Austin City Limits
Mar 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg
KEEPING MUSIC TV REAL FOR 35 YEARS
Now in its 35th year, Austin City Limits remains the flagship for how live music should be presented to viewing audiences. When artists perform on ACL, there are no special effects, no panels of judges, no props, no dancers — and no second chances. It is live music in its truest sense, warts and all. This, no doubt, is why the show continues to thrive, why free tickets for tapings are snapped up, why artists of all genres are eager to be booked and why the show is carried on 97 percent of PBS stations.
And although some things have changed since the show debuted in 1974 — it's now high-definition and in 5.1 surround sound, for example — much remains the same, from the simplicity in approach to some of its staffers.
The original concept or philosophy of the show is unchanged: “a platform and showcase for new and original music not found in other places,” says Terry Lickona, the show's producer since 1978. “It has evolved light-years from the 1970s showcase for Austin and Texas and the outlaw music of Willie Nelson, who did the original show. Now there is a lot of indie rock and rock — and anything goes, musically. It just has to be original and good. We look for artists who have something to say as songwriters, singers and in virtuosity.”
In addition to booking talent, Lickona organizes staff, budget and funding. Austin City Limits is a lean, mean operation: six full-time employees and another 30 or 40 freelance and part-time people who come in as needed. Produced by KLRU-TV, the show has always taped on the University of Texas campus, where they have a permanent set. That will change in two years, when ACL partners with Live Nation to tape their shows in a new downtown Austin venue.
Austin City Limits tapes 18 shows per year; some air as full-hour performances, and others as two half-hour segments showcasing two artists. “We generally tape one artist on any particular day and only double up if their schedules are not flexible and they need to do it on the same day,” explains co-producer Jeff Peterson.
“What separates us from a lot of television shows is that we give the artist creative control of the song selection, order and what gets said from the stage,” Peterson continues. “They look at the show that night or we give them a DVD and work with them on what they want to include and fit into the time slot. It's important to our philosophy to present the artist in a way that best represents them. It's their song list. They can change the order of the songs, and we have to cut songs from a 90-minute performance, so all bets are off as to how the pace is maintained.
“We try to keep it as close to the original performance as possible, but we don't want the artist to have something less than acceptable to them going out to the public,” Peterson continues. “So, within reason, the artist can do overdubs. If they're not doing the mix, when the audience is gone they can re-cut a guitar solo, or vocal overdubs are okay to a point. From a legal standpoint, we have a clause that conditions their ability to mix. They may have a certain reverb or certain philosophy about harmonies or how out-front the vocal will be; they developed this over the years and we try not to get too much in the middle of it. It's always a matter of subjective taste.”
Peterson has co-produced ACL since 2005, dealing with all of the legal aspects, negotiations with artists and attorneys, and technical issues such as taking the show to nonlinear for the coming season. He started out as audio supervisor in 1978, holding that position until 1983, then becoming music mixer and technical supervisor. “When I came onboard, everything was analog,” he recalls. “We had a Studer 16-track 2-inch recorder, using timecode on 16, which would bleed into 15, so we basically had 14 tracks. We had to bring in one or two submixers for larger bands. We submixed the drums and keyboards to get it all down, and two audience tracks for stereo audience. At that time I worked directly for KLRU, and I determined patching and controlled the level separate from the rough mix.”
Audio director David Hough has been with ACL since the show shot its pilot. “We did our upgrades and conversion to digital in 2000 and 2001,” he says. “We now have a Pyramix capable of recording up to 56 channels, which is quite a step up from 35 years ago. For the first 12 years, we recorded on a Studer A-80 16-track and a Neve 1073 16-channel desk, which we were very lucky to have at the time. In those 12 years, the biggest artist we did was Roy Orbison, who had two drummers and a percussionist. I had to submix all the drums to one track. Our next upgrade came in 1987, to a 24-channel Studer and a 36-channel Neve. Then the Studer 820 with Dolby SR allowed us to record for a full hour without having to ask the band to pause for a little bit when we had to change the reels.”
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