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Q&A: One Love Manchester engineer Toby Alington on a long career in live broadcast

Tara Lepore 15 August 2017
Q&A: One Love Manchester engineer Toby Alington on a long career in live broadcast

Think of just about any major TV show or live event that has involved music and it’s likely that Toby Alington was the man behind the desk mixing audio for the broadcast. Over the past 30 years he has notched up a staggering 23 BRIT Awards, 17 MTV Europe Music Awards, and has helmed the BBC Music Awards since it started in 2014. He has also handled sound for The Voice, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert, and has produced TV and DVD soundtracks for a glittering array of artists, including Adele’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Most recently he was tasked with taking on the One Love Manchester show – the most watched music event of the year to date. Here, Alington takes a retrospective look back at some of his many career highlights and shares some of his most memorable moments over the past three decades…

What made you want to work in the industry?
Music was a big part of my childhood, learning piano and violin from age four. I was leader of the local Youth Orchestra and achieved Grade 8 on both instruments while at school in Gloucester. Some work experience at the local radio station, Severn Sound, triggered an interest in the technical side of broadcast audio, and I got a place on the BBC’s Studio Manager course when I was 18.
The BBC and I parted company after a year; I don’t think I was the most compliant student they had tried to instil BBC training into, and I was disillusioned as to how long it would take me to be working solely in the music areas. I managed to persuade Keith Grant to take me on as a tape-op at Olympic Studios in 1981, and spent six years there working on a mixture of film scores, rock’n’roll albums, TV music and adverts, learning from Keith and other great engineers.

How did you get involved with pro audio and the broadcast sector?
I went freelance when Olympic was bought by Virgin in 1987, working on film and TV music, and rock/pop albums. The turning point was when someone asked me to come and do a live TV broadcast with a band whose album I was working on, and I just loved the experience. It was a combination of live performance, live broadcast, working to picture – a culmination of all the things I had enjoyed over the previous 10 years. Moving more into location and live music recording over the next few years, I was asked to take over the BRIT Awards live sound in 1995.

The BBC and I parted company after a year; I don’t think I was the most compliant student they had tried to instil BBC training into…

Tell us about your most recent project and what it involved?
I am just back from a weekend in Paris, recording Coldplay’s Head Full of Dreams tour at the Stade de France for DVD with Rik Simpson and Tony Smith. We used a de-rig system with a Lawo MC2 56, and my usual selection of outboard equipment. We also produced a live feed for online broadcast, with a quick remix of one track at the end of the show. I have worked with Coldplay since around 2001 on various broadcasts and recordings – it’s always a lovely experience with a great sound team. I am hoping to be out in Chicago with them for a live broadcast next month.

You have worked on some huge events in your career. Which for you stand out as the biggest?
Collectively, the annual shows combine to give me an amazing number of high-calibre artists to work with. With the Brits, MTV EMAs, BBC MAs and other annual multi-artist shows, such as Children in Need Rocks, I guess I mix around 40 top Anglo-American artist performances every year. Probably the biggest in terms of number of inputs, quantity (and quality) of artists, length of show and complexity was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert, broadcast live from outside Buckingham Palace in 2012. That was an adrenaline rush and a half!

What is the most challenging project you have worked on to date?
During a Q&A session at a conference, someone said, “it sounds like you do the shows that no one else wants to do”! Multi-artist, live-to-air shows are all very challenging, but I would put the Diamond Jubilee (around 500 inputs), and One Love Manchester pretty high up the list of challenging shows. Working in unusual territories can also add to the stress levels – Russia, Mexico City, St Lucia and Delhi spring to mind as high-blood-pressure moments!

How difficult was the Manchester show, given the extremely limited preparation time?
I was asked to mix the show for the BBC and international broadcast. With one week’s notice, we put together a live broadcast solution for this amazing multi-artist show with an estimated audience of well over a billion. We had three days to source crew and equipment, and define the interface between PA (Britannia Row), us and the OB (Arena). I used the Floating Earth mobile, with its SSL C200 console, and a great crew who had all worked with me on countless multi-artist shows before. We were live on air for five hours – although it felt like far less than that! – with some acts unable to soundcheck for us before we were live to air. Quite a challenge, and a remarkable achievement from everyone involved.

