Toby Alington: Mixing the BRITs

Responsible for the BRIT Awards live broadcast for his 19th year, Toby Alington discusses his approach and some of the challenges involved in the show…

The nice thing about the BRIT Awards is that it is never just like any other year. In an attempt to gain audience figures, move with the times and accommodate current artists and presentation styles, the show twists and turns its way into something new each time.

This year, it would seem, the show ended up in a very good place, with ITV getting a live audience peak of 7.5m viewers with a 6.5m hold. That’s good news whichever way you look at it, although I believe the record is still around 14m for the year of the Jarvis Cocker vs Michael Jackson debacle – there’s always some elusive alchemy involved in attracting a higher audience, and every year BRITs TV is in search of it.

We changed a few small things technically this year; I am always looking to re-invent and improve, but as the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

The broadcast audio team is effectively split into six areas: music mix in the Floating Earth mobile, audience mix and sweetening sound area, the live feed from the splitters at stage left, a centralised playback position beside the stage for a few live-vocal-to-track (LVTT) artists, and the final presentation sound area in the main CTV OB truck.

Finally, there’s the iTunes area, manned by Joe Adams, who takes my live stereo mixes and packages them up with nice audience handles for immediate iTunes release.

Before we go on site, we do the sound design and dubbing on the nomination packages and VT inserts at the studio in Twickenham. These are always a bit of fun, with ever more complex particle graphics revealing the nominees and winners. This audio is laid back onto the picture master tape, and then on site this is loaded to EVS (hard-disc video recorder) for the live playouts.

The first challenge on site is to rig our audience mics in the roof and around the stage, and also to get our fibres and remote mic amps to the splitters position. At the O2, we can use their pre-installed fibres in the roof for audience and get these patched down to the OB area, saving a lot of time and cabling. We generally rig about 14 audience mics in the roof, and about 12 around the stage. These are fed directly to the audience pre-mix area, which is looked after by Leaf Troup and David Loudon. On the night, they’re doing their best to find and focus on the best live audience, and occasionally supplement this with some sampled audience from years gone by if the audience is being a little subdued compared to the expectations of the live TV audience.

Once our lines to the stage are in, we go through a simple one-to-one check from Britannia Row’s end of the cables (Brit Row look after the PA side of the show) ensuring that all 250-odd lines are clean and in the right holes.

As you might imagine, the right communications are vital not only for this size of technical build, but also when we come to communicating on the live show. I have wired and wireless comms to my stage guys beside the splits and a ‘shout’ four-wire ring, which links all of us involved in the live sound in the venue – PA, stage, monitors, me and presentation. This is the same communications system which is used to line-check every single input when a new band is wheeled on, and each input is checked and called by FOH, monitors and the sound truck. The speed this runs at when you have a 96-channel band and only three minutes left before you’re on air can be quite exciting, but it’s a very disciplined procedure and everyone knows what order to call and who’s responsible for what. Ten seconds hold-up with a misplaced question or miscommunication can mean the difference between being on air and not.

In the meantime, Richard Anstead (Presentation Mixer) and Rick Simon (Grams Op) are preparing the sound area in the OB. Rick Simon handles all the play-ins of guest walk-down music, winner walk-up music, sound effects and other bits. Richard takes our music feed as one of his presentation feeds, and his mix consists of music, grams, audience, presenter mics, VT feeds and so on.

When Richard is on air with presentation he handles his own audience level, and similarly when my music mix is on air I look after my audience level. Audience levels can make or break a music mix, so I tend to be quite protective of handling the audience as part of my music mix, but it also gives Richard a complete break while a live music number’s running. There are occasions when we overlap – but on the whole it’s either me or Richard who is on air at any one time.

Finally, with the immediate release of the live mixes to iTunes, Joe Adams has a small area with a couple of laptops to take my mix, put clean audience front and end, make sure it’s at digital peak, and render it out onto a labelled USB stick. This stick is whisked away and the track played to artist management and/or the label, and if approved it’s on sale on iTunes within minutes. It was this live-to-iTunes process that gave us over ten weeks at number one in the UK charts for Adele’s Someone Like You BRITs performance in 2011.

We rehearse for two days, with the first artists rehearsing on Monday afternoon, and a final dress-run on Wednesday afternoon, before we’re live-to-air on Wednesday evening. That’s a familiar schedule for a multi-artist show like this, and one which is replicated on many shows world-wide.

This coming Wednesday, March 6th, it’s on to Comic Relief with Russell Brand at Wembley. This is a slightly tighter schedule, no final dress-rehearsal and a few less people on the team. I guess you need to like a challenge if you work in live television!

If I am invited, next year will be my 20th BRIT Awards. Something to celebrate? Most definitely!

Twitter: @tobyalington

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