Vocal Mixing: Lessons From Eurovision

A Broadcaster's Personal Guide
By Robert Edwards

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.

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...

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Published June 2023

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