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Producing the Proms: in the hall and in the car park

Sarah Sharples 6 September 2016
Producing the Proms: in the hall and in the car park

Covering daily concerts over a two-month period is a considerable undertaking. Philip Stevens finds out what is involved

Known more formally as The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts but usually as just ‘The Proms’, the BBC series is an eight-week programme of daily orchestral concerts based mainly at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This year, a number of other venues – including a multi-storey car park  will also host the musical events. In all, between 15 July and 10 September more than 90 concerts will be played. And one must never forget the world renowned Last Night of the Proms, where many patriotic songs are enthusiastically supported by the hundreds of concert-goers.

All concerts are broadcast live in stereo on BBC Radio 3, while many are to be seen on BBC Television either as live or recorded productions.

“Within the BBC there is a Proms team that plans the festival and other events,” explains Huw Robinson, operations manager, Classical, Radio and Music Operations. “Of course, we work very closely with them from the beginning of the year to find out how the season is shaping up.”

Proms 2The Operations department comprises between 120 and 130 staff who are responsible for most audio broadcasts for network radio. Those teams operate out of bases in London, Salford and Bristol. There is also a facility in west London where the outside broadcast vehicles and equipment is stored. The actual classical music team consists of around 25, although this number increases as the time for the concerts approaches.

“We had 15 different persons carry out the audio balance on the Proms broadcasts last year,” says Robinson. “Some may handle one or two concerts, while the more experienced may cover six to eight.”

KEEPING BUSY

Robinson says the biggest challenge is the sheer scale of the season with daily broadcasts and the number of concerts at different venues. “We might be doing three different activities in one day – with rehearsals, the additional activities and then maybe two live concerts.”

The opening concert of the season always takes place on a Friday evening, and the various crews – lighting, display equipment, television riggers, as well as the audio team, start their work the previous Monday morning.

“The team have two to three days to put everything together on the slings and then they are all tested and wired. We have to make sure all the slings are locked and chained on the balcony. Normally we complete by the Wednesday or Thursday and the team can look at rehearsals and doing all the line checks that are necessary,” states Robinson.

Proms 3This year, some of the routing has been changed to accommodate a different parking spot for the broadcast vehicles in the compound next to the Royal Albert Hall. “We are parked near Door 8. Some of the cables run under the pavement and into the Door 11 of the venue. Others need to run along the surface. It’s a complex rig.”

Robinson estimates that there are probably 10 kilometres of cable runs necessary to serve the 120 or so microphones that are rigged for the season. “Obviously, we cannot change those slings each day to suit the upcoming concert, so from the outset we need to plan for all eventualities. And many of those microphones are high above the stage and so an individual run of 50 metres is not uncommon.”

It is not unusual for up to 100 microphones to be used for a single concert. Some musical items call for a microphone on every desk or for several soloists in a choir. So, the number can soon mount up.

MIXING IT UP

Although many of the microphones are shared between radio and television operations and are connected together with MADI, the audio mixes are carried out independently. The radio mix is handled by the BBC, while an independent company, The Sound Alliance, looks after television requirements.

“We provide a sound mobile unit and crew, and pass on the mixed audio to the OB provider, Visions,” explains Andy Payne, TV sound supervisor and a director of The Sound Alliance. “In the Visions truck, presentation is added. However, on simpler Proms, we handle this element, as well.”

He goes on, “Our own mobile is equipped with Stagetec Nexus and Cantus mixing along with 128-track Pyramix recording and editing. Monitoring are Bowers & Wilkins in fully Dolby specified 5.1.”

Prom 6Payne reveals that the TV output is delivered in Dolby 5.1 surround, with stereo derived from this feed. “There are challenges in producing stereo without compromise from 5.1 and TV uses a somewhat different approach to microphone coverage to Radio 3. For radio the mix is principally in stereo and can be expanded up to a 4.0 surround feed which is accessible online.”

Although there are necessarily independent approaches to microphone coverage, television and radio share a good deal of what is rigged. Schoeps, DPA, AKG and Sennheiser type microphones make up the main coverage. Mostly, Schoeps and Neumann are used for on-stage soloist and spot mics, although others may be used from time to time.

