I had the privilege of working on one of the biggest events of the planet, the Olympics Closing Ceremony, and worked alongside great professionals of the audio industry. Now I want to share a bit with the community about some of the challenges we faced and how we met those challenges with the tools we have at hand today.
I had spent the week in São Paulo, executing Pro Tools Cloud Collaboration demos, including a visit to Ale Siqueira at the studio where he records most of his work today, Gargolandia Studios, about two hours away from São Paulo. Ale Siqueira, to me, is one of the most talented, hardworking and competent music producers in Brazil today, collecting three Grammy Awards and having produced diverse multiplatinum records from Brazilian and international artists. His musicality, knowledge and artistic integrity are some of the attributes that I admire the most in his work.
Ale Siqueira was the musical director of the Olympic Closing Ceremony. He was brought in by Cerimônias Cariocas, the production company in charge of the artistic and technical aspects of this event. During the Cloud Collaboration demo, he was immediately thrilled by the possibilities that this new technology could offer him, since he was working with talents from all over Brazil.
As I was driving back to Rio de Janeiro from São Paulo at the end of the week, I got a call from Ale, asking that I join his team as a technical audio coordinator. I would be in charge of all media management and file distribution to the creative teams for choreography, mass movement, lighting, video projection, pyrotechnics and special effects, and would take part in production meetings to communicate the needs of these teams as is pertained to the music and SFX creation. I would also be producing and delivering files for mastering, broadcast, monitor and PA.
After accepting his invitation, a few days later, I was at the studio Companhia dos Técnicos, (aka CIATEC) where most of the music was recorded and mixed. I would either spend my days there, at Maracanã (the stadium where the Olympic Ceremonies took place) or at the site where daily rehearsals were being held. Though there were many players, the four main pillars of the team I was in were Ale Siqueira, the musical director; Flavio Senna, the mix engineer; Carlos Freitas, our mastering engineer; and Trevor Beck, in charge of the replay system. I have interviewed each one to have their different perspectives of what it is to work in a ceremony like this.
I’m going to start at the end of the chain, with Trevor Beck, the audio engineer who was in charge of replay, and Stefan Fuller, the second audio engineer part of the replay team. John Watterson was the monitor engineer for all the ceremonies and was able to be a part of the interview to tell us a bit of his part in this process.
Tells us a little bit about the process of receiving audio files and inserting them into replay system and the choice of using Pro Tools for the delivery of these files. What are the features in Pro Tools that makes it the ideal tool for an event like the Olympics Closing Ceremony?
BECK: First of all, Pro Tools is a universal platform, so whether we are building mp3 test files back in Sydney, or whether we are working in Brazil, Pro Tools is universally used and understood by everybody. The two biggest things with the Olympics is that one, the changes never stop, and it’s never slow. We need to be able to make those changes consistently and make sure that everything is 100 percent phase coherent with all the other stems. We break everything down to up to 64 stems for diverse purposes: live stadium feed, 5.1 and stereo effects for broadcast, 5.1 and stereo music for broadcast, cues for people using in-ears, count-off tracks, click tracks, FSK for Pyrotechnics and timecode for show callers, lighting and projection. We need to make sure nothing drifts, nothing gets out of phase. The ability of Pro Tools to freeze tracks, commit tracks and do offline bounces means that we can do those changes quickly and efficiently and absolutely know that the files will be phase coherent. One of the unique aspects of ceremonies is that the broadcast in 5.1 may be using the music and SFX mix, and then also decide to add in one of the individual music group stems just to enhance what they are putting out to people. So they need to be able to add in to their 5.1 mix the individual stems that the stadium mix is using. If those stems are even slightly out of phase, that can be very destructive to the audio that they are broadcasting.
FULLER: Also, when things go wrong, you know you’re going to have local support for Pro Tools anywhere in the world, which happened on this occasion, as a matter of fact. When I landed I had an issue with my iLok on the first day, which started playing up. Fernando Fortes, from the team, got in touch with one of the local Avid resellers, Quanta Store, and within a day we had a new iLok delivered. It was shipped overnight; I was able to move my Pro Tools license to the new iLok within 24 hours.
Since you’re managing files that are not only going out to broadcast, but are also going to the PA system, in-ear monitoring of talents and cast, what are some things you need to be cautious about because you are feeding so many different mediums from one system?
