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Living in Los Angeles, you get used to road closures due to movie and TV filming. But nothing compares with the Oscars, for which Hollywood Blvd. and several streets near the Dolby Theatre, the site of the event, are closed off for a week before the show. So although I was delighted when Dolby invited me to interview some of the audio engineers working on this year's broadcast, I was also concerned about how long it would take me to drive the five miles from my home to the venue.

 

I needn't have worried—it took me only 20 minutes to get the Loews Hollywood Hotel, which is right next door. After meeting my Dolby contacts, we walked over to the Dolby Theatre, where we were confronted with the tightest security I've ever seen—anyone with an all-access pass around their neck is required to wear it with the back of the badge facing outward so no one can take a photo of it and make a counterfeit!

 



The engineers I interviewed were (L-R) Hugh Healy, Paul Sandweiss, Pablo Munguia, and Gary Epstein (all instructed not to wear their all-access passes for this photo). Behind them is Ray Dolby's Academy Award of Merit for his ongoing contributions to the movie industry. (Photo credit: Thom Brekke/Dolby)

 

Once we made it through the gauntlet and I had my wrist band, we walked down seemingly endless corridors to the Dolby Lounge just off the main lobby of the theater. There, I met up with Paul Sandweiss, lead sound mixer, Hugh Healy, broadcast engineer, Pablo Munguia, Pro Tools mixer, and Gary Epstein, Dolby product marketing manager for professional authoring tools and onsite Dolby engineer and consultant at the Oscars. They were about to start rehearsals for the show, which will be broadcast live on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 7 PM Eastern/4 PM Pacific on ABC stations across the country and around the world.

 



About 1.2 billion people will watch the Academy Awards telecast in over 60 countries around the world. The countries in blue will receive 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, while the countries in yellow will receive stereo audio. (Image provided by Dolby)

 

Sandweiss' company, Sound Design Corp., is creating all the "packages" for the show—pre-recorded segments such as montages of the nominees in each category. Each studio delivers the video and audio to be included in the packages, but in the past, the quality has varied widely, from 5.1 to monaural. So Dolby has been helping to acquire true 5.1 audio or even separate sound elements, such as dialog, music, and sound effects, giving Sandweiss more control so all the clips can be 5.1, and the transitions between them can be carefully constructed to flow smoothly from one to the next.

 

Interestingly, the reading of the nominees during the packages is pre-recorded by the presenters, not read live from the stage. This prevents the presenter from mispronouncing any names.

 

This year, all four nominees for Best Original Song will be performed live during the show by the artists who recorded them for the movies in which they appear. Some of these performances will be accompanied by a full orchestra, which also plays the music during the opening and closing of the show, as the winners make their way to the podium, bumper music into and out of commercials, etc.

 

Like last year, the orchestra will be a few blocks away in a studio at Capitol Records, which makes for some interesting technical challenges, especially in terms of latency. Sandweiss recalls doing the Academy Awards show in the 1970s. "Everything back then was analog. Now everything is digital, which can have noticeable latency, and HD video monitors often have lots of lag. When you try to conduct with a video monitor that has tons of latency, it's a real problem. When everything was analog, that wasn't an issue, because the transmissions were essentially instantaneous."

 



The broadcast audio-mixing station uses JBL LSR-6328P powered speakers for the front LCR, two Yamaha HS-80s mounted at an angle in the ceiling for the surrounds, and one JBL LSR-4312SP subwoofer. (Photo credit: Thom Brekke/Dolby)

 

Another problem is all the conversions the signal must go through—analog to digital, one format to another, electrical to fiber, etc. One of the biggest culprits is the process of embedding and de-embedding the audio in the video signal. Up to 16 channels of audio can be embedded into the video signal with no loss of quality, which requires special equipment to embed the audio and then de-embed it at the other end.

 

Each of these conversions introduces its own bit of latency, which add up. How do the engineers solve this problem? By using equipment with the lowest possible latency. According to Healy, "Last year, the embedding/de-embedding process was way too long. The musical director, artists, everyone was unhappy with it. So we did a lot of testing to find the lowest-latency embedders and de-embedders. We're using gear from Cobalt, which makes a lot of video processors. The entire latency from here to Capitol and back again is about 2.7 milliseconds, which is astoundingly fast."

