Broadcast Profile: The London Studios

In the wake of some significant regulation changes in the broadcast sector, Audio Media International caught up with the team at The London Studios to find out how the facility’s output has been affected.

The London Studios (TLS) on the city’s South Bank is ITV’s London-based studio facility. Built in 1972 by London Weekend Television, TLS has six studios and is home to popular light entertainment shows including Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, The Graham Norton Show, The Jonathan Ross Show and Alan Carr: Chatty Man. Much of ITV’s daytime content including This Morning, Lorraine and Loose Women are made in The London Studios.

The studios are known for the ‘South Bank Sound’, a crunchy live sound which has become the template for numerous big Saturday night entertainment shows – for many TLS entertainment productions, the audience is a central element of the show.

Loudness regulations have affected how these shows are mixed, and an increase in content has changed the way they are treated prior to broadcast. Here, sound supervisors Jon Matthews, Ben Corbett and Russell Smithson discuss the facility’s methodology in light of these industry changes.

What is the trademark TLS sound?

Matthews: This is one of the reasons people come here, to get that particular audience sound. The London Weekend sound was moulded by one guy, Nick Finch, and everyone loved it. We’ve just perpetuated that sound. We’re still using Neve limiters to slam an audience into, so everything is running quite hot on a light entertainment (LE) show.

Smithson: This sound set the template for Saturday night LE shows, especially the shows mixed in Studio One – although it now has a [Calrec] Apollo, anything from Studio One over the last 40 years sounds pretty much the same!

Corbett: It is down to the historical way we rig the sound – it’s definitely a house style, but I do believe that the sound is down to the people, not the facility.

Smithson: We’ve always been dynamic about what the audience does, keeping them as an integral part of the show.

How has that changed?

Matthews: The biggest difference in the last 30 years has been in the PA levels – today they can be running almost at rock ‘n’ roll levels, which is a problem for us when we are trying to create an audio landscape for the viewer.

Corbett: If you do have a loud PA you have got to be so careful it’s not distorting the audience mix. On shows like Ant & Dec they will have a FOH PA mixer, which can give you the edge. Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton have FOH too, but often the budget doesn’t stretch to it.

Above: Ben Corbett

Matthews: And a lot of LE stuff we do now does not even see a dubbing theatre at all – there is always a quick turnaround and so in the majority of cases the editor has to try to smooth it out.

But do viewers expect better sound?

Matthews: Well, ITV don’t do 5.1, and that’s probably fair – so much of it depends on how the viewer has set up their home system. More and more people at home these days have soundbars and other setups. But I genuinely think that if you do a good stereo mix it doesn’t matter what people are listening on; it will still be a good mix. And because people are using soundbars, where everything has to be phase coherent, you’ve also got to have a good mono output.

A challenge we have is that an ageing population does not favour too much background music or loud laughs, because they find it difficult to hear the dialogue. So this is something we have to consider as it is a situation that will only grow.

Smithson: This happens on Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY), and we do get complaints about it. The 250 people in the audience are part of the show, and HIGNFY is the best example of this as the audience are on top of the panel – the spill is considerable. Most of the work you are doing with the audience is making the spill sound nice, because you get a lot of it through the talent’s mics, which can be pretty nasty. To balance it all out you have to have the audience at a reasonable level, but it really is part of what the show is all about – if you don’t make the laughter part of the show and showcase it in the same way, the show loses a lot of its energy. The audience is as big a part of the show as any element.

So how do you mix to loudness in this environment?

Smithson: In this sort of environment, the way loudness is dealt with comes down to two things: expertise and experience.

Corbett: At TLS we do a lot of chat shows and panel shows, and they are all especially quick turnarounds – for example, HIGNFY is turned round in 24 hours. I do a show on Sunday which goes out on Monday and only gets an edit, and it is such a fast turnaround that the editor doesn’t get the time to mix for loudness; he doesn’t run it through the algorithm. As sound supervisors we do our best to deliver to loudness, but after it has been chopped up it’s always going to be a different figure.

Matthews: When I watch a show that I have mixed to loudness, often it will run quiet because what comes before and after on the schedule is often much louder. That’s worse than it ever has been…

Above: Jon Matthews

Corbett: … which is exactly why loudness needs to be enforced. Everyone needs to be playing by the same rules or it just doesn’t work.

Smithson: The fundamental flaw in [European Broadcasting Union Recommendation] R128 is that if you have a show that is averagely loud – which tends to be a lot of the shows we do because of the way we treat our audiences – the energy level is up. The only way that you can match that to anything else not of that genre is to bring the dialogue level down, which defeats the whole object. The voicings are therefore quiet. So you bring it back by about 4dB, and overall you go out quiet.

Matthews: Plus, if you’ve got a lavalier mic on someone, which is omni, they come on set and everyone is cheering and clapping; you are forced to compress everything right down. You can’t control it because it’s so much louder than the speech on the mic.

Smithson: The upside is if you can get close to getting the levels right – and at TLS we are very good at that now – you can use the increased dynamic range to your advantage. I still limit things in the same way, but I set the limiter slightly higher because it allows that dynamic – the laughs – to be subjectively even louder than they would normally be. The trick is keeping the dialogue at a reasonable level. This gives us more flexibility than we used to have, but it is difficult to maintain that over a two and a half hour record, which you know will be edited down to a 45- or 30-minute show.

Above: Russell Smithson

A show like HIGNFY is way over the average for the first five minutes when the audience are at their most excited. As the show goes on, it slowly trickles its way back and I always check 15- 30 minutes into the record. Now, the show is going to be cut back to around 28 minutes long so if I’ve reached somewhere in the zero point area around 30 minutes in I know that when it’s edited it should be pretty much the same.

Matthews: And if it’s just chat, it just happens; you’re pretty much there any way. Shows that aren’t audience based, such as sport, just work.

Smithson: Loose Women is a good example. In the VT I hold it so it doesn’t peak over five, and subjectively that’s a good level – that’s what loudness is all about. In the past, you’d have a VT and fade it up to zero, and in the context of the programme it would appear loud because it might have music and other sources mixed in, whereas if you hold that back a few dB it brings your 128 back a bit and it matches the programme better.

Matthews: I had Johnny Vegas on Loose Women and everything was going great until he came on, and suddenly everyone was laughing every 30 seconds. It blew the levels out of the water! That can happen very quickly on live television, you can’t legislate for it.