Behind the scenes with The Voice UK sound team
BBC Studioworks brings its audio expertise to the live final of The Voice UK. Neal Romanek visited the sound department in the hours before the show went live
In April, The Voice UK wrapped up its fifth successful series with its spectacular live final, featuring four amateur singers competing for a record deal with Universal Music.
The Voice UK is really three different series – the blind auditions, the knockouts, culminating in the live finals – each with its own individual sound requirements. The blind auditions and knock-outs are filmed at Dock 10 studios within Salford Media City, but the spectacle of the finals, broadcast live across the country, required a much bigger space, and were hosted at Elstree by BBC Studioworks.
BBC Studioworks, a commercial subsidiary of the BBC, temporarily relocated to Elstree from BBC Television Centre in 2013 and offers HD studio spaces to a host of fast-turnaround quiz and panel shows, including The Chase and Celebrity Juice, and continues to support long-format productions like BBC EastEnders.
Andy Tapley, senior sound supervisor at BBC Studioworks, has overseen many popular large scale TV productions to come out of BBC Studioworks, including Strictly Come Dancing, A League of their Own and previous seasons of The Voice UK.
“There’s been a constant progression in terms of how the technology is used in sound - it’s constantly evolving,” says Tapley. “When we were planning the move out of Television Centre in 2013, it was a good opportunity to reassess how we were utilising technology, and we made the decision to invest in new technology to better suit the style of programmes that in the pipeline for Elstree.”
The production teams working for BBC Studioworks demand a flexible set up, especially for large-scale Saturday night entertainment shows like The Voice UK. “Traditionally, production teams could almost be told what facilities they could use. Now things are much more collaborative, and we work with productions in a much more flexible way” said Tapley.
People can get caught up in all the technological improvements, but ultimately we’re coming out of a tiny speaker in someone’s telly – and that’s what we should be mixing for
Earlier in the year, Tapley also oversaw the installation of a new Riedel comms system. The Riedel Artist 128 replaced the Clear-com Drake 4000, which had been redeployed from TC1 at Television Centre. “In principle, a comms system is just audio in/audio out,” says Tapley, “but how it’s configured can allow for any matrix of communication between performers, presenters, musicians, directors and crew.”
Tapley built a basic studio configuration for The Voice UK team to start with, which includes production talk back, but additionally there are specific requirements for various people around the studio.
“We have lots of remote islands in the studio that need to talk to each other. There’s a laser control person, someone looking after the screens, and they want to be able to talk to the lighting team. We wouldn’t have those preprogramed.”
Tapley likes the easy drag and drop functionality of the Riedel. “I can drag a connection onto a button and it appears straight away. I can then easily move that button to another location. This speed helps us meet the quick turnaround of the show. The older system was built for a more traditional style of working, where people would sit in fixed positions at certain desks, but that isn’t the case anymore. Being able to tailor the workflow for every production on the fly is absolutely critical. ”
A big show
The Voice UK live finals is a great live concert event and it can be tricky to get the right mix to ensure a great experience for the studio audience and for the audiences at home.
“Productions are demanding bigger sets which means bigger stages,” says Tapley, “It allows them to pack more audience and staging in, so the show looks and feels more authentic to the TV audience at home. There’s a powerful atmosphere, and it really comes across on the screen.”
“The final visuals are one of the most critical elements for any TV show, but the innovative sound hardware in the studio has to capture and collaborate with the images on screen invisibly. It’s vital for us that the TV audience isn’t affected by a loud PA that could affect the live TV mix. It’s all about really tight control.”
Productions want these big stages…The show feels bigger, and it’s more vibrant. You get a big atmosphere, and it really comes across on the screen
In the mix
BBC Studioworks also invested in a new Studer Vista X broadcast desk last year. Howard Nock, presentation mixer and sound supervisor, mixed the presenter, judge and contestant sound on the powerful console from the main sound control room. But The Voice UK’s lead sound supervisor, BAFTA winner Kevin Duff, who oversees the show’s music mixing, had to stay outside.
The sound team on the live final had worked on the Manchester blind auditions, and the migration made for an unusual workflow. Sound supervisor Duff mixed the entire production from a next-generation sound truck parked just outside the soundstage, which was more efficient than having to set up from scratch in a new production environment at Elstree.
Duff planned the sound for The Voice UK throughout the entire series and also oversaw the post production for the show and the mixing of the music. Working at the Manchester studios, the mixing team worked in a single control room, but because those shows weren’t live, Duff prepared a guide mix during the show, and then later remixed the bands before the show was broadcast.
“Obviously we’re not allowed to tune it, because it’s a competition,” says Duff. “In total the band play something like 160 songs. They only get a couple of sound checks, then it’s live. Sometimes there’s a dodgy note, but because I multi-track all the rehearsals and the sound checks, I can do little tidy ups here and there. When we get to the final delivery a week before the show, I’ll get the final cut pictures, and I’ll revisit them again.”
Mixing a show live is an entirely different experience for the sound team. “I prefer the live element because there’s no post production involved. The workload has also dropped - when we do the blind auditions, we’re mixing over 100 songs in three or four days. On the live final, we are down to say 15 songs.”
The performance microphones for the show were Shure Beta 87C’s which were a bit more forgiving for the live performances. The lavalier mics were DPA 4060’s and 4061’s.
Duff admits that there are also a host of mixing challenges that come with a show centred entirely on amateur singers. “Often we’re polishing a less than perfect product, which is part of being in a live environment. It’s part of our skill set as television sound supervisors.”
“By the finals, the voting has whittled it down to the best singers in the competition. But contestants are still unfamiliar with being on live television - you want to get them to be consistent through sound check to when you go on air, but if they’re singing at different levels when they go on, the whole mix can fall apart. “
As a globally recognised TV format, with variations of The Voice airing in over 30 countries, each version of the show will have its own way of working and there’s something to be learned by checking out the multiple incarnations, says Duff. “Everybody does it their own way. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. There’s stuff to be grabbed from different places.”
Loud and clear
The EBU R128 audio loudness specifications were designed to normalise loudness in broadcast programming and these new specs have a particular effect on music shows like The Voice UK.
“Loudness has been another thing that’s been lead by people down the chain from sound mixers, without very much discussion from us,” says Duff. “It was kind of dropped on us as a fait accompli and because we have to meet this new criteria, it can seem like we’re being penalised. It’s a very hard thing to do within light entertainment music.”
That said,” Duff concedes, “I really enjoy mixing to Loudness, because I think it makes you mix better. You use your ear a lot more.”
“It’s very difficult. Our delivery medium is still a television in the corner of somebody’s lounge with the kids screaming and the chip pan on, and everybody forgets that. People can get caught up in all the technological improvements, but ultimately we’re coming out of a tiny speaker in someone’s TV – that’s what we should be mixing for. And that’s what we try to keep our eye on.”
This piece originally appeared in the 2016 Issue 3 of TV Technology Europe magazine. Read more here.