Of all the award shows broadcast each year, my favorite is the Grammys. For one thing, all the performances are live, and I greatly admire the musicianship that requires. Also, the music is very eclectic, ranging from rock to rap, country to classical, and everything in between. And each year, artists from very different genres and/or eras come together on stage to create something unique and very special.
As an audio/video geek and musician, I'm particularly interested in the technical aspects of the Grammys, which I've covered for many years. So when Dolby asked if I wanted a tour of the technical facilities being prepared for this year's show, I jumped at the chance. But unlike my past excursions to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, I was offered the opportunity to conduct video interviews with various members of the technical crew, even as they were scrambling to get ready for "music's biggest night."
Staples Center is the home of the Grammys. (Photo by Thom Brekke)
Thanks to the photographic prowess of Thom Brekke, Senior Communications and Social Media Specialist for Dolby, and the extraordinary video-editing skills of Mark Henninger (imagic), Senior Writer and Social Media Manager for AVS Forum, we have posted short clips from 10 individuals who were instrumental in pulling off one of the most complex musical events in the world. Not only were they and the rest of their team responsible for the sound and staging in the auditorium (two completely separate stages plus a small stage in the middle of the audience, giant projection screens and LED displays, lights, pyrotechnics, fog machines, etc.), they also managed the video and 5.1/2-channel audio for the live broadcast on CBS.
All that technology is housed in several big-rig trailers parked in the cavernous bowels of the Staples Center—an area called the "truck farm." The main Denali Summit broadcast truck from NEP Broadcast is equipped with a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher, software from Playback Innovation to run the EVS playback system, a Ross XPression graphics system, and a Calrec Alpha audio console.
Two nearly identical trucks from Music Mix Mobile provide the same equipment and acoustical environments; one is used for tracking the rehearsals and live broadcast, while the other is used to mix the rehearsal tracks during the next rehearsal. Both include an Avid Icon D-Control digital-audio console as well as bunches of outboard gear and 5.1 monitoring. And both receive the same digital-audio signal from DiGiCo mixing consoles inside the arena via fiber-optic cabling.
Audio mixer Eric Schilling working at the audio console in one of the Music Mix Mobile trucks. (Photo by Thom Brekke)
As you might expect, Dolby equipment is everywhere. LM100 loudness monitors and Waves WLM loudness-metering software are used to make sure the program meets CBS' level and dialnorm (dialog normalization) specifications, and the final 5.1 audio mix is encoded in Dolby E before it's sent to the CBS studios in New York City. The DP570 Multichannel Audio Tool is used to set and monitor the metadata according to the requirements of CBS.
It's amazing that these guys can keep track of the signal flow through all the equipment! (Photo by Thom Brekke)
I thought the broadcast looked spectacular, especially the huge projection screens and direct-LED displays on the panels that concealed each of the two stages while they were being set up for the next performer. In fact, this is how the producers managed to fit 20 performances into four hours—the gear for each act, such as drum set, keyboards, guitar amps, and the microphones assigned to them, were set up on rolling platforms that could be quickly wheeled into place on one stage, hidden from view by the panel, while the other stage was being used.
Preset instruments on rolling stands waiting to be wheeled onto one of two stages. (Photo by Thom Brekke)
However, some AVS members have commented in the interview threads that the mix had some problems—in particular, the lead vocals were somewhat buried and not prominent enough. I must agree with this assessment. I was doubly disappointed in the mix of the performance by Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar—at one point, most of the musicians were playing drums like a taiko ensemble, but all I could hear was the string-section background, which I assume was a pre-recorded track. It would have been much more effective to hear all those pounding drums!
Some of the performances were better than others. I especially liked Pink's rendition of "Try" while performing aerial acrobatics. I also really enjoyed the mashup of "Get Lucky," "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," "Le Freak," and "Another Star" by Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, and Daft Punk. And of course, who couldn't love Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr playing together? (I thought the song was pretty insipid, though.)
Probably the strangest pairing was Metallica and classical pianist Lang Lang playing "One," but it worked somehow. On the other hand, I could have done without Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Blake Shelton singing "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" and "Okie From Muskogee." Sure, it was a nostalgic moment, but they were severely under-rehearsed, and Kristofferson's and Haggard's voices haven't aged all that well.
