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Cave Club

AV at 300 feet under

SVC: It’s been a few years since we last talked and I think you were doing a big show at the Georgia Dome. Ever since we did that I’ve wanted to hear about this remarkable PBS show. You’ve been doing that for several years now. But before we get into that one, what’s been happening lately at TNDV Television?

Nic Dugger: Well, it’s good to speak to you as always. We’ve had a very busy few years since the last time we spoke. Our fleet count is up to eight trucks now and an additional six fly packs that are working coast-to-coast every week. We closed out a great 2016 and we’re averaging these days about 350 productions a year. So we’re staying very busy. Just in the last few weeks we wrapped up some live events for Harley Davidson. We’re doing a lot of racing work with Harley. Some outstanding concert events in Los Angeles, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. And then coming up this week we’re headed toward Phoenix for some concerts there, the Stellar Awards of gospel music in Las Vegas, and as you mentioned, season seven of Bluegrass Underground starts loading in two days.

This is going into our sixth opportunity to work with the team in the cave. We have a fantastic production partnership with not only the camera team and the lighting team, but the sound guys as well. It’s like a little family reunion every year to get together and work on this project. It’s one we really enjoy.

They seem to be very busy down there in the cave all the time. While they’re not always recording video, they always have concerts and radio broadcasts going on.

They do. It’s a venue that’s available and they do a lot of events there. We only shoot for the television portion once a year. It’s a very intensive three-and-a-half day shoot. But they have other events in the cave all the time. It’s open to the public. They do tours through there all the time. And in addition to our televised specials we’ve even been known to go back and shoot some one-off events in the cave as well.

The series has been hugely popular on PBS with the show’s seventh season coming up. I believe Todd Mayo was the creator of it. What an idea to start producing a music show in a natural venue that took three million years to “build.”

Well, it’s actually interesting. The team of Todds—Todd Mayo and Todd Jarrell—formed Todd Squared Productions and they are the production company behind Bluegrass Underground. So this cave that has existed as a tourist attraction for decades gets transformed into a music venue once a year. And we bring in audio and lighting, and of course one of our eight broadcast trucks parks onsite to capture the video side of things. And that will turn into an entire season of the now nationally-televised multi-Emmy winning Bluegrass Underground that you can see all over the country on PBS affiliates.

I guess the obvious question here is what’s it like producing a music show 300 feet below ground?

Well, for us a couple of things came to light when we first attempted this project. The first discussion was: where do you put your control room? Do you put it down in the cave or do we bring a truck in? And when we bring a truck to a venue like Bridgestone Arena or Ryman Auditorium, it’s not difficult at all. They have parking and power and cable ramps ready for that. But when you’re in a cave on the side of a mountain, getting a truck back there is no easy task, but it’s one that we have perfected over the years.

So we back a 40-foot expanding-side truck back to the cave and then run cables. Granted, the cave is 300 feet below ground, but that’s from the top working down. If you follow the cable path it’s closer to 1,500 to 1,700 feet from the truck to where the cameras are actually located. So it’s a lot more tricky of a cable run than it sounds when you’re just talking about digging down from the top of the hill.

And the first time we did the show it was a lot trickier because at that point in time, six years ago, we ran an individual camera cable. We used SMPTE fiber per camera, plus our audio fibers, plus our analog audio snakes, plus power. They have to get power down into the cave. And even though they have permanently installed residential-style power—they don’t have production power in the cave. So we actually run feeder, heavy-duty copper cam lock cable all the way down that path and into the cave to provide the necessary amperage to the lighting team more than anything. But then we also use some of that power as well.

So it’s a massive cable pull that takes about a full day and a half to get done. The good news is as technology has improved we have found ways to reduce the number of cables necessary and most of that we owe to fiber and the fiber optic tools from companies like MultiDyne that allow us to run six or 12 cameras on a single tactical fiber. We’ve also got audio adapters, intercom adapters, data adapters that all run on single-mode fiber. So we’ve been able to significantly decrease the amount of infrastructure that has to be put in place to heavily increase our time that we can get loaded in and ready to shoot.

