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Microphone companies compare Grammy bragging rights

This year’s live CBS telecast of the Grammy Awards, staged Feb. 8 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, was notable for its increase in the number of musical performances, from U2’s opening number to Stevie Wonder’s sendoff. Unique performances have become a Grammy specialty, and the night did not disappoint. Among the one-of-a-kind pairings were Paul McCartney with Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums; Justin Timberlake with a rejuvenated Al Green and Boyz II Men; Radiohead with the USC marching band; and a blues jam with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Keith Urban and John Mayer paying tribute to Bo Diddley.

Fittingly, the unlikely pairing of rocker Robert Plant and bluegrass artist Alison Krauss dominated the awards, walking off with five statues including Record of the Year and Album of the Year. Rapper Lil Wayne (four Grammies) and rockers Coldplay (Song of the Year and two others) also enjoyed big nights. But for the pro audio industry, the winners were counted in screen time, with the major microphone manufacturers staging their annual headcount of who was using what.

Grammy telecast microphone selection has been increasingly competitive in the past 20 years, with the show’s producers struggling to maintain a balance among input lists from artists and their engineers (driven by a combination of personal preferences and endorsements) and the needs of the telecast itself. Broadcast audio was supervised by Phil Ramone and Hank Neuberger of The Recording Academy’s producers and engineers wing. ATK Audiotek of North Hollywood provided the sound system, with remote music mix facilities courtesy of XM Productions/Effanel Music. Frequency coordination for the 50 channels of on-stage RF was handled by Burbank, CA-based Soundtronics Wireless. The TV production mix was by Tom Holmes, working in the NEP Denali Summit HD remote truck. The entire production was produced in HD with 5.1 surround sound, with overall audio responsibilities falling to longtime audio coordinator Michael Abbott.

In the aftermath of this year’s show, all the major microphone companies trumpeted their involvement. On the opening number, Bono stepped into the spotlight using a Shure UHF-R transmitter with SM58 capsule. The UHF-R system also graced performances by Jennifer Hudson, Coldplay, Carrie Underwood and Kid Rock, plus the hip-hop performance by MIA and the Bo Diddley tribute jam.

Sennheiser SKM5200 handheld transmitters were in ample evidence as well, with the Jonas Brothers using MD 5235 capsules for their performance with Stevie Wonder. A big part of Sennheiser’s wireless presence was not so visually apparent, with a total of 16 ew300 in-ear monitoring systems in use throughout the program. AKG’s new WMS4500 wireless systems were used for a landmark performance by Kanye West and Estelle and for Neil Diamond’s rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” Audio-Technica Artist Elite 5000 wireless systems were in use by for the Four Tops tribute featuring Jamie Foxx as well as by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Justin Timberlake, Lil Wayne and Taylor Swift.

FOH music mixer Ron Reaves said, “There were absolutely no RF failures that I was aware of. If there were any issues, from out front we didn't notice them. The performances went on without a problem. This job is just a joy.”

The perception of wireless as a necessary evil in the high-pressure world of live broadcasting was clearly evident. “We probably averaged 30 to 40 inputs per act. In each case, a majority of the mics were hardwired. Vocals were still dominated by RF microphones, but in my opinion, we're starting to see a trend emerge on these shows where there's a little more wire than in the past,” Reaves said. “Maybe we're trying to condition ourselves to changing conditions within the spectrum, but clearly anything at this event that didn't have to be mobile was stuck on a wire."

Hardwired vocal mics were used in several other key performances, both for headliners and backing singers. Best New Artist winner Adele used a Neumann KMS 105 for her performance, an Audio-Technica AE3300 captured Kenny Chesney’s solo performance and Shure SM58s were spotted in front of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, while Sir Paul McCartney opted for a Beta 58

While most of the microphone action on camera is wireless, it takes hundreds more to handle all the instruments that grace the backline. For an event like this, that includes orchestral ensembles and gospel choirs in addition to all the rock and pop groups. The bulk of the backline action was handled by a combination of more than 250 Audio-Technica mics along with an impressive selection of Sennheiser and Neumann mics.

While the full range of inputs for the 23 performances spanned a huge variety of applications and selections, it would be fair to say that most kick drums and floor toms were miked with the Sennheiser evolution 602. “It’s the punchiest drum microphone out there,” said music mixer John Harris of XM/Effanel. Sennheiser e602 II and e604 mics were used for drums and percussion, while the MKH 8040 handled drum ambience and the horn section. Neumann TLM 102, TLM 49 and KM 184 instrument mics were also featured.

Audio-Technica hardwired mics included AT4050 on guitar cabinets; AT4040 on drum overheads; the AE5100 for hi-hat, ride cymbal and percussion; ATM250 for Leslie speakers and guitar amps; and the ATM350 clip-on mic for horns, congas and strings. The BP4025 X/Y stereo mic was used for percussion pickup. Michael Abbott, audio coordinator for the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, said, "Live broadcasts of this magnitude are immensely challenging. Our engineers need a wide range of consistent and dependable microphones that enable them to capture each artist's individual character, and A-T delivers exactly what we need."