Ladies' Night

Last Sunday, my wife and I joined 25.8 million of our closest friends to watch the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on CBS. So why am I writing about it here? Because this is Ultimate AV, and the Grammys are all about the best in audio and video. The audio part is obvious—this is "music's biggest night" honoring the best recording artists, and all the performances are live, a technological tour de force in its own right. But the show is no less dedicated to video, both on stage and in the home.

As expected, this year's show was definitely ladies' night in terms of performers and award winners. In a particularly interesting twist, Beyoncé sang "If I Were a Boy" with a hard-rocking, all-female band, and Pink's Cirque du Soleil-inspired performance of "Glitter in the Air" was breathtaking. Throughout these and the other performances by women, I kept thinking how they're every bit as capable and talented as any men, even with the added handicap of high heels. (Beyoncé almost tripped at one point going up and down the onstage steps, but she recovered very gracefully—a real pro.) I'd like to see male rock stars try it!

Not only that, female artists must be physically gorgeous, a requirement not shared by men, which was made painfully clear when Alice Cooper appeared to present one of the awards. Stephen Colbert even made note of this in his opening remarks when he wondered where Susan Boyle was. I suppose these inequities are inevitable in our culture, but I wish it weren't so.

It was also geezers-and-greenhorns night—old-timers paired with up-and-comers. I thought Elton John and Lady Gaga were pretty good, but Leon Russell looked positively lost during most of his stage time with the Zac Brown Band. And Stevie Nicks must have been cringing inside as Taylor Swift sang consistently flat during their duet. In fact, I wonder if Swift's four Grammy wins were made possible by some serious post-production auto-tune DSP on her album, since her intonation was so poor throughout her performance. On the other hand, I've also heard that her monitor was having trouble, which could have been the cause of the problem.

All 21 songs were mixed in 5.1, which was combined with ambience from about 50 microphones scattered throughout the audience. (A total of more than 450 microphones were used in the production, including 80 wireless mics.) As expected, the music mixes were all very front-loaded, with only a bit of bleed into the surrounds along with crowd noise. The sense of sonic immersion in this broadcast was excellent, and the music itself was mixed fairly well, though I thought the vocals were somewhat indistinct, making it difficult to understand the lyrics.

On the video side, 17 Sony high-def cameras were used to capture all the action at 1080i. Fourteen video screens were installed, including seven 16x9-foot rear-projection screens above the stage—inexplicably, these were standard definition! Even more surprising, a massive LED video wall supplied by Barco was high-def, requiring three HD feeds by itself.

The video highlight of the show was supposed to be a 3D mini-movie made to accompany Michael Jackson's "Earth Song," a plaintive plea to pay attention to what humanity is doing to the planet and itself. I had picked up some red-and-cyan anaglyph glasses at Target, and my wife and I donned them at the appropriate time.

I was pretty disappointed in the segment, though my wife, who has seen much less 3D than I have, was surprised at how convincing it looked to her. In fact, she asked if Avatar looked that good, to which I replied, "No, it looks much better."

First of all, I've never liked anaglyph glasses—the difference in color for each eye is very distracting, as is the difference in brightness between red (which cuts a lot of light) and cyan (which cuts much less light). Also, the shot kept switching between the 3D movie and the stage in 2D, which looked very weird through the glasses. Interestingly, there was one Ikegami 3D stedicam at the show, and a few shots of the artists singing along with Jackson—Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, and Usher—were in 3D, but most of the live shots were 2D. Why didn't they use the 3D camera for all live shots in that segment?

Still, my wife was impressed enough to ask if I thought 3D was going to be a paradigm shift like color TV was in the 1950s. I had to say that I don't think so, even though the manufacturers and studios are pushing it very hard with technologies that don't rely on anaglyph glasses. People don't like wearing any type of glasses, which make the image much dimmer than 2D and isolate them from others who might be sharing the experience. Also, 3D technology is still in a state of flux—yes, the 3D Blu-ray spec is a done deal, but broadcast and display standards are far from stable.

Despite my disappointment in the 3D segment and Taylor Swift's performance, I really enjoyed the Grammys this year. As a musician, audio engineer, and video geek, I appreciate the tremendous technological achievement the show represents, and I applaud all involved in the most complex live-audio production in television. I look forward to next year's show, which should be even bigger and better. Who knows, maybe Susan Boyle will be invited to perform.