That must make a big difference only having to string fiber down there but you still need some strong backs to heft all of the copper power cabling. That stuff can really wear you into the ground.

We have actually a series of modified Jeeps that can fit, believe it or not, in the mouth of the cave and down that path. But it’s a very narrow road so you don’t want to come into contact with another Jeep on your way down because there’s nowhere to go. But we do have the ability to use gas-powered Jeeps to move some of this hardware in and out and then that becomes doubly beneficial because all throughout the weekend every band obviously has a full complement of equipment – guitars, bass guitars, keyboards – that have to go up and down that path. So even after we get TV, audio and lighting installed, we have a constant rotation of band gear coming and going up and down.

With all of that going on at the same time I would think that the entrance to the cave would easily become a huge bottleneck without some pretty careful planning.

Well, you add 700 of the biggest bluegrass music fans in the country to that mix and it gets very crowded. But I think those 700 attendees really enjoy the experience of seeing that TV truck parked out front of this cave and seeing those Jeeps running band gear up and down the path. It really makes for a special experience for them. And I’d put the cave on the save list of venues like Red Rocks or even the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington as one of those must-see venues. Until you’ve experienced a show down in the cave it’s really hard to put into words how special that opportunity is to see a band and experience music like that. Because you can’t recreate that in a brick-and-mortar building.

Yeah, and the lighting is absolutely incredible. I mean the way the lighting meets the acoustics down there and it’s got to be like no other performing space in the world.

Well, you know, you think about it. There’s no naturally-occurring light in a cave. When you get that deep it is pitch black. The lighting director is Allen Branton – he’s a multi-Emmy winning lighting designer that’s done every major award show you’ve ever heard of. He is an internationally-renowned lighting designer that comes in and helps us light this thing. He gets to start with a completely blank palette. I mean there is not even the glow of an exit sign. It is pitch, pitch black like you’ve never seen before. And I think as a lighting designer that’s a unique situation. They don’t have any sunlight, any ambient light. You know, even at the Ryman you’re in downtown Nashville. You’re battling with daylight pouring in through those stained glass windows. Down in the caves he gets to start from scratch and I think it’s an opportunity not many lighting designers get to work with, and Allen takes full advantage of it.

I believe they perform Bluegrass Underground in what’s called the Volcano Room.

That’s correct. As you hike in, as if you were one of the tourists visiting the cave, it’s about a 30-minute hike to get down into this space that opens up into a very large room known as the Volcano Room. And that space seats about 700 attendees in addition to the technical crew. Many of those folks are in seats, but as you’ll see on television many folks are sitting on the wall or sitting on a ledge or leaning up against a stalactite or a stalagmite to catch the show. A really pretty space. Years and years ago they hung a massive chandelier in this room that stays there permanently. You know, the stage itself has been carved and hewn out of the stone so it’s a permanent fixture. We even had a rigging company a number of years ago come in and install legitimate points into the stone ceiling and rate them so our lighting team knows exactly how much weight they can hang from the stone ceiling of that cave. So even though it’s a very rustic and primitive environment – it’s dusty and it’s dirty – we’ve put all the comforts of a venue home in there to make our job producing the television show even easier.

Now, there has to be some serious backup power in there because if you ever lost the lights you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

You’re absolutely right. Because this is such a popular tourist attraction, the city of McMinnville has actually run power all the way down into the cave and that includes exit sign-style safety lights that have a battery backup. So should we need to evacuate the cave, even without power, folks would be able to see their way out. That residential power is not enough for our production so we do park a twin pack of generators at the mouth of the cave and run a thousand feet of feeder cable for our lighting power. So while we don’t have a true redundant power system there are backups in place to make sure everyone can see to get back out should they need to evacuate for any reason.