Robinson picks up the story from the radio side. “Our OB truck is located right next to that of The Sound Alliance. This vehicle is just a few years old and is equipped with a Stagetec Aurus desk and Giethian RL901 monitoring system.”

He continues, “Radio 3 broadcasts a wider dynamic range than TV, but our output does depend on the platform. There’s DTT, DAB, FM and online, and although there are not separate mixes, there are different bit rates for each platform. The highest bit-rate online is 320kbps, but DAB is normally 192. Sometimes, we have to reduce it to 160 depending on what is happening on other services.”

In addition to the regular online offering, the Proms are also available in four channel surround sound on the internet. The aim is to create a listening experience close to the one heard by the audience in the unique acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

The BBC chose to use 4 channels because the operational setup is based on the stereo balance heard on all the Radio 3 platforms. In addition to all the microphones deployed for regular broadcasting, others are placed in various positions around the hall to offer a sense of the space and acoustic. The stereo and surround mixes are both created by the Radio 3 balancer in the vehicle outside the hall.

REHEARSING FOR THE SHOW

The timing of rehearsals can present a problem when there are two Proms in a particular day. If there is a late night concert, the radio crew would prefer to rehearse in the morning of the performance. That enables the earlier Prom to be rehearsed in the afternoon and the set up retained for the live concert. “It makes a very long day for the team doing the later Prom – but there isn’t always time to re-set the stage a couple of times during the day.”

He continues, “The Radio 3 truck has a multi-track recorder which, among other uses, is very useful during rehearsals. This enables the person mixing the concert to go back and check the recording at places where he or she might think a better balance can be achieved during the subsequent live broadcast.”

Beyond the concerts, Radio 3 broadcasts 76 Proms Extra programmes. These are a line-up of Radio 3 presenters and musical and cultural experts who introduce the music of that evening’s Prom and explore literary or historical themes. This year those include Shakespeare’s anniversary, the birthdays of Charlotte Brontë, H. G. Wells and Capability Brown, as well as the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London.

“We have a room at the Imperial College Union located quite close to the Royal Albert Hall. Here there are a couple of Roland consoles – one for broadcast, the other for front of house. We can use them as master and slave or independently – depending on requirements,” reveals Robinson.

These programmes are recorded prior to the evening performance and edited to fit the length of the interval during the concert. The BBC’s own network allows the file to be sent to the presenter’s box in the hall for playout at the appropriate time.

MULTI-STOREY IS A NEW CHAPTER

Proms 4As mentioned at the beginning, one of the concerts will originate in an unconventional venue in Peckham, south London. Christopher Stark and the Multi-Story (no ‘e’) Orchestra make their Proms debut in a disused municipal car park. The programme includes Reich’s Music for a Large Ensemble – his first work for a full orchestra – and his single-movement ‘octet’ Eight Lines.

At the time of writing, full details of how the concert will be covered were still being discussed. However – and perhaps surprisingly – the venue is already regularly used for musical occasions. According to Malcolm Stokes, BBC’s logistics manager for the event, moving the equipment to the higher floors could present problems. “The headroom at the entrance to the car park is too low for our trucks to pass through. And pushing trolleys full of all the equipment needed for the broadcast could prove difficult when the gradient of the ramps is taken into consideration. But it is a challenge that we will meet.”

One thing that is known is that the mixing will be carried out using DiGiCo consoles. “Both we, and the company providing the PA, are utilising this equipment,” reports Stokes.

Robinson concludes by saying that the Corporation broadcasts on an E1 circuit, and has recently installed a very high capacity fibre. “In the future, we will be using IP to get our signals back to Broadcasting House. That offers very fast file transfer and we can post a file directly after the concert ready for the repeat broadcast – often the next day. The Proms are always popular, and it is our job to ensure the listening public will always get the very best possible sound for their enjoyment. ”

www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Pictures: Photo Credit: All pictures from Chris Chrisodoulou. Top: The Last Night. Second: The patriotic crowd cheers. Third: Where else? The Royal Albert Hall. Fourth: Balloon drop for Proms. Last: Peckham carpark is being used for one of the concerts.

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