Listening to: “Break up” By Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johanasson.

I got a chance to see Adele’s performance at the Grammy’s and there were a few different technical issues that I’d like to address, but before I do I’d like to explain the process of live sound reinforcement so as to explain where the breakdown occurred.

When a performer like Adele is performing, the technical set up that is commonly employed is to route all stage outputs, be it her vocal microphone, the microphone used to capture the piano, or any direct feeds from instruments, to a distribution splitter, so that the multiple different soundboards all have the same multi channel feed, as opposed to being at the mercy of a stereo feed from the first soundboard down the line. This method is helpful for tuning each mix to the individual listening location, because as you may have noticed, music sounds wildly different in your car vs. in headphones.

On a major production like the Grammy’s, there may be as many as eight to ten different mix locations, with audio engineers mixing for many different environments. Generally, there is a front of house mix (the mix that the live audience hears), a monitor mix (the mix that Adele and her musicians hear) and a mix for broadcast (the mix that everyone at home hears), plus many other mixes for things such as internet rebroadcast, etc.

The two major issues happened in different mixes. When deciding on how to properly capture the piano, the audio engineers decided to deploy two microphones on the piano, and the loud guitar sound that was reported came from one of these microphones breaking free from its holder and landing on the strings, which not only made the loud guitar noise that was heard but also inhibited the proper acoustical operation of the piano for the rest of the performance.

Adele herself addressed this on the Ellen show the next day, saying that she knew what happened and she should have reached in the piano and moved the microphone herself. As a sound engineer, I especially appreciate her taking ownership of the situation, albeit unjustly. The onus for this lies with the stage hands and engineers who rigged up the microphones on that piano.

The second issue was only apparent to those tuning in at home. At one point during the performance, Adele’s vocal microphone completely dropped out. Now she never mentioned anything about it, and neither did anyone in the venue, which leads me to believe that it was an issue at the broadcast mix location. An analog soundboard from the 1980’s or 1990’s, for example, has one button or knob for every feature. On a newer digital soundboard, almost everything is menu, or graphical user interface based, so one knob or one button may operate dozens of functions depending on what option is selected. My fairly educated guess as to what happened was that a mute command was accidentally selected, muting her microphone, when some other command was intended.

So what’s the conclusion to be drawn from all of this? Simply that stuff happens. Being an audio engineer is a lot like being a football referee, in that when everything is done perfectly, no one will notice. It’s only when mistakes are made that attention is paid and questions are asked.
Last time I checked, audio engineers are still people, capable of the occasional oversight or error. And next time you are at a concert or live event and everything goes well, let the audio engineer know he did a good job. A little appreciation goes a long way!

Jared Thompson sounding off!

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