 

There are dedicated video lines between the theater and Capitol Records, which carry uncompressed HD video and embedded audio, including live and pre-recorded audio as well as several channels of intercom communication. The audio is de-embedded at Capitol and converted to analog so the conductor can hear it and lead the orchestra to play along. That audio is then converted to digital, embedded in the video signal from the studio (there are two cameras there), and sent back to the theater, where it is de-embedded again. The intercom communications are also sent via audio over IP as a redundant backup.

 



One of many patch bays in the broadcast truck covered in techno-spaghetti. (Photo credit: Thom Brekke/Dolby)

 

The main audio system is incredibly complex. The live performances use 80 inputs, including all wired and wireless microphones and direct boxes (which are used by guitar pickups and keyboards to convert their output signal to microphone level), while the orchestra uses 74 channels of mics and direct boxes. The pre-recorded music is played from Pro Tools running up to eight channels plus two channels for click track and count-offs. The non-musical parts of the production use 32 channels of wired and wireless mics as well as 16 wired mics in the audience. The pre-recorded packages use 28 more channels.

 

All those channels are routed as appropriate to the front-of-house mixers for the audience in the Dolby Theatre, the monitor mixers for the on-stage performers, the orchestra mixers at Capitol Records, and the mixers in the broadcast truck. Sandwiess is the final step in the broadcast mix; he take all the elements—music, podium mics, lav mics, audience mics—and makes a coherent mix with appropriate levels and balance for what he wants home viewers to hear.

 

I asked about dynamic compression, to which Sandweiss replied, "I apply it to individual channels and globally as needed, but very subtly on the final 5.1 mix. If we do things right here, the signal won't need more compression down the line. We'd rather do it here where we can manage it the way we want rather than have ABC or the individual stations have to apply more compression."

 



Outside the broadcast truck—which is really two trucks linked together—some serious cables send the signal to and from Capitol Records a few blocks away and to ABC in New York. (Photo credit: Thom Brekke/Dolby)

 

The final 5.1 mix is embedded into the uncompressed video and sent to ABC in New York, where the audio is de-embedded, commercials are added, and levels might be tweaked to conform to the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act. The audio is then re-embedded with the video, which is compressed, and sent via satellite to the cable companies as well as DirecTV and Dish satellite services.

 

According to Healy, "We closely monitor every point in the chain where the signal is put together, taken apart, encoded, decoded, etc. All these points are potential places for failure. When the show starts, I'll start getting texts from engineers all over the country with feedback on what's wrong with what they're hearing."

 

Sandweiss agrees. "There are so many boxes in the signal chain. There are something like 28 devices at ABC between where the signal comes in and where it goes out again. Some of them are older boxes that don't deal with embedded audio, so it needs to be de-embedded and re-embedded several times. Every time the audio is de-embedded, there's a chance that someone will screw something up—say, drop the center channel, stuff like that. In some cases, the de-embedded audio goes through a patch bay, where channels can be swapped."

 



The show is directed from here, with 21 LCD monitors that can each be split into quad views. A total of 21 HD cameras are used for the broadcast. (Photo credit: Thom Brekke/Dolby)

 

Healy notes another potential problem. "De-embedded audio might get out of sync due to older chipsets that do not preserve sample alignment. If two channels are carrying the same signal and this happens, you get comb filtering and a severe high-frequency rolloff." That's one reason Sandweiss tries to avoid having the same signal in multiple channels if at all possible.

 

As Epstein adds, "That's why it's so important to have engineers scattered throughout the country listening to this stuff. Luckily, this show is live, so we can get realistic feedback right away."

 

Interestingly, the engineers also monitor AVS Forum during the show. As Sandweiss recalls, "Last year as the show started, Gary [Epstein] came in and said, 'We're getting reports of clicking in one of the surround channels.' It turned out to be a guy taking pictures, and he was close to one of the audience mics. I didn't notice it, but AVS members did, and we dropped the level of that mic."