Is there a project you are most proud to have worked on?
There’s a correlation between “most challenging” and “most proud of”. Surmounting technical difficulties, pushing the boundaries and capabilities of everyone involved, deploying equipment and people to avoid single-points-of-failure, and at the same time working with some of the best artists in the world, definitely makes me feel proud to be involved in the live music broadcast industry on every show I do. Meeting Her Majesty the Queen after the Diamond Jubilee concert certainly added to the pride of working on that show!

Working in unusual territories can also add to the stress levels – Russia, Mexico City, St Lucia and Delhi spring to mind as high-blood-pressure moments!

Tell us about the biggest changes you have seen in the industry during your career.
I have seen the industry move from analogue to digital, and from tape to hard-disc, both in audio and video. When I first started at Olympic in 1981, it was all analogue tape, and timecode synchronisation was just starting to come into the studios. Our picture source was on 16mm or 35mm film, and all editing was done with razorblades. Move forward 35 years, and it’s rare to find anything on tape – and certainly not a razorblade in sight! The progression of DAWs has been extraordinary, and the latest version of Nuendo (my tool of choice) has features which we hadn’t even dreamt of 20 years ago.

Consoles have changed beyond recognition, and it’s almost impossible to find one of the new-generation desks which you can switch on and start making noises without some complex routing and setup. Luckily in my role, there’s always a good guarantee engineer who knows how to get things going. I must work on 10 different consoles each year, and trying to remember the foibles and shortcuts on each of them is a challenge.

What are your most essential pieces of kit?
I think I need to split these into two groups – live broadcast and post-production.

For live broadcast, I love the SSL C200: it sounds great and has full channel strips with a full complement of rotaries and buttons – you need a lot of knobs at your disposal when you’re working at high speed on a live soundcheck or broadcast. Next would be the TC System 6000 – in my opinion one of the best audio tools ever made – which I use for effects and output mastering. And finally, either Nuendo or Pyramix multitracks for recording onto, as they’re so reliable.

For mixing and post-production, I love the combination of the Yamaha DM2000 with Nuendo. Being able to flip between a HUI layer for premixing “in the box”, and the 96 audio channels on the desk for traditional mixing, is really well designed. I think I’ll be moving to Nuage and Nuendo in due course. The speed and reliability of these tools, coupled with great sound, is so important.
But if it was just about three pieces of kit, Nuendo, Yamaha DM2000 and TC System 6000. Oh, plus great monitoring (I am a B&W fan). And great crew. And Lexicon reverbs. And dbx902 de-essers. And EL Distressors… it’s a long list!

What advice would you offer to your younger self at the start of his career?
If someone had said, “follow your passion”, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, as I feel that’s exactly what I have done. I love the responsibility of the big broadcast shows, their technicality, and the privilege to work with some of the best artists in the world. It’s a real buzz when the mix comes together in a structured and emotional way, and you know you’re hitting the right buttons on the wider audience. I certainly could have made better business decisions along the way, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing!

What are your predictions for the next few years in audio broadcast?
I can see networked audio becoming central to the way we work in live recording, but it also creates a lot of new headaches and requirement for investment, and – yet again – we don’t yet have an agreement on a standard.

I certainly could have made better business decisions along the way, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing!

I am very happy working with 48kHz 24bit signals, and find the altruism of 192kHz 32bit somewhat overkill; these high-bandwidth data rates tend to cause more problems than they fix at the moment. But in time, I can see a very fluid, real-time cloud-based solution for a lot of what we do in broadcast. I feel it’s very important we don’t discard the good heritage of working methods and equipment ergonomics – there has been a very useful progression with much input from great people over the last 100 years which should be carefully reviewed when developing new work-surfaces.

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