Remote Engineering: VIEWS FROM THE TOP

Sep 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Mark Frink

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The 1999 slate of nominees for a TEC Award in the category of Remote/Broadcast Recording Engineer includes some familiar names: Guy Charbonneau, Ed Greene, John Harris, David Hewitt and Kooster McAllister have all appeared in Mix's pages before as writers, interviewees and as TEC nominees. (For more on the interviewees/nominees, see the sidebar: "Truck Drivers.") In addition to their renowned creative and technical abilities, these five are remarkably articulate and candid about their work-perfect candidates for a Mix forum on the current state of remote recording and broadcast operations. We asked them to take us through the signal chain-from mic inputs to 5.1 mixes-and describe their current methods and equipment choices.

MAKE WAY FOR CAMERAS Perhaps the most significant recent change in the remote recording world is the ever-increasing importance of sound for television. "Almost everything we do these days has video or film attached to it," notes Remote Recording Services owner David Hewitt, who recalls finding a memo written in the '70s that showed that only 17% of the projects he was working on then had picture content. "It's been creeping up as long as I can remember," says Hewitt. "Now the percentages are reversed."

Kooster McAllister agrees. "I'd say that 80 percent of what I do at this point is with film or videos," says McAllister. Live performance recording for release on record, once a staple of business for McAllister's Record Plant Remote, has dropped off relative to broadcast-related work. "I hate to say this, but live albums tend to happen [only] when an artist needs to fill up their quotient with a record label," observes McAllister.

Remote recording for broadcast can present special challenges. For example, the number of inputs necessary for a TV awards show is continually expanding. "It used to be on the Grammys we would limit every group to 24 inputs, not including vocals," recalls Ed Greene. "Now there can be 50 or 60 inputs, and they're just as unhappy when some obscure little channel doesn't work as when a main vocal line fails. The truck that I'm in the most has a 72-input main console with a B side to every input, plus an additional 96 inputs of submix, and there are times when I've filled just about all of that." However, Greene notes that picture generally comes before sound quality. "Most of what I do is television, so you have to be careful that some microphone isn't sitting in the way of a camera, because it won't be there very long," he says.

MORE AUDIENCE MICS It's not only the number of onstage mics that has mushroomed-music mixing for TV generally requires more audience and ambience mics than straightforward music recording.

"We're mostly involved in the tracking aspects of projects, but now we're recording more tracks and paying more attention to surround formats," explains Hewitt, noting that his clients are now very interested in surround. "On a Natalie Merchant project we used a Soundfield mic-you can record the discrete outputs of the four capsules, and then in post you can run it through the decoder and steer it around. That's especially interesting in a small theater like the Neil Simon. When you have music with dynamics and a good-sounding hall, it's very valuable. One of my pet peeves is always the mixing of live albums where they gate everything and take every effort to eliminate the leakage and ambience, and they end up sounding like a bad studio recording instead of a good live record."

Hewitt now tries to persuade his clients to dedicate extra tracks to ambience, even if they're recorded onto MDMs. "You're still trying to find a place that sounds good, but it's harder in pop music because there's only so many places you can get to in an arena, and most of them sound bad," he explains. "Generally, we end up back at the FOH mix position, where we'll use a pair of wide omnis. The [traditional arrangement of] closer audience reaction mics across the front of the stage, out on the wings and sometimes even suspended over the first section of seats hasn't changed much. It's still 'the more the merrier' for crowd reaction, because you need a lot of sources to make it sound like an arena."

"What I've done for about a year-and-a-half for taped shows," says Greene, "is [to record] both a front audience and a rear audience, so that all these projects are adaptable-if they have an afterlife-to a 5.1 format." McAllister's approach depends on the number of tracks available: "If I have enough tracks to break the audience down, I try to break it out so you can really get the feeling of depth and the size of room you're working in," he explains.

Harris also records with an eye to mixing for 5.1. Rather than commit to a stereo audience mix, Harris "zones out" the audience and records each zone separately to the multitrack. For the same reasons, Harris favors individual keyboard sources instead of mixer outputs, and he uses multiple guitar mics, even on the same amp, allowing for more freedom to move things around in the mix. Harris is particularly excited about the possibilities of 5.1 mixing for DVD. "You know a Pink Floyd record in 5.1 is going to blow everyone away." he says. "It can go far beyond taking the usual stereo mix and throwing some singers, audience and effects in the rear. You're given so much license with live recording that you can put them up on a big stage and have the response all around."

SNAKES: DIGITAL OR ANALOG? Opinions on the viability of digital snakes varied. "We've used the [Otari] Lightwinder system with the Stones and, at least in a rock 'n' roll sense, we've found it perfectly serviceable," says Hewitt. "In fact, we did a bunch of Jimmy Buffett events, with the last one opening his Margaritaville restaurant at Universal in Florida. It being one of those huge purpose-built theme parks, we couldn't get the truck anywhere near the venue-we had to drive it down under, in the serviceways-but having been just built, it had all sorts of fiber-optics available. Otari was kind enough to lend us a system, and we plugged into the building plumbing, and it worked perfectly."

