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The recent prime-time show “Ballando con Le Stelle” (“Dancing with the Stars”) demanded a tricky live dance by the technical production team. To accomplish this, the team controlled the show's audio with three digital consoles installed at the RAI's auditorium at Rome's Foro Italico, from which the show was aired live.

“Ballando con Le Stelle” is based on the BBC's “Strictly Come Dancing.” The show started with 14 couples, each consisting of a professional dancer and a celebrity, who demonstrated their dancing ability (after a week's practice between shows) in front of a panel of experts.

Hosted by Milly Carlucci with Paolo Belli and his Big Band, the show was produced by RAI Uno in collaboration with Ballandi Entertainment and directed by Cesare Gigli. The RAI audio team formed by Claudio Gatti performed meticulous work. The team is now part of a group called Impianti Speciali (Special Systems), founded by Alessandro Bernardi, manager of the relative RAI production area and in charge of the Italian state broadcaster's central and southern Italian OB services.

Three audio consoles

The show used three Studer Vista digital mixing consoles: a 52-fader Vista 8 in the music control room, a Vista 7 for a dual monitoring set-up and a Vista 5, the Swiss manufacturer's third-generation digital broadcast/live console, which controlled the sound reinforcement of the band for the studio audience.

The sound engineers (coordinated by Mauro Severoni) were Fabio Spadoni and Alessandro Amendolara. They handled the mixing of the band's broadcast sound (with the consultancy of Marco Diano); Emilio Logozzi and Franco De Lucia on in-studio band sound reinforcement duty; Emanuele Moscardi and Gabriele Vacca on monitors chores; and Edoardo Scognamilio, who was responsible for the sound reinforcement of vocal mics.

Broadcast feed

The Vista 8 digital live production console used to mix the band's playout sound was installed in a container outside the auditorium. The great advantage of working on these consoles was the possibility of several engineers working simultaneously without getting in each other's way — thanks to their division into 10-channel bays. In fact, Spadoni was at the center, with drums, the four vocalists and the final master; Amendolara took care of the guitars, percussion and keyboards; and Diano was in charge of the brass, following the songs on his sheet music.

Another function the team found particularly useful was being able to isolate certain parameters and carry them forward unchanged to future snapshots. After initial rehearsals and sound checks, changes happened. For example, the EQ had to be changed on the drummer's snare because the skin was changed. Or compression on a vocal mic or the gain on the guitar changed because the musician brought in a new amp. With this setup, the engineer could set the new parameters and isolate them. Snapshots recalled after they are isolated — whether they've been created before or after — will all have the new settings.

The feature Spadoni used most frequently on the show was ganging. It allowed him to rapidly apply functions to multiple channel strips, since the series of channels selected to be ganged act as one. This feature was used with the mics of the four vocalists and of the nine brass players to raise or lower them simultaneously, without having to create a voltage-controlled amplifier.

The natural progression of this is Link All, another handy automation feature for this type of work. It offers the possibility of linking all the faders — even those that are not visible. Then the operator could raise or lower the levels, switch an aux on or off, and enable or disable an EQ, a compressor or anything else — all at once.

Counting such things as outboard units and reverbs, the audio console received more than 120 channels from the band. Working in the digital domain, a project like “Ballando con Le Stelle” would have been unthinkable with analog consoles.

The entire audio system was digital (including the console in the OB van), with the exception of the auditorium's resident Midas desk, which was used to mix the speech mics of the contestants, panel of experts, Carlucci and Belli.

Inside the auditorium and studio

The Vista 8 was used as a master and fed the mic signals received from two remote Studer stage boxes under the bandstand to the other two Vista desks in the studio via Multichannel Audio Digital Interface (MADI) with fiber-optic cable runs. Each was operated independently.

Although the show was simple and repetitive, there were about 30 to 40 songs per evening, so the consoles were essential for their signal routing and real-time recall facilities. The latter were put through their paces when two couples had to fight it out to see which was eliminated. They took turns to decide what dance the other had to perform. There was no ready-made playlist for that part of the show, so sound engineers and musicians had to be ready to roll after the short presentation of the couple in question.

