The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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P.A. mixer Neil Taylor (standing, left) and audio assistants Ron Thompson and Liza Tan

P.A. mixer Neil Taylor (standing, left) and audio assistants Ron Thompson and Liza Tan
Photos by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.

Talk about working “in the trenches.” Consider the challenges of putting together a daily one-hour television talk/variety show, five programs a week, 170 a year. The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been one of the most popular daily programs in syndication since it debuted in 2003 — and its sound crew one of the most honored: For five years running (2003-2008), it has won the Daytime Emmy for mixing, or, as the category is technically known, “Outstanding Achievement in Live and Direct to Tape Sound Mixing.” (The show has also earned more than 20 non-sound Emmys for DeGeneres herself, direction, etc.) And the program looks and sounds better now than ever before: This season, the show moved to new digs at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., and it's now shot in HD, delivered in both stereo and 5.1, and completely tapeless. Helming the audio for Ellen is production sound mixer Terry Fountain (who has been with the show since its inception) and playback mixer Dirk Sciarrotta (on the show for the past three seasons).

A show like this probably looks like a relatively easy sound job — people sitting in chairs and talking, right? Wrong! Watch the show closely and you'll see that the whole studio is in sonic play, from the always active and participatory audience of more than 300 who attend every taping, to different parts of the soundstage where all manner of funny (and often strange) games and activities take place on a given show (sometimes preplanned, sometimes not), to the area where, on nearly every program, a top musical artist performs. Even a backstage bathroom is not off-limits: It's where DeGeneres' “Bathroom Concert Series” takes place — the host and a guest(s) sing together in the loo for a couple of minutes; it's odd, but also charming and cool — just like DeGeneres herself.

Playback mixer Dirk Sciarrotta

Playback mixer Dirk Sciarrotta

Before this season, Ellen was shot on Stage 11 at NBC Studios in L.A. Fountain designed and assembled the control room, and front-of-house and monitor systems there from scratch. That control room had a Yamaha M3000a 56-input console (36 inputs for bands, 20 for production) and a 24-channel M3000 aux console, while the FOH board was a Mackie 32 8-bus, with two expander consoles. Then and now he monitored primarily on Mackie HR824s. The show was recorded on DigiBeta and edited on Avid.

In the new, larger Warner studio, Fountain sits behind a gleaming Studer Vista 8 digital live production console, while Sciarrotta has a position directly behind him, dominated by a CueLogic SpotOn real-time audio playback system. Fountain says, “When we first started, I had a PC with Cool Edit Pro and a 360 Systems Instant Replay. When Dirk started in season 4, though, I upgraded to the SpotOn system.”

“Back at NBC, I was positioned in a far corner of the audio room actually behind Terry's right near-field speaker,” Sciarrotta notes. “It was a tight fit with all the gear, and I had no visual of Terry or the control room. There was no network file sharing, and I only had a 4-channel PL [private line/intercom] station. My desk was an analog Mackie Onyx, and SpotOn was analog to Terry. Now I have a proper position behind Terry, room for gear and expansion, all the network file-sharing capabilities, HDMI split-screen with all the cameras, a PL station with anything I need, prompter, routers, full digital routing from SpotOn to Terry's Studer via a Yamaha 01V, a great view of the control room — and it looks good, too!”

CueLogic is an L.A.-based company started three years ago by Sciarrotta — who in addition to serving as playback mixer for Ellen has worked on The Price Is Right, Family Feud, various awards shows and more — and Tom Evans, who has designed and built various computer-based technical systems (and works as playback mixer for The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson). It was Evans who found SpotOn, a software application written by David Markie, and working with Sciarrotta figured out a way to integrate it as the centerpiece of a broadcast playback environment.

“The system allows me to play multiple cues out of multiple outputs in multiple colors,” Sciarrotta explains. “They are triggered by a touchscreen and the cues look like buttons. These buttons can be moved around, outputs can be changed per button, levels can be adjusted, text can be changed, the size of the buttons can be adjusted, multiple file types can be played and there are many more features. I can trigger one cue and have that cue trigger others. I can set fade-ins and -outs, group cues together, edit head and tail points, and so on.

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