By Dan Page
REELCHICAGO.COM Music Editor
Imagine showing up for work in the morning at Madison Square Garden with Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Yo-Yo Ma, Eminem, the New York Philharmonic, and the Dixie Chicks knowing that their final sound rests on your shoulders.
Imagine a field of wires feeding 1,000 mic inputs that all have to be processed and balanced in real time in a 210-minute mixing marathon. Imagine trying out 5.1 Surround Sound audio for the first time live without a net before a audience of 25 million Americans and nearly two billion music fans in 180 countries around the globe, including every single person in the recording industry.
|5.1 expert Hank Neuberger|
What’s even harder to imagine is how engineering pro Hank Neuberger gears up for such a challenge and remains one of the most serene and focused figures in his field.
“Expectations are somewhat high due to a number of technological breakthroughs, layered on top of the fact that this particular TV show is considered the most complex audio production in live TV,” Neuberger notes. “We are the Grammys, as you’d expect, but we’re also beta-testing surround sound broadcasting. So it’s also unlike any other year.”
On the Feb. 23 Grammy telecast, his 12th time supervising broadcast audio for the show, Neuberger works alongside producing legend Phil Ramone on what promises to be a historic night for music’s most anticipated awards gala. Grammy award winners themselves, this duo knows what the telecast means for the future of broadcast music programming.
Across the country, 111 CBS stations around the country, reaching 88% of American viewers, will broadcast the show in the HDTV format. The HDTV format provides 1,080 lines of resolution in 16:9 aspect ratios, compared with standard TV’s 480 lines in a boxy 4:3 frame, and delivers the 5.1 surround sound signal with full-bodied, DVD-quality sound.
What will ring true to this audience is that the Grammys never sounded so good, and Madison Square Garden never seemed so close.
“We are now reaching the third wave of surround sound,” Neuberger insists. “The first came in the early ?90s with digital surround soundtracks for theatrical releases and Dolby Digital. The second began with the advent of DVD. DVDs allowed them to bring the 5.1 to their homes, and fueled the explosion in ?home theatres’ and ?surround-in-a-box.’ Now we’re ready for 5.1 Broadcasting, which to date has been very difficult for logistical reasons, but HD content can carry 5.1 audio signals. With the Grammys, we have the first major award show in hi-def 5.1 and it’s just the beginning.”
As you’d expect, coordinating the audio for this telecast was considerably more involved than previous years from the initial planning stages onward. Normally it takes about six weeks to ramp up to the show, beginning just after the nominations are announced in January. Preparation for this 5.1 broadcast launched last October involved intense tech spec meetings with CBS, Dolby Labs and show producers Cosette Productions. In addition to innovating new production techniques to tweak the look of their HD ouput, Cosette will produce two simultaneous feeds of the show: one in 4:3 for traditional TV subscribers, and another in 16:9 for the HDTV public.
Likewise, the audio component of the show will have multiple formats due to the dual nature of its audience: traditional stereo and a 5.1 audio mix. Four mobile audio studios supervised by Neuberger and Ramone will be involved in prepping the mixes for the show. The crew on the Effanel Music’s lead audio truck will pull 20-hour workdays with alternating crews for three days of rehearsals leading up to the final telecast. Effanel sound designer Randy Ezratty will combine the custom 5.1 music mixes with the 5.1 mix of the shows other audio elements to create the Dolby E-encoded output to be broadcast by CBS.
“From the stage mic to the surround sound mix is one step, to get it to peoples homes is quite another,” he admits. “Broadcasters are just now installing the equipment at master control and affiliates negotiating agreements with cable and satellite companies to broadcast this level of programming. Once it’s there however, we’ve effectively set the stage for a new level of broadcast sound.”
This year so far is one of new challenges for Neuberger. His first year free from the shackles of managing the daily operations of Chicago Recording Company, its more than 40 staffers, and a dozen studios, he has emerged as a top consultant in matters of surround and progressive audio production. After decades as a full-time producer/engineer, then operations manager, and general manager for CRC, Neuberger made the move last fall to consulting as executive VP to allow him a greater range of freedom to pursue independent projects.
From this post, he continues to market the studio and its services, but has also expanded to working on other things, such as consulting with Alan Kubicka’s Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank, built on the site of the historic Kendun Recorders, and taking on outside challenges as he has with the Grammys.
“I have directed my focus toward work as a specialist in surround sound broadcast and authoring,” he notes. “I have mixed in surround sound for quite a while now. I just finished the Lyle Lovett concert for a ?Sound Stage’ PBS show next month.” He also produced audio for a DVD of the 2000 Grammy performances. Although there are no plans as of yet, this year’s Grammy telecast would be a natural candidate for the DVD market with its ready-to-go surround mix.
Always at the forefront of his field, Neuberger has seen the road rise to meet him over the past few years. In 1998, he led the charge for CRC’s 5.1 DVD audio room, Chicago’s first to capitalize on the coming surround sound audio boom. The 2003 Grammy broadcast is yet another mile marker on the path of surround’s market domination, and Neuberger has continued to expand his expertise with unparalleled practical experience like this year’s 5.1 telecast mix.
“Soon, networks are going to capitalize more and more on the richness of 5.1 and will find that consumers want that content,” he observes. “This will bring us to a great spot within the next year. In Chicago especially, I feel content producers, agencies, and advertisers will be mixing and broadcasting spots in 5.1 in great numbers by a year from now. I’m sure of it.”
Perhaps this is the shot-in-the-arm the forestalled spot world has been waiting for. Maybe it will just be a formal element to be normaled into productions seamlessly as time goes by. In any case, it seems that Neuberger will be at the crest of this audio wave when creatives are ready to ride it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Please Email all the latest and greatest info about your creative music projects or news of note to me at Dpageil@earthlink.net. Or call 312/933-5661 to leave a message. Until next time, keep on rocking those spots and pushing that programming forward.