 

Healy added, "The best part of monitoring AVS Forum during the show is that when they start talking about the performances, we know everything is going well on our end. But they catch little tech things we might miss." So be sure to tune in to the show and post about what you see and hear in this thread or the 2014 Oscars General Comments thread . And to Paul Sandweiss, Gary Epstein, Hugh Healy, Pablo Munguia, and the rest of the technical crew—that's the place to monitor for sharp-eared observations about the broadcast from the AVS army.

 

Be sure to vote in our Oscar polls:

 

Which Oscar Nominee for Best Sound Mixing is Most Home-Theater Worthy?

 

Which Oscar Nominee for Best Visual Effects is Most Home-Theater Worthy?

 

Which Oscar Nominee for Best Cinematography is Most Home-Theater Worthy?

 

Which Oscar Nominee for Best Picture Are You Rooting For?

 

 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·

Quote:
Originally Posted by Orbitron  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24424120


Scott, since the ABC network uses the 720p format, are they doing 720p on site or 1080i with conversion to 720p?
Hmm, I assume they're shooting in 720p; it seems silly to me to shoot in 1080i and convert to 720p. But I don't actually know, so I'll see if I can find out.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24424297



Hmm, I assume they're shooting in 720p; it seems silly to me to shoot in 1080i and convert to 720p.

Future proofing / Archival purposes? But in that case, why stop at 1080/60i instead of 60p or 24p?
 

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My local ABC affilitate in NYC used to have great audio in 5.1 and much louder before it split up its signal to LiveWell HD, making watching ABC shows unbearable. The only shows i watch on that channel are Jeopardy, the NBA Finals, and of course The Oscars. Some of the best shows on ABC such as Modern Family I watch in reruns recently on channel 5 and on USA; i also sometimes watch the occasional holiday special but that's it.
 

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A fascinating article, Scott. I have a completely new appreciation for all the hard work it takes to produce and broadcast a show of this magnitude and caliber.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Derek Dean  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24426640


A fascinating article, Scott. I have a completely new appreciation for all the hard work it takes to produce and broadcast a show of this magnitude and caliber.

and pretentiousness
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24422549



About 1.2 billion people will watch the Academy Awards telecast in over 60 countries around the world. The countries in blue will receive 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, while the countries in yellow will receive stereo audio. (Image provided by Dolby)

Couple of interesting things (sorry, I love maps) in this picture.


Serbia not only gets it, but gets in 5.1 while Bosnia gets nothing. Not surprisingly, most of the 'Stan's don't get it but Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia are curious omissions. You'd think that U.A.E. would want it too. N. Korea is a no brainer I guess and maybe there isn't much demand in Mongolia. I'm sure Cuba would love it, sad to see we're still "there".
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tack  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24426891



Couple of interesting things (sorry, I love maps) in this picture.


Serbia not only gets it, but gets in 5.1 while Bosnia gets nothing. Not surprisingly, most of the 'Stan's don't get it but Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia are curious omissions. You'd think that U.A.E. would want it too. N. Korea is a no brainer I guess and maybe there isn't much demand in Mongolia. I'm sure Cuba would love it, sad to see we're still "there".
Yeah, I find this map fascinating as well. I'm surprised that Japan and South Korea don't get 5.1.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24426935



Yeah, I find this map fascinating as well. I'm surprised that Japan and South Korea don't get 5.1.

You're right. New Zealand gets 5.1 but the giants of digital are two channel. Crazay.
 

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But you're screwed if you're in Greenland!


I love maps too. I spent way too long looking at that.


GREAT article, that's for all that. Fascinating stuff for me. I'm going to have to share this around.
 

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Quote:
Hmm, I assume they're shooting in 720p; it seems silly to me to shoot in 1080i and convert to 720p. But I don't actually know, so I'll see if I can find out.