John Harris notes that Effanel's remote recording setups have long included D/A conversion at the mic pre's. "Even before the advent of the Capricorn, we were taking a rack of mic pre's and putting them on the stage, which isn't all that innovative, but nobody was doing it," he recalls. "And now we can put the trailer a mile away, and it doesn't make a bit of difference. The converters are everything, but they're standing next to the artist. We did a show last year where we ran the snake over 1,000 feet of lighting feeder."

"I have been talking to Studer to get their MADI system to combine the mic preamp onstage and to get 24-bit to the truck," says Le Mobile's Guy Charbonneau. "I like the idea of one video cable." McAllister is less enthusiastic. "I've been doing this a long time, and I sort of have a traditional approach," he says. "I think fiber-optic has its advantages and some drawbacks."

Greene also has reservations. "I think the concepts are there, but the execution is yet to be realized," he says. "Even a moderate show is six 27-pair snakes, so you're talking about over 150 lines. We have to be extremely careful. If you lose one mic, not a problem; if you lose a snake, big problem."

WHICH CONSOLE? As with snakes, there is a range of opinions on the usefulness of digital consoles for remote work. "If you look strictly at sonic quality, the sound of the good old Neve is really hard to beat," says Charbonneau, who admits to a certain bias. "I have to try to separate myself from the recording truck-I have an old Neve that I bought brand-new in 1976," he explains. "In a truck like Le Mobile, if I am the engineer for multiple bands, I have no problem, because I've lived in that truck for too many years. I could close my eyes-I designed that truck; it's very easy. If I have a guest engineer, it might be more difficult for him than if he's sitting in Randy Ezratty's [Capricorn-equipped] truck, where he could recall his console to many presets. It does not mean he'll have a better sound."

McAllister is also an analog fan. "I'm an old, hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool analog-kind-of-guy, which is why I have an all-discrete API console," he says. "I think analog is still alive and well and will be around for a while longer, but inevitably digital is the way things are going. For example, the show I just did, the Music City Music Awards, was on a Capricorn, which worked fine. I don't think you can stop technology and that's the direction things seem to be moving in, but I don't think it's going at the pace people think."

Harris concedes that a client's preference for analog circuitry is understandable, but defends the digital Capricorn's sonic qualities. Effanel has a stock of 52 Neve modules available, components of the company's portable analog "studio-in-a-box" system, which is shipped to locations that are not easily accessible to the truck-Mexico or Italy, for example. These mic pre's may also be used to provide an analog front end for the Capricorn.

"The mic amps in the Capricorn are so amazing-sounding that we rarely [substitute with analog preamps]," reports Harris. "When we originally went to get a digital console, I did not want it at all. We heard Brand X and Brand Y and Brand Z, and I said, 'Do you hear that?' But the Capricorn is another animal-it's a Neve that has transformed into a computer. It still sounds like a Neve, but with all the modern conveniences."

Greene is concerned with reliability. "We're all looking for resettable consoles," he says. "The promise of digital consoles and their instant resettability is out there, but they absolutely, positively have to be 100 percent reliable. There are some notable small consoles, like the [Yamaha] 02R, and I've been playing with the Mackie [Digital] 8*Bus, which I would not hesitate to use on a live show. I think the promise of technology is there, but the execution is still being proven." Hewitt echoes Greene's reservations. "I used to be involved in sports car racing," says Hewitt. "I tend to look at technology issues on the remote side as being more like the endurance races, than sprint races. If you're going to win, you have to finish. If it's going to break, what good is it?"

RECORDING FORMATS When it comes to recording formats, Harris is enthusiastic about high-bit digital. "We just got [an Otari] RADAR that's real 24-bit and when you hear it the first couple of times, it just knocks you down," he explains. "Sixteen to 20 [bit] was a big leap, but going to 24 is another thing altogether."

Hewitt is not convinced. "We have experimented with the Otari hard disk system," he says. "We think it sounds wonderful, and it's certainly getting there, but it's kind of problematic for us because it requires so much time for backup, which we really don't have on the road. I think it's inevitable that [remote recording] will go in the direction of hard disk recording. I think it will take a few years for the world markets to drive hard disk technology to an affordable, reliable point."

Not that Hewitt is opposed to digital recording-far from it. "The bulk of our work is done with a pair of Studer DA-27s, which we dearly love," he says. But he points out that modular digital multitracks have not won wide acceptance as the primary recording medium for remote operations. "I thought we would see more use of MDMs," he says. "About the only thing that we use them for is breakdowns of audience mics, or on a big orchestra date we might do string sections, but at this level we're not seeing a lot else. To tell the truth, it's a relief to me. We've never had problems on our PCM-800s, but we've heard some horror stories. The problem is that people don't treat them with respect. I see them traveling around in cases that aren't properly shock-mounted and getting tossed around like outboard equipment."

