Austin City Limits

Mar 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg

KEEPING MUSIC TV REAL FOR 35 YEARS

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Producer Leslie Nichols, producer Terry Lickona, technical director Ed Fuentes and director Gary Menotti

Producer Leslie Nichols, producer Terry Lickona, technical director Ed Fuentes and director Gary Menotti

Even today, 56 channels can pose a challenge. “We've had a couple of bands go beyond that,” he recalls. “Pat Metheny came out with a very large setup, and we somehow found more tracks. The Dixie Chicks also exceeded it. They all change instruments, and we brought in another 16 tracks just to record them. That was a fun show to do. [Producer] Lloyd Maines came in afterward to help with the mix.”

After spending four years in mono, ACL was one of the first programs to go to stereo. “Then Dolby came along,” says Hough, “and now we're up to Dolby Digital 5.1 and ProLogic II. Euphonix has made that very simple. Over the last few years, we've made the slow transition to HD and the last two seasons were in 5.1 HD mode.”

Onstage, ACL uses Shure 57 and 58 microphones. “We have an endorsement [deal], and we've used those mics since day one because they're really good for us, with monitors onstage and the P.A. cranked up,” says Hough. “You need mics with good quality and feedback rejection. We use a few AKGs overhead for drums. All stage mics go through a transformer split that was custom-made in 1987. The Electro-Voice Delta-Max P.A. system that was installed in '87 was replaced by a Meyer P.A. in 2004. We are still using the 1987 Yamaha PM-2800 console at monitors and PM-1800 at FOH. The recording room runs Euphonix System 5B and Pyramix 56-track workstations, as well as a Nuendo system provided by AMD. Surround mixing and editing are done on Pro Tools Version 5, with the A/V option for video reference.”

Taping a show falls under one of two basic outlines, says Hough. “Foo Fighters, for example, are a large traveling group with multiple semis. They are self-contained and provide all the monitors, mics, stage gear and front-of-house board. We take the feed through the Euphonix into Pyramix and Nuendo. We were very open to having their house engineer, Bryan Worthen, for the post-production mix. They have interesting mics built into their drum set — an NS-10 driver in front of the kick, which is great for hitting the subwoofer.

“The other situation is a smaller band or a local band. In some cases, their gear goes to the next gig. They come to us with rented backline gear, and we use our front-of-house board, our mics and our monitor desk, and it works very well.

“The show runs almost in real time, and one of the easy things is that after soundcheck and supper, the show runs straight through. I have moving faders in front of me, and when we did Foo Fighters, though we have automation, they did most of their own dynamics.

“We overdub once in a blue moon, when, in post-production, a bass player may say, ‘Can you punch me in on this note?’ The exception is when we let the artist have total control, like Pat Metheny — his engineer, Rob Eaton, was there for the taping, and the bass player has a full studio, so he spent the day in Pro Tools at his studio and sent it to Rob in New York to mix at their expense. My preference is for them to come to our space. Bryan, FOH for the Foo Fighters, came in on a weekend and knocked it out in half a day with no overdubs. We don't get into polishing the cannonball. If a wrong note is played, more than likely it will go on the air that way.”

The time from post-production to ready-for-airing can vary, says Peterson. “We ask for input from the artist within a couple of weeks so that it is fresh in their mind. It might even be the night of the show if we need a quick turnaround. We can turn a show around in one week if we have to, which only happened once, with Coldplay. Otherwise, we go according to schedule. The producer takes a couple of days to do the initial offline: ordering the songs, talk from the stage — it's very specific. He then makes edit decisions on interviews. The director takes three days, usually, to get it down to the exact frame on every shot and the detail of which camera is shown at which time — to the frame. Editing takes two or three days, and we're still on tape, linear at this point. Except for our workflow, it doesn't affect the product and quality, but it's much more difficult to change something later, so we hope to be nonlinear this coming season. Audio takes a couple of days. If it's one band, we take two days. Two bands could take longer. It's a matter of mixing the music, sweetening and bridging between songs and audience response.”

Over the years, ACL has seen its share of challenges. Some artists have been unhappy with their performances, only to watch the playback afterward and find that they, in fact, played a great show. Some artists are a pain to work with, plain and simple. Most commonly, however, some of them just get nervous.

“When we finally got Johnny Cash, his experience with television in Nashville was horrible, and the description was ‘stop-and-go television,’ doing things again,” says Hough. “He finally relaxed after the second song. I see that with a lot of bands. They fall into the comfort zone. We have five or six cameras going, and one trick we use is to tape over the tally light so that they don't know which camera is on. They play to the audience and the audience gives the energy back to the band. The whole idea of the show is to give the home viewer some semblance of what the experience would be like if they were in the studio.”

At the end of the day, says Lickona, all the technology in the world doesn't matter if the music isn't real: “I suppose we could tape the show in black and white with our old cameras, people would still be happy and artists would still do the show because of the way it's presented.”


Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer.






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