@ScottWilkinson

Show is typically done out of a couple of NEP's Denali trucks (Summit) which use Sony HDC-2000 series cameras which I believe are native 1920x1080/59.94 acquisition (meaning the 720p is being downsacaled likely at the camera head, which is fairly typical these days). Someone at the show more familiar like Tad Scripter or John Field could probably elaborate more. I would fully expect director Hamish Hamilton to have a few tricks up his sleeve (cine-lenses, perhaps an Alexa or two) like he does with the Super Bowl Halftime and Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Also not mentioned in the article is the role of people like legendary mixer Tommy Vicari mixing the orchestra (who has been involved with the orchestra mix every year since 1996 except the years MIchael Giacchino and John Williams used their own guys) and the ATK team handling the FOH responsibilities.


Should also be pointed out Paul Sandweiss was the lead mixer on the show in the early 90s. The role was handed off to Ed Greene from 97-08 (the Louis J. years), before Paul returned back to the show. Not his first rodeo.
 

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Since Scott mentions all the audio embedding and de-embedding that is going on, I would like to reiterate that there is no quality loss whatsoever from this process. It is not the same as analog to digital and reverse. Embedded audio is very much like analog closed caption. The digital audio data is carried in the vertical as well as the horizontal blanking areas. Of course as is mentioned, there are significant time delays introduced by this processing.
 

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I usually hate awards shows, and don't go to a lot of movies in the theater, but this article has me pretty ready to watch this evening. It's fascinating what all goes into a live broadcast of this magnitude.
 

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Show looks and sounds great as usual so far. KABC Los Angeles.


Lighting on the audience seems less moody than some of the other recent Dickinson shows (Grammys), but not a bad thing necessarily. Hamish doing a fairly restrained job directing the show but solid.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Glimmie  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24429362


The digital audio data is carried in the vertical as well as the horizontal blanking areas.

I must be missing something here. Digital video doesn't have vertical or horizontal blanking areas. I do not know the kind of transport stream that is used for the sending of the video/audio from LA to NY via fiber. I only know sat feed transport technology. In this case the transport stream that ABC uses for its network to affiliate feed is one video stream and four audio stream (3 for the 5.1 audio and one 2.0 downmix). The audio is NOT included in the video stream.


I'm capturing the LS->NY backup sat feed, which uses the same format as the network feed, except that the video is MPEG2 (4:2:2) instead of H.264 (4:2:0). I'm watching the local ABC affiliate, as I do not have the capability to watch the sat feed while capturing it (I'd have to buy more gear).


The 2.0/5.1 map also surprises me, considering that the international sat feed will have both 5.1 and 2.0 audio. I would have expected the 2.0 list to be smaller than the 5.1 list, considering all of the countries that are 5.1. I've not personally gone looking for the international feed.
 

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We are getting pretty serious noise swells like a noise gate is coming in and out without any delay following any voice spurt. I get it both OTA as well as through U-Verse. When music plays it seems to keep the gate (if that is the right reference) is kept off. I did a Google search for any reports of noise level change issues without finding any reports. The noise level changes only occur during live show elements.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by mrvideo  /t/1520319/avs-goes-behind-the-scenes-at-the-2014-oscars#post_24431247


I must be missing something here. Digital video doesn't have vertical or horizontal blanking areas. I do not know the kind of transport stream that is used for the sending of the video/audio from LA to NY via fiber. I only know sat feed transport technology. In this case the transport stream that ABC uses for its network to affiliate feed is one video stream and four audio stream (3 for the 5.1 audio and one 2.0 downmix). The audio is NOT included in the video stream.


I'm capturing the LS->NY backup sat feed, which uses the same format as the network feed, except that the video is MPEG2 (4:2:2) instead of H.264 (4:2:0). I'm watching the local ABC affiliate, as I do not have the capability to watch the sat feed while capturing it (I'd have to buy more gear).


The 2.0/5.1 map also surprises me, considering that the international sat feed will have both 5.1 and 2.0 audio. I would have expected the 2.0 list to be smaller than the 5.1 list, considering all of the countries that are 5.1. I've not personally gone looking for the international feed.

Compressed streams do not have traditional blanking. But uncompressed digital broadcast video does. Look at SMPTE 292. The blanking area is where HANC and VANC is located. Uncompressed AES audio streams are packed into theses data areas within the digital video stream.
 
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