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Voice Intelligibility

Aug 19, 2014

Originally published in Pro Sound News, July 2014

Michael Abbott, broadcast production mixer for The Voice, uses the Waves SoundGrid processing platform and the Waves MultiRack plugin host to ensure that live broadcasts sound the same as pre-taped episodes.

By Steve Harvey

The center of attention on NBC’s popular reality show The Voice is right there in the title, of course. But while broadcast production mixer Michael Abbott and audience FOH mixer Andrew “Fletch” Fletcher focus their attention on the contestants’ singing, they work equally as hard to maintain the audio quality of the spoken dialog on the show.

The in-studio audience can get very vocal with its support, cheering on fan favorites so loudly that the four judges—Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher and Blake Shelton—plus host Carson Daly and the contestants can have difficulty hearing each other. That crowd noise affects the broadcast and house audio mixes, too, so this season Abbott and Fletcher implemented new audio technology to bring enhanced clarity to all the voices on the show.

For Abbott, the goal is to match the quality of the season’s earlier episodes, mixed by Brian Riordan, owner of Levels Audio Post in Hollywood. “For the five live weeks, we try to create the same kind of soundfield as the posted shows, which is the majority of the season,” says Abbott.

Key to achieving that quality this season was the introduction of the Waves SoundGrid processing platform and Waves MultiRack plug-in host, which Abbott and Hugh Healy, NEP Denali broadcast systems engineer, integrated into the NEP Denali Silver remote truck used to produce the live shows. According to Abbott, “What SoundGrid has allowed me to do is emulate the intelligibility and crisp sound Brian has in his postproduction mix and transfer it to a live broadcast environment.”

Abbott is able to significantly reduce the crowd sound and noise from on-set equipment—HVAC, lighting, and so on—through the judicious use of plug-ins, including the dialog-activated Waves Dugan Automixer and the Waves Noise Suppressor. “I don’t need all the spurious high end; there’s some severe high-end hisses and transients on this stage,” he explains. On Shakira’s mic, for example, he cascades two instances of WNS, one handling 100 to 1,200 Hz, the other 1,200 Hz to 9 KHz, to control background noise.

It’s not just about controlling the sound, however; Abbott also adds character to the preamps of the truck’s Calrec Alpha mixing console through the application of the Waves C6 Multiband Compressor as well as API 550 EQ and CLA-76 Compressor/Limiter emulations. “The exciting thing about MultiRack is that it’s given me the ability to use plug-ins to warm things up,” he reports.

In addition to installing the redundant Waves SoundGrid server and an eight-fader MIDI controller for the system, Healy also integrated a Sonnet Technologies xMac mini server with Echo Express Thunderbolt-to-PCIe card expansion. Healy reports, “The recordist records on Pro Tools with a backup onto Nuendo, all MADI.”

The system is outfitted with an RME HDSPe MADI FX audio I/O card. “It records 192 tracks; the Mac Mini can do that all day long,” says Healy, who worked with Sonnet to increase airflow around the racked Macs: “We were able to get a 12-degree Centigrade reduction in peak usage.”

Sonnet also made other improvements, including reducing the fan noise, Healy reports. “They did a bunch of stuff to make it more audio-friendly; we love the product.”

At the FOH position on the stage at Universal Studios where the live episodes are produced, Fletcher feeds the music performances and the dialog microphones to two separate PA systems. A flown, multi-zoned PA system (ATK Audiotek of Valencia, CA supplies all of the production audio equipment) carries the music, while a second, distributed setup handles only speech. The arrangement enables Fletcher to carefully control the sound of the dialog mics, which are fed to speakers variously positioned under the audience seats, at locations around the stage and flown above the set, in order to minimize coloration from the PA leaking into Abbott’s broadcast mix.

The DiGiCo SD7 console is uniquely suited the application, Fletcher believes: “This is the only console I can do this show on if I want to use one console, as I have 153 inputs and 53 outputs.”

Fletcher’s SD7 is also integrated with a Waves/DiGiCo MultiRack SoundGrid and SoundGrid Server One. The four judges each have a dedicated MultiRack channel, he says, with WNS plug-ins instantiated. “I can hear the room coming back and I just adjust it until it’s clean,” he says. “Carson’s also got a C6 Multiband Compressor; it’s de-essing and de-thumping him when he really gets on the mic.”

With the four judges sitting in their iconic chairs so close to the audience, Fletcher also utilizes the Waves Dugan Automixer plug-in to reduce unwanted noise in the dialog channels. “It’s all done through the SD7’s buses, so I can send anything to the Dugan; it’s very flexible,” he says, noting that Daly, the contestants and guests are also accommodated in the Dugan system.

“The judges can’t hear each other because they’re so far apart, so I got these little K-array speakers from Sennheiser,” he adds. Fletcher sends mix-minus feeds to two headrest speakers on each judge’s chair: “They can look either way and always have a speaker next to their ear.”

But while Fletcher also makes use of some of the DiGiCo’s on-board effects, including compression and reverb, he tends to keep processing to a minimum. “The SD7 sounds amazing,” he says. “I challenge myself now on how little EQ I can use, as most things sound great with just a high-pass filter.”