I don’t write about my work as I prefer to keep what I do separate from Misadventures with Andi. But sometimes I just get to do something that is so cool, I can’t help but sharing. Like spending this past Thursday and Friday at the rehearsals for the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards.
The GRAMMYs is the largest and most complicated live music broadcast in the world. 45 million people will be watching tonight and there is no room for error. That means a lot of preparation takes place to make sure it is flawless and enjoyed by all. For two days I got to see what goes on behind the curtain and I can tell you I have a new appreciation for all the hard work that takes place behind the scenes. Every single person I met was a passionate professional, top in their field, and dedicated to making the performers and their performances top-notch.
I showed up after lunch on Thursday, I was a little early so I took some photos of the red carpet being installed, because that is how geeky I am!
I was greeted by Robert Clyne who was part of the PR team and a gracious host throughout the two days I was there. He escorted me to the mixing trucks where all the magic happens. Of course it is the performers who bring the show, but there are some very talented sound engineers and broadcast mixers behind the scenes recording, mixing, setting levels in preparation for the broadcast and they ensure that what you hear in your living room on Sunday night is the best it can be.
I was placed into the hands of Doug Mountain, a 14-year GRAMMYs veteran, who kindly took the time to give me a tour of inside the Staples Center where I got to see the ins and outs of what it takes to stage this massive show. Security is really tight and absolutely no cameras are allowed inside the arena, so sadly I have no photos. You’ll just have to trust me that it was an awesome experience.
Doug detailed the sheer quantity of people that it takes to keep all the moving parts together: 160 stagehands, 150 technicians, 45 people in sound production, there are over 100 tons of gear suspended from the ceiling at 250 hanging points. Acoustical engineers worked with the owners of the Staples Center to pad all the hard surfaces and carpeting of the main floor to deliver the highest sound quality to the audience, there is not a bad seat in the house. I can attest to this as I was in almost every corner of the center and the music sounded awesome no matter where I was.
I got to see back stage including where all the microphone equipment, more than a million dollars worth, is organized and managed. Every single performer has their own individual wireless mic on its own unique frequency and it is carefully controlled. Next to it is where all of the script is managed. Every single sentence, every single joke is planned and fed into a teleprompter. One of the guys running that area told me that even the lyrics to all the songs are available although the artists rarely ask to use the teleprompter for that purpose.
All this equipment sits between the two performance stages where an amazing amount of choreography takes place to get the instruments in place. Every performer also has several platforms of equipment that are set-up and tested. These are rolled up and down a ramp as the performers begin and end their acts. Below is one of Justin Bieber’s (there was a ton for him, these were outside, hence the photos!)
It reminded me of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Toyko, you have to keep your wits about you because these platforms are flying up and down at a frenetic pace, much like the motorized fish carts carrying the world’s fish supply.
Every single corner and available space of the Staples Center is turned into an office or a dressing room. The locker rooms for the Lakers, the Clippers and the Kings are converted into multiple dressing rooms. They hang long black curtains creating little sitting rooms, a set for males and a set for females. There are also individual dressing rooms. I got to see the one for Lady Gaga, the decorators were in the process of pulling it together. They were originally going for soft leopard skin couches mixed in with golds, etc (maybe to be in-tune with her wild side?) but they found out she prefers more muted colors like beige and cream so they were in the process of changing things around, although the one designer told me they were going to keep the leopard skin chaise.
I also got to see Barbara Streisand’s dressing room, which was a work in progress, but already coming together with beautiful shades of green and purple. I went back the next day to see it completed and found it elegant and simple. There was a tea pot for tea, a makeup table, two couches and not much else.
After the Milli Vanilli disaster in 1990, all vocals are performed live. Live performances provide their own special level of complexity. Fortunately the people behind the scenes are passionate about what they do. It is a well oiled machine in the mixing area with a team of people that have been working together for years. They use lots of gear including Dolby equipment and software. In addition, for nine years straight they have partnered with Dolby consultants and you can tell there is a lot of respect and support. Every single one of the people I met in the mixing area had nothing but good things to say about one another.
Over the two days I was there I heard so many great stories, my head was spinning! I got to interview Joel Singer and Mark Linett of M3W (Music Mix Mobile West) as well as freelancers John Harris, Eric Schilling, Hank Neuberger, many of whom have won several Emmys (as well as one Grammy) for their work on this show.
So a little bit about what they do and what goes on with the audio during the rehearsals. There are two trucks (see photo below) that are mirrors of each other. As one artist is rehearsing their performance, it is recorded in one of the trucks. The sound engineer assigned to that artist will monitor it while it is being recorded and then while the next artist is rehearsing, he (or she) will jump into the second truck to begin working with the recording. He will test the levels of all the different parts – the singer, the back-up singers, every instrument, working alone or with the artist or with the artist’s sound editor or manager, making sure that the sound is the way the artist wants it. He will set the levels for that individual performer (like a macro) and save it for the live performance on Sunday.
When Sunday comes, they will pull up the settings and apply them to the performance, doing real time adjustments as needed. For example, an artist may have been saving his or her voice during the rehearsals and then during the live event gives it his or her all, the mixer has to be prepared for those changes. It is quite an interesting process and fascinating to watch. Friday morning I was in one of the trucks while John Harris and Hank Neuberger were working on the recording of Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams, Christina Aguilera, Martina McBride, and Florence Welch who are performing a tribute to Aretha Franklin. The diligence and care they take in making sure the sound is perfect is impressive.
On Sunday, Doug Mountain invited us to be a part of the tour they were doing for some of the charities that the Recording Academy supports. We were brought inside (no cameras, sorry) to view some of the rehearsals. Up on stage was Miranda Lambert working on her GRAMMY nominated Song of the Year, The House that Built Me. I was not familiar with Miranda or this song, but I can tell you I am now! It is a beautiful song dedicated to those singers that shaped music history and her performance was amazing. As her equipment was being broken down, Rihanna was getting set up. We walked through the backstage and I got to walk down the tunnel that the winners walk through as they are brought to the press area. I got to see the birds-eye view from the head of the tunnel where you can look up and see the entire audience, I can only imagine what it would be like during the show.
We continued back around to the dressing room area, and while I was waiting to move to the next part of the tour, Miranda Lambert brushed my arm as she walked by. I no sooner registered that when Katy Perry passed me going the other direction! Kind of fun!
I left Friday afternoon, interviews in hand, with a new appreciation for what it takes to do a live show. I had spent two whirlwind days in LA (where I didn’t have any great food experiences to share…sorry!) and I was excited at the prospect of tuning in like everyone else tonight to see the show live from my living room. I will never forget this experience and I hope you enjoyed my sharing as well.
If you are interested in seeing the interviews I did, they are going to be up on my company’s Facebook page next week. I am heading back to LA again to our Burbank offices next week for our Facebook launch event where Adam West (iconic Batman super-hero, mayor on Family Guy) will be doing live theater with Facebook status updates, should be a blast. More on that next weekend!
These are exceptional events offering exceptional experiences and I don’t take them for granted!