When ATK Audiotek of Valencia, CA, was called upon for the seventh consecutive year to design an audio network for “American Idol,” we were faced with the task of creating a system capable of handling amateur singers performing with a professional band, and judges exchanging dialogue and interacting with a host — all within a noisy, live-performance environment.
It was a big project, but we were up to the challenge. Having worked on many live, high-profile events such as the Grammys and the Academy Awards, which, like “American Idol,” took place at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, we understand that in this type of environment, communication between all involved is the key to making it work. A missed cue can throw off the flow of an entire show, so the proper audio networking technology is essential to keep a broadcast on track.
New year, new challenge
From one season to the next, the intricacy of the sound system grows, and this past year set designers and producers presented a new challenge. The seventh season of “American Idol” debuted to much fanfare, a large, new two-story set the likes of which had not been seen before on the show.
For the first time in the show's history, conductor Rickey Minor, who is also the band's bass player, was separated from the other musicians in a second-story balcony across from the band. This new configuration offered drama and excitement to the program. It also made having an effective and efficient communication network even more vital to the production.
For years, we had been using an Orchestra Conductor System developed by a manufacturer that no longer makes or supports the product. However, age and extensive use began to take a toll, and the system started shorting out. In addition, band members were asking for more customized mixes than the three-channel system could provide. The aging system had to be made usable, and the question was: How? The answer: Aviom's Pro16 audio distribution system.
We had just finished using the Pro16 system along with the company's personal mixing technology on production of a reality show similar to “American Idol.” It was then that engineers began realizing that the technology could have benefits and applications far beyond monitoring mixing. The mixer units are compact and sturdy. In addition, they run on Cat 5 cables, so the wiring job — and, therefore, installation — is easy.
Easily create customized mixes
The system in use today in the Kodak Theatre is based on the old Orchestra Conductor System but provides added functionality. Arranged into two individual zones — one for the band and one for the drummer — Minor and the director can initiate communication using Clear-Com Party-line AB-100 and Studio Technologies 233 Announcer Consoles as the main interfaces.
The band zone is equipped with an Aviom A-16R rack-mount mixer, which the monitor engineer controls. Not only can the engineer easily control the band's levels, but also he can adjust the volume of Minor's voice as it comes through to the band. If it's too soft, the band will miss cues. If it's too loud, it can disrupt their ability to play. The drummer is using a standalone Aviom A-16II standalone mixer, which he can control himself. Clear-Com's PS-464 powers Tweecomm headset units.
Several other band members are using the A-16II for monitor control as well. At first, they were somewhat hesitant using a product that was unfamiliar to them, but the players have embraced the system. They appreciate the fact that they have more control over their levels, and there was only a small learning curve.
With our old system, only three mixes could come through, leaving the mixer to create 12 separate mixes. Because the Aviom system can deliver up to 16 channels, we are able to offer the band members 16 different stems to select and mix together to fit their needs.
The system was flexible enough to move from the small set during the first rounds of the show to the new, big stage with simple wiring adjustments and the addition of several boxes. All we did was add announcer boxes and lengthen the Cat 5 cable running between the different components that make up the system.
As we enter the show's eighth season with a new set of amateur performers along with celebrity guest performers, each with their own audio requirements, we faced even more challenges. But with a solid communications system, we have the confidence that we are able to face any situation. Our use of this equipment for “American Idol” is just the beginning. As production demands for live broadcasts increase, we will be looking at new ways to refine the system and adapt it for future events.
Andres Arango is a staff engineer for ATK Audiotek.