Did you catch the broadcast? Which performances did you like the best—and least? What did you think of the technical aspects?
Thanks to Dolby for inviting us to go behind the scenes and providing the video-interview footage and photos.
Here are the people we interviewed:
Editor, AVS Forum
As a fan since 1984 (gulp!) it's hard for me to beat up Metallica's creativity, but I'd have to disagree with you on their performance....there's no mistake it was different, but I didn't think it worked very well. They did a much better job when they played with the San Francisco Symphony a few years back.
Regardless of the quality of the end result, it was still fascinating to hear about the effort that goes into a live production of this scale!
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My thoughts on the broadcast:
1. Visually, it was just incredible. I have a Grammys from 2 years ago still on my PVR (Bruno Mars performs, Adelle, etc) because the image and sound are so amazing. Last year's Grammys, for whatever reason, didn't match the same level
of clarity or quality. This year's Grammys looked almost perfect in terms of image clarity and minimal artifacts. And the contrast was at an all time high. Anyone with a really high contrast display (I use a JVC RS55 projector) can revel in the gorgeous
swaths of colored lights and entertainers, moving through fields of black of every shade, from the deepest black to multiple shades of black/gray objects and backgrounds.
2. Audio: The Grammys often have fantastic sound quality. Some of the performances had excellent sound quality (e.g. Lord's performance sounded very nice in my set up). But as you guys have noted, the mixing was off for a number of the performances; buried vocals etc. Whereas the 2-year old Grammys I have is almost perfect mixing. I was also let down by the mix for Daft Punk's performance. If anything needed some deep, rich bass it was that song, and for some reason it was like the bass disappeared for that performance, relative to other performances.
3. Performances. I liked Daft Punk's the most...though it looked at first like it was headed for disaster with a spaced-out looking Stevie Wonder wondering when to start performing (he never really looked like he got totally comfortable in that performance, unusually for him). Metallica's with that Pianist was "oh-my-God-did-anyone-even-listen-to-this-before-putting-it-on-live?" gawd-awful. Like, astonishingly so, right from the out of tune noodlings by the guitarist to start off, and the discordant, utterly confused nature only ever got worse, and louder. They only pulled it out of the fire at the last moment by clicking into a more standard sounding Metallica groove.
Pink. What the hell? Amazing, really. I just never knew she was auditioning for the Olympics.
Chicogo and Robin Thicke...I have a soft spot for Chicago and they can still sound quite good, despite the aging trombonist's squeamish attempt to make the trombone as cool as a lead guitar. Robin Thicke carrying on the cheesy vibe of his Dad.
Ringo Starr. Oh, was that torturous. All those good vibes towards the Beatles, their place in rock and roll, and Ringo Starr puts out a performance and song that says only one thing: Old Fogey. It was the equivalent of a sing-a-long song on a seniors cruise ship, and interminable at that.
Paul McCartney's song wasn't much better for similar reasons. A bit more hook to it, but still had "irrelevance" and "old guy's tunes" written all over it. (And I love The Beatles and McCartney).
Anyway, despite all that I actually love the Grammy's for the performances. They are usually interesting, and sometimes even awesome.
R Harkness, I totally agree about the visuals—they were spectacular, with nary a hint of artifacts, even with strobe lights, fire, and the LED panels. During some past broadcasts, such things would be riddled with MPEG artifacts, but not this year.
I also agree about Ringo's performance, and McCartney's as well, though I thought Kris Kristofferson was even more of an old fogey who couldn't even sing in tune. On the other hand, the music he, Willie, and Merle performed was more appropriate for old fogeys.
I, too, have a soft spot for Chicago; as a trombone player myself, they have been one of my favorite bands since high school. Yeah, James Pankow tries too hard to be hip, but he is a great player, so I forgive him that.
Editor, AVS Forum
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Daft Punk is my favorite among the winners, the only act whose music is in my own collection—discounting jay-Z since he won for a collaboration, not for his own track. I also admit that I bought "The Heist," but I cannot stand Macklemore & Ryan Lewis so that album doesn't count.
In the Daft Punk performance with Stevie Wonder, I can hear exactly what people are complaining about—the music was almost insubstantial and Stevie's voice sounded subdued to me.
Mark Henninger (aka Imagic)
|Grammy Awards 2014|