Charbonneau is pragmatic, noting that his priority is always the sound. "I don't dislike the idea of 24-bit, but it could be three bits if it sounded good," he says. "I had someone who wanted to record 24-bit and 96 kHz, and I said, 'Just for fun let's run the 2-track with Dolby SR at 15 ips. Why? Because it sounds better.' The thing with formats is that people are just talking numbers, and they don't stop to listen. I don't care-if a rubber band sounds the best, that's the rubber band I'm going to use."

MONITORING FOR 5.1 Though our interviewees have been recording for surround remixes for several years-Greene has been mixing for one surround format or another for about 15 years-they rarely monitor in that format. "The fact of the matter is, when I'm on the air on a live show, I listen 90 percent of the time in mono," says Greene. "You know the stereo and surround is going to be okay if you've set it up correctly, but I'm very concerned for the mono listener, who I feel is the vast majority."

"We have surround monitoring in the truck, but we don't use it very much," notes Hewitt. "On the bigger shows, like the Grammys, Oscars or any of these big TV shows, the surround is an element that is taken care of in the production mix. That usually happens over in the video truck, where it's treated as one of the many elements, so we don't do that final surround mix for many shows. Of course, radio is not broadcasting in surround yet. We are often providing the raw materials for what may eventually become surround-and monitoring them-but it's not a post-production surround mix."

McAllister tells a similar story. "When I mix live shows for television, I generally do not mix listening in surround," says McAllister. "I will monitor it occasionally to see how things are imaging and make sure that we're not having any phase problems. The majority of TV sets are not in surround at this point, so I try to mix for what I feel is going to be the largest listening population."

By contrast, Harris believes that 5.1 is ready for prime time. "Watching the Rolling Stones on your regular TV might not be as good as being there, but if there's huge audio and then HDTV, it's going to make home entertainment as successful as Nintendo," he says. Harris recently installed five self-powered Spendor speakers in the Effanel L7 truck, which opens up to a 14x20-foot room, and recently completed a 5.1 mix for Shania Twain. "I was trying to figure out where I was going with it, what was 'legal,' and I was being conservative," he recalls. "Phil Ramone was sitting there, and he says, 'Well come on, make that stereo guitar the left front and right rear, let's shake it up around here, let's bring her right over my head.' When we got done it was just rocking, and I got a real sense of just how much fun that can be in live performance."

Guy Charbonneau had just mixed two days of mariachi music at the Hollywood Bowl when we spoke. Next he was scheduled to record Sammy Hagar at Universal. Prior to that was a film scoring date at a church in Seattle. "In a live situation, the surround is much easier to deal with than if you are doing a studio record, because it allows you to put the listener in the concert hall much easier than with stereo. A lot of people talk about a compatible mix between stereo and surround, and the need to do a different mix. In a live mix it's very easy to be compatible. On a studio record, it might have to be two different mixes."

When we spoke with Ed Greene, he had just finished the Tony Awards show, one of his favorites, and was on his way to Washington, DC, for a PBS live broadcast of A Capitol Fourth. Greene's schedule also included a PBS special with Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin, another special with Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand's performance at the MGM in Vegas at the end of the year. "I'm fortunate that I continue to do projects year after year, like People's Choice, the Grammys, and the Oscars," comments Greene.

When we spoke with John Harris he was just finishing a series of Hard Rock Live shows for VH-1 with Live, Seal, Melissa Etheridge, Santana and Meatloaf. He was next off to the Special Olympics opening with Stevie Wonder, to be followed by the Eric Clapton and Friends benefit at Madison Square Garden. When I last met Harris he was engineering a Backstreet Boys pay-per-view for Disney on a dark night at the New Amsterdam theater in Times Square. Last year's live albums included Garth Brooks, Counting Crows and the Divas. He calls himself "the Susan Lucci of the TEC awards," having been nominated many times, but never won. He says, "I think it's cool that industry-at-large, Mix-type people pay attention to live recording and who is pushing the boundaries."

Except for the year he had to sit out after winning three TEC awards in a row, David Hewitt has been nominated every year. His credits go back to before Frampton Comes Alive, for which he won a Grammy. When we spoke, he had just finished a week on Broadway with Natalie Merchant, who wanted to make a live album before a small, intimate audience. Last summer he worked on the Seinfeld live taping. One project he particularly enjoyed was a salute to Miles Davis recorded at the new Birdland club on 48th Street, NYC, for Dave Grusin's new label, N2K.

Mix caught up with Kooster McAllister at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which he helped start a quarter-century ago. This year's lineup included Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Bela Fleck; the 10,000-capacity shows are sold out months in advance. McAllister was just out with Aerosmith, and other recent projects include Janet Jackson for HBO, Tom Petty, Mariah Carey and Barenaked Ladies. He regularly mixes for the Radio Network. Woodstock '99 found him joined by Randy Ezratty's Effanel and David Hewitt's Remote Recording Services trucks in upstate New York, and he's booked to work with Sting on New Year's Eve.






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