Broadcasting the Grammys with Music Mix Mobile

Originally published in Audio Media International’s February issue, Will Strauss met Music Mix Mobile to look ahead to the broadcasting of the 2015 Grammy awards. 

Traditionally, a DAW-based system would never have been considered for mixing live broadcasts. When it comes to music shows, however, things have changed. 

In the US, the Grammys are a big deal. When the 57th Awards is broadcast live from Los Angeles later this month, somewhere in the region of 28 million Americans will tune in to watch it on CBS. And they will see some of pop music’s biggest acts, from Pharrell Williams and Beyoncé to Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, picking up awards and performing.

Interestingly, despite being a live show, where reliability is everything, the performances that the audience will hear back home, rather than being mixed using a dedicated broadcast console, will actually be handled by a control surface and DAW running on a Mac Pro.

Although it goes against industry tradition, that is the preferred set-up for Music Mix Mobile (aka M3), the remote facilities company that will provide the broadcast 5.1 music mix, and is a great example of how DAW-based mixing has evolved to the point that it is now closer to the gold standard of DSP-based consoles.

As with many outside broadcasts and live events, a lot of the hard work on the Grammys is done in advance, in this case during rehearsals.

Two of M3’s five trucks – Eclipse and Horizon – will be used, with mixing handled in an Avid Pro Tools HDX environment on a D-Control surface via Avid HD MADI I/O interfaces and DirectOut routers and A-D/D-A converters. At the front-end, a dedicated technician will dial all the acts via recallable Grace Design m802 preamps, viewing high-resolution metres on a Chromatec MADI-xx monitor.

A Grace Design A-D convertor will turn the signals into MADI and RMEs before they are brought up to the Eclipse truck. From there the live mix will be routed up to the console and into recorders that can capture 192 tracks in 48k.

The sessions will then be moved digitally into the Horizon truck, which acts as an offline vehicle, allowing fine-tuning and tweaking before the finished notes and plug-in settings are moved back over to Eclipse. Template sessions will then be loaded in order of performance ahead of going to air.

Joel Singer (pictured, below), chief engineer and co-founder of M3, says a DAW-based mixing set-up like this is as reliable as one based around a traditional broadcast console.

“Basically, most broadcast consoles are running UNIX shells or running on a Windows system, or similar,” he says. “If you investigate what a computer actually does you realise that they’ve just chosen a platform similar to what we’ve done. You do have to understand the limitations of the computer though.”

By that he means removing all the unnecessary functionality and applications from what is an off-the-shelf product. “We strip off everything from the Mac that we don’t need and run it just as a music computer,” he continues. “We turn off things that cause issues such as automatic back-ups. If you understand that, you can build a system that is just as reliable as anyone else’s in the market place.”

Integral integration

If modifying the computer is all that is needed, why isn’t everyone doing it? Force of habit, perhaps, but equally, because there is some integration to do, argues Singer. “Mac, interfaces, D-Control, cards, MADI router: you have to put them all together to make it work,” he says. “Some people just want to spec what they want to spec and let the manufacturer deliver it. It will come in one rack, they will plug it in and [off they go].”

Singer acknowledges that there isn’t huge cost saving to be made from working with Pro Tools but along with access to a huge array of plug-ins, there are logistical and creative benefits: “With 160 channels of Grace preamp you’re looking at $80,0000 to $100,000 of front-end. Add in everything else and you’re still spending $300,000 to $350,000 on a system. But in our world this means that I can do a show, which might go out live and is then re-mixed, and I can give the tracks to an engineer who can boot up the session on his way home on the plane on his Mac Book Pro laptop and edit right there and then.”

Importantly, having started out on the road to DAW-based mixing in 2004, and as they are now using it across various projects, not just the Grammys, the founders of the company feel that they haven’t made a loss on their investment.

“That is the most important thing,” adds Singer. “Previously, we’d spent $800,000 on a console only to be told that it wouldn’t be supported anymore. We had two, at a cost of $1.7 million, and two years later they were being sold online for $32,000. We decided we could not do that anymore. Conversely, every time Pro Tools changes, we have increased our feature set.”

While no one is expecting a mobile Pro Tools system to be used for live news and sport, could it be used for other programme genres? Singer thinks so: “We get into some situations with 5.1 broadcast where we have to do multiple stems and I look at other broadcast consoles with their hefty price tags that won’t even come close to that. There are certain things, like on a Calrec Alpha or an Apollo, for sports or other things that need dedicated workflows. Pro Tools doesn’t have that built into it. But it is very easy to approximate what goes on.”

As far as Singer is concerned, M3 trail blazed the use of DAW-based mixing for live TV music and is now reaping the rewards. It’s not for everyone, of course, but others have followed. “It’s not a lone incident,” concludes Singer. “Since we’ve been doing it for 10 years, if it had faults, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are.”

This month’s Grammy Awards coverage will be testament to that.