the actual packs. Fortunately, battery management revolves around rechargeable technology these days, and the remaining battery indicators for most packs are uncannily accurate, unlike those on most electric cars.

Eurovision costumes are not always designed with battery packs and cables in mind!Eurovision costumes are not always designed with battery packs and cables in mind!Photo: EBU / Andres Putting

This year, Shure and their Axient system fitted with DPA capsules are the preferred choice of radio microphone, but Sennheiser have also been main providers in the recent past. Frequency management is one of the major challenges, and almost all the available UHF spectrum from TV channel 21 up to TV channel 49 is required to accommodate all the digital radio microphones, IEMs and communication devices needed on site. OFCOM, the government licensing body, are very involved in the process, and are on site to keep a watchful eye over any music that might appear from any unexpected Liverpool bedroom transmissions during the event. Expected transmissions from Liverpool include the BBC, who have Radio One and Two broadcasting live during the week, and a daily presence from The One Show on BBC1, all requiring their own chunk of the spectrum. Marconi would be impressed.

The Fundamentals

The principles of getting a great live vocal sound are the same regardless of the scale of the event, and they start with the source. Talk to the singer. Make sure they hold the mic properly, at a reasonably constant but close distance. Also, get them to understand that if they strangle the capsule by holding the mic at the top, the frequency response will become very unpredictable, likely causing feedback, or at worst, it will sound as if they are singing into an empty Heinz can. Fit an appropriate windshield if needed.

The next job is to sort out the microphone input gain, whether it’s a radio mic system or on a cable. Shout or scream into the device to make sure you set the gain below any clipping, then reduce further to give yourself some more dB of headroom. If the signal is distorted at this stage, you have no hope. And remember, by definition, there are no bits to describe a level above 0dBFS, so if your digital levels are very high in the quiet parts, you are already on a path to ruin. There’s absolutely nowhere to hide when the lungs expand for the chorus and your mix literally flatlines.

The radio microphone sound generally arrives digitally via fibre back to the broadcast truck. So what happens next? We listen. We check it sounds ‘clean’ from system noise, hum, or digital clicks. Then we start filtering. We get rid of anything that is either annoying or we can’t hear, so that means anything much below around 100Hz, which is generally just unwanted thumps, pops and bumps. We also get rid of anything above 19kHz, as nobody will really notice, and it can stop unexpected aliasing effects further down the chain. If you can’t hear it, get rid of it.

Compressors get a bad press from the purists, but it’s unfair to blame them when they can do so much good if used in the right way.

In The Box

The mic signal next takes a trip through a compressor. Compressors get a bad press from the purists, but it’s unfair to blame them when they can do so much good if used in the right way. Really get to know your compressor, and get comfortable with every parameter and characteristic. Try to stick with a few of your standard settings from one or two different manufacturers. Like a friendly dog, take it on every gig with you.

While on the subject of our canine friends, just think of a letterbox. In broadcasting, we must post the audio through a fairly narrow loudness slot defined by R128, the EBU delivery standard, set at ‑23 LUFS, so that it satisfies the audio delivery police. If it’s too loud, we can’t get it through the letterbox without seriously damaging the content. If it’s too quiet, no‑one hears it drop on the mat and the viewers turn over to a louder channel or send letters to the Daily Mail.

There are no rules about how much compression to use, but a commercial vocal will generally sound better with some good compression. Start with 3.5:1 ratio with a 4ms attack, followed by a 50:1 limiter spaced some way above it with a faster attack. Begin there and then make your own judgement.

Then comes the magic of equalisation, although some prefer to do that before compression. Clean out any remaining dross below 100Hz, scoop out a bit at 500Hz, and brighten up the octave between 5 and 10 kHz. You can fiddle for ages in the mids, but maybe save that work for once you’ve got the track level sitting exactly where you want it.

Now for the polish (not the Polish, who haven’t yet won the competition). Natural reverb and delays have been around since the dawn of time, and the ear loves to hear a human vocal in an interesting acoustic space. Caveman loved a good slapback echo, monks love to sing in a reverb longer than five seconds. Gen Z now has an incredible range of toys that can excite the ear, but still most modern vocals predominantly rely on a combination of caveman and monk, using some delays and some reverb.

Typically, there will be some repeated delays in time with the crotchet beat, coupled with a shortish reverb. For a ballad, try a long pre‑delay of 120ms coupled with a longer ambient reverb of, say, 2.6 seconds. For Eurovision, there is intense listening to and copying of the effects used on the ‘commercial release’ version, which might contain a smorgasbord of phasing, repeats and reverse delays.

Learn to work quickly and confidently by reducing your equipment choices to the kit you really know well. This applies especially to the reverb and delay devices you choose. It certainly applies to both ‘down the pub’ and Eurovision. There are very few artists who ever want to hear their vocal completely dry.

Keep Calm & Carry On

The golden rule with vocal mixing is always to remember the basics. Don’t over‑complicate. Be kind to the stressed‑out artists, and eventually they might say something nice to you about your mix, but don’t bank on it. Remember, if you are using a battery‑powered device — say a laptop with those brilliant compressor and delay plug‑ins, or maybe a radio mic — it will always try its best to run out halfway through a song. Be cunning and wise and have a backup. Finally, remember a roll of tape and a pen to label and identify everything. In the pub, label the 13A plugs so you switch off the jukebox not the PA. This practice will hold you in good stead if you ever have the joy of simultaneously wrangling 120 radio devices. No‑one should ever have to play microphone roulette with 500 million people listening in.

Robert Edwards FIPS is a BAFTA Award‑winning Freelance Sound Director who was Head of Sound for Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool.  

Backing Tracks & Backing Stems

For a normal TV appearance, most artists present a stereo backing track with a separate click stem for the IEM, but Eurovision asks for much more. The countries must deliver a raft of stems that together form the backing track, including separate backing vocals. This is to satisfy the need to generate mixes for TV, the IEMs and the arena audience hearing the front‑of‑house PA system.

The click track does what it says: as a hidden track, it provides a tempo click just on the IEM feed. It can also include a vocal count‑in, and maybe a tuning note before the start. During the intro of an a cappella number, it often contains a ghost piano for the artist to sing with, again only appearing in the IEM. This method is often featured on talent shows to provide a killer start.

But nobody can make a killer vocal sound if the backing track mix is so dense that the sound of a blue‑lighted ambulance would struggle to cut through. The backing track should be just that: a track to support, to reflect, and to wrap the singer. That doesn’t mean it can’t be loud, but it shouldn’t have the vocal stuck on top like a cherry unless that’s the wanted style. If you haven’t made the backing track yourself, put the musical director on your speed‑dial list.