Backstage at the Grammys

The audio portion of the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, held on Sunday, February 13, 2005, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, has been called the most complex of all the annual award shows, and with good reason: Virtually all music during the show was performed live. The only exceptions were the clips played as the nominees were announced and as the winners walked on and off the stage.

This year, over 250 musicians took to four stages in 24 musical performances. The opening number alone involved five different bands using 120 microphone channels; all told, the entire show used 450 mic channels, including 34 wireless vocal mics and 10 wireless instrument pickups for guitars, horns, etc. Most of the mics were from manufacturing partners Shure and Sennheiser.

A total of nine mixers coordinated all those audio channels: two for the in-house live-sound system, two for the musicians' monitors, one for the 5.1 broadcast music mix, one for the broadcast dialog (podium) mix, one for the 5.1 audience-ambience mix, one for the final 5.1 broadcast mix, and one for the final 2-channel broadcast mix. The mixers were from Yamaha, while the monitor and live-sound speakers were from JBL. Interestingly, there were 40 mics located throughout the arena to pick up the audience sounds as well as a 6-channel Holophone mic suspended above the in-house mixers; these mics were blended into the final production mix, mostly in the surround channels.

The final 5.1 and 2-channel mixes were encoded in Dolby E and sent to the CBS studios in LA, which sent them directly to CBS in New York. There, they were converted to PCM and delayed by five seconds for decency's sake. After inserting the audio for the commercials, the whole thing was re-encoded into Dolby E and uplinked to local broadcast stations, which converted it to AC3 for broadcast.

The video side of things was no less complex. A total of 17 Sony HDC-950 high-def video cameras captured the action at a native resolution of 1920x1080i/60: three were stationary, five were on flying jibs, and the rest were hand-held. The camera signals were coordinated by three technical directors, and three broadcast video feeds were created—HD 16:9 digital, SD 4:3 analog, and SD 16:9 digital for Australia. All feeds included timing pulses to help bring the audio and video into perfect sync.

One of the tech directors was responsible for the signals sent to 24 on-stage video displays, which received their digital signals via 1000 feet of coax cable; amazingly, the maximum latency was only 1.5 frames. Most of the on-stage displays were DLP rear-projection setups using Christie S9 and Digital Projection 28sx 3-chip projectors; some were displaying standard-def images, while others were high-def. In some cases, two or three projectors were stacked. Screen sizes ranged from 12x8 to 24x13.5 feet. Two 61-inch NEC plasmas rose from the stage as needed to enhance the broadcast view, but they were dwarfed by the rear-projection screens in the venue itself.

To coordinate the entire broadcast, several production trucks were parked together, forming a "truck farm" in the bowels of the Staples Center. Judging from the HD broadcast, all that technology was put to good use; the picture looked fantastic, and the 5.1 sound was superb. All in all, it was a fine tribute to the music industry and those who produce what Recording Academy President Neil Portnow called "the soundtrack of our lives."