I would think there would be some kind of code considerations since you have live audiences in there and it’s not exactly your normal type of building. That could get interesting.

Well, it’s not ADA compliant and that’s something that goes along with the fact that this tourist venue itself is not capable of being ADA compliant. And of course we have the signage and the information regarding that. And I’ll give Cumberland Caverns credit. They make sure there are plenty of activities at the guest area that if someone is not physically comfortable making that trip down into the cave, they can still enjoy their visit to the park, learn about the environment, have activities. But when it comes to the power and the rigging we’ve installed, everything is compliant to code. The city of McMinnville is extremely supportive of this project. They come in and check out any of the installation work or contracting work we’ve had done and make sure that it’s safe for all the attendees to enjoy a fun weekend.

I guess with it that far below ground level the temperature must stay pretty much constant in there no matter what the weather is outside.

It’s interesting. Because of the time of the year we do this in Tennessee we can experience exterior temperatures in the 70s or 80s all the way down to the 30s, but the cave stays a very consistent temperature. But this means equipment can’t come up and down overnight. We wouldn’t want eye pieces and viewfinders and lenses to have to deal with that dramatic temperature change and humidity difference. So once we load in on Wednesday and Thursday, the equipment stays in until we come out on Sunday.

I saw some water running down the walls in some of the pictures. Is that happening in the Volcano Room or is that among the things you see on the way down there?

There are certainly tide pools on the way down. Of course this is a real cave. This is not a man-made structure. It is a working, living cave and that means there is runoff from rain, there’s drops and drops from the ground above, there’s pools along the path that have collected over the thousands of years this cave has been in place. What’s really cool is the owners of the cave and the managers of the show really want to give the attendees the unique experience so they light the path not just with light to see, but they’ll uplight features of the cave. They’ll downlight some of the pools of water so that as you’re taking your 30-minute hike from the mouth of the cave down into the Volcano Room, you truly get an experience of spelunking for the day. I hate to sound cliché and call it magical, but it’s a pretty magical experience to take that walk.

How are the acoustics in that big cave? I would think that if they’re difficult, there’s not a whole lot you could do.

Well, I think the acoustics are one of the things that makes this venue extremely unique because you would assume in a cave you might have echo problems. But the Volcano Room is actually a very sound-appropriate room. It feels like you’re in a control room space when you’re down there. So when it comes to PA for the crowd we don’t need much. We’re not flying line arrays for the 700 attendees. We have very small speakers on stands because the room itself is so well-insulated acoustically that it doesn’t need much. I think that’s probably why music performances started happening down in here. The space just leant itself to that kind of work.

This is a music show so is it still pretty much the standard thing with the stage monitoring and front of house set up separately inside the cave?

Yeah, for audio. You know, of course being in Music City, Tennessee, there’s no shortage of very strong audio crew and audio hardware. So we do it the right way. There’s a three-way split involved. Front of house has a split, the monitor engineer has their own split, and then we take a third split to the truck. And what that allows us to do is a true front of house mix for the guests in the cave. Monitors can mix wedges and ears for the artists so they can hear what they need to hear. And then out in the truck we take a full split plus add all of our crowd microphones on top of that to where we can do a true broadcast mix that’s not mixed in that space. Again, we’re hundreds if not thousands of feet away from where the music is in one of our acoustically-treated sound booths. That A1 in the truck can get a solid broadcast mix that’s ready for television. And then of course in addition we roll Pro Tools and a backup multitrack recorder so post-audio mixing can take place even after the fact if there’s any cleanup work they want to do.

So how long does it take to record one of these shows? Your crew is in there for several days?

We are. Once we get loaded in – and load-in takes a little over a day and a half before we start getting into serious sound checks, we’ll line up a number of artists, typically four to five artists per night for three nights. And the goal is the get one show out of each individual artist. So it’s realistic that we’ll get 12 to 15 separate episodes in a single weekend of shooting, and it would take between an hour and a half to two hours per artist to capture their set including their sound checks.