BECK: We’re delivering to three or four different mediums, so the broadcast in one sense is pretty straight ahead. They have their surround mix, and they have their stereo mix, and they can add individual stems into that if they want to enhance something in particular. For the stadium, we try to break up the stems into tonal subtype approach so that we can control the low end in the stadium versus the top end in the stadium. So, for example, in an orchestral arrangement, the stems might be broken up into Low Stings and High Strings, Low Brass and High Brass, so that we can EQ and compress for the stadium differently than what we would do with just a straight stereo file. For in-ears and monitors, I’ll let John Watterson, who looks out for our monitors, tell you about how he gets that done.
WATTERSON: For some of the cast groups, we use the guide track (full stereo mix) just routed straight out to them. For the high-level talent, where they would want to hear more of themselves or more of a particular instrument group, such as a string player or a brass player, they will get a mix from the stems and mics to adjust to those requests. There’s the FM system, which is a highly compressed feed to maintain maximum loudness and has a whole number of elements stacked on the top and ducked. There’s some multiband compression, “shout” microphones for cast movement, com panel microphones for show call and choreographers, all of these are stacked into a priority order, so that the person who is speaking at the right time gets the highest priority.
Trevor, you were present in London Olympic Ceremonies as well. What were the differences in the technologies available then, and how was the workflow impacted?
BECK: (Laughs) Dear Lord, what I would have given to have Pro Tools 12 in London! That was before offline bounces, track freezing and committing, so the amount of time that I spent bouncing and creating rehearsal files while trying to build the replay system and at the same time communicating with all the different departments was just crazy. It would have saved me many many hours. I would have less gray hair and still have more hair if I had Pro Tools 12 back in the London Olympics! The other thing that has really been handy for us with Pro Tools with the metadata side of things with wave files was that we used to generate quicktime files so that people could see a timecode burn window, and they would program to this Quicktime. Now the other departments use Wave Agent, by Sound Devices (a free software). So they take our bounces from Pro Tools; open it in wave, which will extract the timecode metadata that is embedded on the file; and play the timecode in a window.
One of the nice things about Pro Tools 12, given its CPU efficiency, means that yourself and other mix engineers could work with us in the room on their laptop! So we didn’t have to go to a studio or edit suite all the time. If the files had been recorded and mixed and we are working off our final mix sessions, we could actually be in the same room. So I could show them, for example, we’re having a problem when the torch goes up the stairs, and we need some extra time, but I can’t make this loop using the stems in a way that it’s seamless. What I need is some additional percussion here or there to make it work, and because they’re in the room with you and you’re running Pro Tools 12 on a laptop, we literally sit there, edit and make adjustments on the spot. In all these ways, on a big event this, all these new feature gives you an efficiency which allows for more flexibility and creativity and whole lot more sleep!
FULLER: At one stage of the ceremonies, we had four different Pro Tools sessions open in the same room at once. If we were all running different software, we would not be able to be as efficient.
At that moment, when the show is going on and billions of people are watching, what do you keep in mind to avoid mistakes?
BECK: In a way, you don’t get that opportunity to make a mistake — you just don’t. So you really have to think all your actions through. It’s important to build in a lot of safety features. We get together with the FOH engineer, monitor engineer and show call, and we do a lot of technical cues to cues, where, basically, we check that everything is receiving timecode as it should, and we make sure everything fires. We have two replay machines that are linked, and so we practice crash-and-burn scenarios where I’ll have Stef running dress rehearsals, and then I’ll say, “Machine A is dead. Go!” And he’ll have to quickly move to Machine B without anyone from the team noticing. We’ll keep doing that until we can do it seamlessly, and where we are at that point where we are comfortable and relaxed doing things, so that when you are under the pressure of being live to the world, that you’re familiar with everything that needs to be done, so it doesn’t feel scary to make those moves. You never approach a show wondering what you would do. You always approach a show knowing exactly what you would do. If something has wheels, if it powers up, if it comes out of a tunnel it could get stuck, if something has to fly or drop and we didn’t know how long it could take, we would make notes and prepare musical loops for those points. We might have about 50 or 60 musical loops available to us in a show. You might only use three or four, but you have them everywhere, and you make sure none of those loops cross points like pyro points or that they don’t mess up the projection or anything else. There’s a lot of checking, double-checking, triple-checking, quadruple-checking to make sure you have a plan B for anything that could go wrong because you can’t stop the music.
On our next blog, we will have Carlos Freitas, who’s mastered 26 Latin GRAMMY-winning records, describe the mastering process for the Olympics Closing Ceremony.