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Derrick Zieba on designing sound

Renowned sound designer Derrick Zieba has been indespensable at the Brit Awards and MTV’s EMAs for many years; and reveals to Paul Watson how he keeps getting it right on the night...

Derrick Zieba has been sound designer for the Brit Awards for more than twenty years; and has also been at the helm at the MTV Awards for close to a decade. He talks to Paul Watson just after the 2010 EMAs in Madrid about how he continues to be on the money every time of asking… PW: What kind of work goes into an event the size of the EMAs? DZ: As sound designer on the show the key factor is to both satisfy the needs of the acts and their sound engineers – to do what they want to do and have to do for the acts whilst at the same time ensuring that none of that compromises any of the other acts that are on the show. Presumably you have a well oiled routine in place for this by now? [laughs] Yes. Over the years I have put together a system that allows the broadcasters to get the best sound on the broadcast which is what the show is really all about, whilst at the same time allowing for the sound engineers in the hall to produce the best possible sound in the audience and thereby deliver to the broadcast great audience reaction of people who are really involved in the music. How important is it to get the live sound in the hall right? You absolutely must deliver the best sound in the hall so that on the TV broadcast Tim gets the audience reaction that he needs. When the cameras swing round and he brings up the audience mics, they need to be enjoying the show because that transfers to the audience. I learned that very early on when I was first asked to do the Brits. The producer said to me ‘the reason we want you to do it is because too little attention has been paid to the live sound and when I swing round the cameras and show the audience I don’t want to see people chatting amongst themselves at the tables’ so that is the one thing I have to avoid. People tend to think ‘oh it’s a TV show, it can’t be that important’ but in fact it’s essential in generating the excitement that then the broadcasters can capture and deliver to the audience. And how difficult is it to then replicate the atmosphere from the live performances into a live broadcast? It’s very difficult; and that’s why there are only very few people that can do it well, and Tim [Summerhayes] is one of the only blokes who is able to do that. Most young engineers, particularly from a studio background rather than a live background, tend to make it too clinical and don’t put enough audience in, so the music sounds great but it sounds like it’s in a studio rather than part of a huge live performance; and likewise you get other engineers from other sides of broadcast who will tend to put too much audience and therefore dampen down the musical credibility of the show. There are very few like Tim who can get that balance right where you’ve got all the excitement from the sound of the audience captured along with a great live music mix. And what’s your role on the night? I am the interface on behalf of MTV between the acts themselves and what they want and what I know is necessary to do to make the broadcast solid and safe within the confines of the time available. So in certain instances I will suggest to acts that either they bring their own kit because I can see an advantage, which happened at the EMAs with Kings of Leon who had such a complicated setup it was easier to have them on a completely separate set of boards and a set of splits for their particular performance… What was so complex about their set-up? Well, they were running everything on Midas XL8s which have a very different modus operandi in terms of how they’re put together and how they work, so in the rehearsal time they had available, it would have been very difficult for them to transfer that to any other type of desk because of the plug-ins they were using and everything else that was associated with their performance. Plus, by having them on a separate system and then putting the vocal-to-track acts on another entirely separate system, it left just two acts effectively – Kid Rock and Bon Jovi – on the main live system; and we had plenty of time to repatch between those. What’s your trusted kit then, Derrick? At the EMAs we used a Yamaha PM5D for FOH presentation, video playback, all the awards packages that come through; and all of the presenter and guest presenter mics and award winner’s mics. For many years now I have ensured we don’t muck about with lectern mics because you never get a good result, so everyone’s on a handheld – and that way you can keep the level up and the energy of the show up so we basically have a board and an operator that is dedicated to just do that. I then had an Avid Venue Profile which was at FOH and being used for Bon Jovi and Kid Rock; and we had a special arrangement for Shakira, who decided to bring her whole band and go live at the last minute; and her engineer is an analogue only man, which really doesn’t work in the context of the show because we don’t have any analogue, so they said they would pay extra, so we brought in an H3000 for that performance at FOH. Then you send the splits to Tim… Yes, I condense down all the requirements of all the acts to a set of splits which broadcast can pick up and a set of charts that I produce that allow broadcast to know the channel list for every single band. A big part of my pre-production work is getting the information from the band themselves then distilling it down to something I can give to Tim so he knows what he’s going to see coming up on the splits for which he needs to make provision for broadcast. You must have channel counts coming out of your ears at times… [laughs] It’s normally two or three weeks before the show that I am able to contact the bands again to check on that stuff. You might get an act that has a touring rider of 56 channels with everything on, but then find out that the particular number they’re doing for MTV might only be 24 channels of that 56. It’s up to me to factor that in so we don’t end up with a lot more channels than broadcast are able to take at any one time. Even though you’ve worked on these shows for so long, you must still feel the pressure? Oh, a huge amount. The EMAs is the key showcase for MTV in Europe. They make a big sway of this show weeks in advance – and it’s live-live, so there isn’t room for error. How do you handle it – and keep getting it right on the night?! [laughs] It’s very much a team effort with people I know I can call on: stage engineers, monitor and FOH guys who know what is required to get it right in such a crucial high risk fashion. We know we can’t get it wrong because it’s going straight to air; and likewise with broadcast: we do our part to make sure what I say is coming up those splits to Tim, because that’s the only way he can deliver the perfect broadcast sound to the audience that he wants to. There are lots of factors within factors here aren’t there? [laughs] Yes, absolutely! You know, I often say to Tim, ‘if it was simple they’d get someone else to do it’. It’s simple now because we do it so many times that we’re able to handle all the various problem areas in one way or another as we have almost certainly faced before, but for someone coming in fresh, it’s not a simple task.