ONSITE: Behind the scenes at The Grammys

By Anthony Savona, on site with The Grammy sound team
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By Anthony Savona, on site with The Grammy sound team

During sporting events, the prestigious Madison Club at Madison Square Garden gives season ticket holders all the amenities of a luxury box experience, including a large lounge, a private club bar, and personalized suite-level seats. However, for music events, the space is used as Backstage and is blocked from the action by giant black curtains, so while patrons can’t take advantage of it, enterprising sound crews can. For the 60th annual GRAMMYs, held in New York City for the first time in 15 years, the Madison Club was turned into Sound Central, holding monitor mixers, Pro Tools rigs, cabling, and all communications hardware for the mega-event.

“Instead of trying to smash the volume of gear that we have [in the Madison Club] backstage—with all the risers moving around and trying to stick us underneath something—we took over the entire Club, which is about 120 feet wide by 20 feet deep,” states Firehouse Productions Project Manager/Sound System Designer Mark Dittmar (Red Hook, NY). “It allowed us to get everything that we want to do in neat 11-foot wide sections, and it gave us an awesome work area. We’re out of everybody’s way. It islonger cable runs for us, but we build infinitely faster because you can do it once and not have to touch it or move it again.”

For the GRAMMYs, the Madison Club’s two coat-check rooms, at opposite ends of the club, each housed an Avid Pro Tools rig, with the one on the left handling sound for stage left and the one on the right handling stage right. Next to the left Pro Tools rig were all the hardwired communications for the show, followed next by the wireless communications; able to accommodate up to 1,024 channels, the team (thankfully) used about 60 channels going to 300 destinations.

And in a space as dense as the Garden in NYC, there was more to worry about than sharing frequencies. Dittmar explains, “The problem the wireless communications team had to deal with from the start is, when you turn on two frequencies, harmonics are made into modulation distortion, which creates other problems. So for every channel, we have to calculate out the third harmonic to keep some space between frequencies—100 transmitters could have 800 harmonics!”

Next to Communications was Split World, where all audio came in and went out, with feeds coming in/going out for front of house, music trucks and the broadcast trucks. “It all comes in here via fiber,” says Dittmar, “It all gets split up via analog and it all gets shipped out via fiber. That gives us a heck of a lot of redundancy, so the single points of failure don’t take you down.”

Across the way sat a rack of preamps for the music, and the person responsible for running them, engineer [and longtime PSN reviewer] Russ Long. “We have over 200 inputs coming in off the stage,” says Long, “so I set those levels right when they come in off the stage. The conversion from analog to digital happens here, as well.

“We have two MADI streams that feed the two mix trucks, so both music mixers [John Harris and Eric Schilling] have access to all the inputs. We use the Grace m802 preamps for mic level inputs, and then we use the Aphex for line-level inputs, which are the wireless RF and the Pro Tools outputs.”

Rounding out the space were places for guest monitors mixers, including those working for Pink, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Elton John.

Down in Front

Far below the Madison Club at front of house was a sound reinforcement system with a Yamaha PM10 production console and DiGiCo SD7 music mixer at its nucleus. The house, filled for the evening with Recording Academy members and golden-eared producers, had sound provided by Firehouse Productions, which provided JBL VTX Series technology, including V25s for the mains, S28s in cardioid arrays for the subs and G28 subs on the ground.

The updated Garden added a new wrinkle to the sound system: a lower hanging scoreboard that had to be accommodated. “The scoreboard here is one of the most challenging things to deal with,” says Firehouse’s Dittmar. “That’s a new trim height that is a lot lower, which is why the PA is as wide as it is. But, from an audio standpoint, that makes it an incredibly challenging room to cover without splashing huge amounts off the side of the board, where we have nine delay clusters going around at the upper levels.”

Ron Reaves mixed the PA for the musical acts during the show, which he has done for many past GRAMMYs—experience that came in handy when dealing with marquee-level acts. “A lot of these guys are our friends that I’ve known forever,” he says. “We’re here to help them, so whatever they tell us to do, we do it. I always equate it to producing records: You tell me what you want and I’ll spin the knobs.”

Each act had a representative stay with Reaves at FOH, but he was the only one who worked the board. In addition to each act’s guest, Reaves had additional help from legendary engineer Leslie Ann Jones. “Leslie is the GRAMMY Award Telecast Advisor of House Audio,” says Reaves. “If we have some overzealous guests, she runs interference for us. She has incredible ears; she’s the volume police. She is an integral part in this team.”

Truck Stop

Outside the Garden, up against the famed arena, were the large Denali broadcast trucks and two smaller Music Mix Mobile (M3) trucks. Each M3 truck has an identical interior setup and its own music mixer, with Eric Schilling in one and John Harris in the other. The two mixers divided the evening’s music performances between themselves, as they recorded the rehearsals; brought in the artist or a representative to go over the rehearsal and create snapshots for the show; and later mixed the performances during the live broadcast.

The saved settings from the rehearsals provided a jumping off point for the live show. “I’ve got the static saved,” says Harris, “and I can get the song to where everybody likes it. I go to the top and say, ‘Well, this starts here with that guy up, the guitars panned over there and this guy over here,’ and that’s where I’m starting out. That’s where I’ll save it.”

But even with the start saved, there are many more moves to consider once a song begins. We have notes,” says Harris, “but it’s all pretty analog notes—even with all of this technology.”

All Ears on You

As one can imagine, there is a lot of pressure when running sound for a room filled with top-level audio professionals. “This is probably the most heavily scrutinized I am all year because everybody here is either a record producer or engineer, and they are all listening to all the little subtleties,” states FOH mixer and GRAMMY veteran Reaves. “To me, that’s fun!”

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