TNDV Television has a whole fleet of remote production trucks. Which one did you use for the Bluegrass Underground show or have you used different trucks for that?

I did mention our fleet is up to eight HD and 4K trucks now. We use Aspiration. It’s a sevenyear-old 40-foot expanding side truck. It has a nice 3ME HD switcher, a big audio desk from Studer, 64 inputs in that audio suite. And Aspiration typically supports from 10 to 14 cameras and seats a crew of about 17, but fits in a 40-foot bumper-to-bumper configuration so it’s much smaller than a typical full-sized, 53-foot expando truck. And we can fit it down the path to Bluegrass Underground much easier than we could one of our full-sized trucks. That also is beneficial when we’re in downtown Nashville or when Aspiration is in Los Angeles trying to bob and weave through traffic. It’s a little more nimble of a truck, but it still has all the fire power of a full-sized truck.

And you’ve got Aspiration, Inspiration, Vibration. Where did the naming scheme for these trucks come from?

I have the unique opportunity to come up with the naming system for our fleet. I actually grew up in a high school in West Tennessee that had a very large statue right in the middle of campus and it was simply labeled “Aspiration.” Nobody really knew what it meant or why it was there, but after we built our first truck and it stayed busy, and we determined we needed a second truck, we found out if we have a second truck we have to start naming these trucks now. So we actually named that second truck after that statue, Aspiration, and then went back and named the first truck Origination, since that was the original. And since then we’ve added an audio truck we call Vibration, an uplink truck we call Constellation, other switching trucks called Inspiration and Elevation, and just last May we launched our biggest truck, a 4K double-expando 53-foot truck that is so massive on the inside we named it Exclamation because that’s the reaction we hope clients have when they step on board and see how big this truck is that seats 30 people in a single truck platform.

Okay. And what do you use in the truck to get this show done for TV? The video switcher, sound mixer and all that.

Sure. In Aspiration there’s a Sony MVS- 8000 switcher. Audio-wise we’re mixing on a Studer audio console. I mentioned Pro Tools is how we record the multitrack, and we use a Sound Devices PIX 270 recorder as a backup multitrack recorder. For video we like Key Pro. We have Key Pro racks that record all the iso-record and the live line cut. And then for monitoring we have Boland, Sony, and some TVLogic monitors throughout the truck. Higher-end monitors like our Sony 17-inch OLEDs for the video shader and the lighting director. And then we have some 65-inch Boland OLED monitors on the monitor wall. And then finally we have a series of 25-inch Panasonic color-grading monitors for the director and technical director to use.

And a lot of people have to communicate. What is that? An RTS intercom?

It is. We have an RTS ADAM Matrix on board so everybody in the truck has a KPstyle key panel and then we run belt packs running additional users down in the cave itself. We actually even do a matrix panel for our lighting director in the cave. And then all the cameras receive their intercom down there SMPTE fiber cable.

What’s the toughest part of doing this one?

I’ve got to say, more than anything this show reminds me how important a team is and how important communication amongst that team is. I think the most valuable tool in our playbook is simply the experience of having done it before. An environment like this, trying to do live, multi-camera television is extremely challenging. There’s temperature challenges with the cave itself. There’s the extreme cable runs. And then there’s physically getting the mobile unit back to the mouth of the cave itself, which is one of the most challenging things we face. But having some experience and having done it before and learning from our opportunities in years past has been extremely valuable for us. Fiber technology has made the amount of overall cable to get down in the cave significantly reduced from years past so I’m thrilled that in the world of HD and 4K more fiber optic development continues. And then for us it’s just like any other show. We want to have redundancy in place. We run spare cables. We bring additional lenses. We’re diligent about cleaning and maintaining our equipment in between each show. And something as simple as putting garbage bags or nice canvas camera bags over the cameras every night to keep the dust off as it settles when the crowd leaves makes a big difference and can guarantee that we’ll be able to do this show for many years to come.

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