Sound reinforcement

The band had a 15-piece line-up. The Vista 5 was used for sound reinforcement and handled about 70 channels.

In addition to the electric and acoustic (double) bass, the bass player also played keyboards. The keyboard player had two keyboards. The two guitarists had electric, classic and acoustic instruments, as well as another keyboard. The brass section had three trumpets, two trombones and four saxes, as well as other instruments, such as flutes.

In addition to the conventional kit, the drummer had a large array of sundry percussion instruments and a pair of close-mic'd timbales. There were four vocalists who alternated as soloists. The percussionist was particularly important, as many of the Latin and Caribbean songs spotlighted specific percussion instruments.

The crew had already used the Vista 7 and 8 desks for important events, such as for the Sanremo Song Contest, but this was the first time it had used the Vista 5. Although the philosophy and operating principles are similar, the control surface varies slightly, as everything has been fitted into a more compact footprint. For example, the meters are located alongside the faders. There were three bays — two of input channels and one of outputs. The crew used three layers, which made work a lot faster. The DSP core's processing power is greater than the previous generation of DSP cards, so the work the crew had done with 15 cards could now be done with three.

Apart from a premix of each brass section, the sound reinforcement console received the same channels as the broadcast sound. Rather than a conventional sound reinforcement application, however, the crew used the console to balance the live sound of the band, as the natural sound of some instruments, such as the saxes, would have been covered by the others.

The speaker systems deployed were two arrays of eight Meyer Sound M1D plus two subs on the floor per side. They were installed quite far forward due to set design requirements, so a pair of UPA-1 and UPA-2 were added for in-fill and down-fill purposes. The crew obviously also had to bear in mind the average age of the members of the studio audience — who definitely weren't accustomed to rock ‘n’ roll concert SPL.

Monitor mixing chores on the Vista 7 were shared by Moscardi and Vacca. Moscardi was responsible for the sound fed to a series of Meyer Sound CQ-2 enclosures strategically positioned around the dance floor for the contestants. Vacca took care of the band's headphones.

Here too, the desk's division into bays was exploited for four-hand mixing, so Vacca was able to work on the vocalists' feed without interfering with anything Moscardi was doing at the same time for the dancers, or vice versa.

The digital console also enabled the engineers to store a basic mix for each type of dance, with which snapshots for each individual song could then be fine-tuned and stored. More than 200 were created during the shows!

Foldback for the band

The band's monitor set-up comprised an Aviom A-16II personal monitor mixing system with two transmitter units (connected via Cat 5 cable) and a series of XXL headphone amps. The musicians used one transmitter. They received 13 channels of music that they could mix at will, plus three service channels. These were used for facilities such as the headset mic worn by drummer Mauro Parma, who was constantly linked with the sound crew's communication system based in the OB truck.

The music channels included separate kick-drum, snare and high-hat, a mix of the drum kit, one of the bass and others of the keyboards, guitar 1, guitar 2 and the brass. With these, the musicians could tailor the mix heard in their cans to suit their personal requirements, without having to interact with the engineers. A premix was done of the brass section. Each player mixed with the rest of the band's sound on their Aviom A-16. This was fed to their XXL, which they used to balance it with the feed of their own mic, received directly from the console. The Aviom A-16T transmitter was used for the vocalists, in a conventional manner with a mixdown of the band.

Another key automation feature used on the show was the great ease with which a single parameter or all the settings of an entire channel could be copied from one fader to another. In the event of a problem with a mic, the musicians could immediately copy their EQ, compression and everything else to another channel, ensuring even further versatility.

Mike Clark is an Italy-based UK journalist specializing in entertainment technology.

Technology at work

Aviom

A-16II personal mixer
A-16T transmitter

Meyer Sound

CQ-2 narrow-coverage main loudspeaker
M1D curvilinear array loudspeaker
UPA-1 wide-coverage loudspeaker
UPA-2 narrow-coverage loudspeaker

Midas

House analog audio console

Studer

Vista 5 compact digital console
Vista 7 digital production console
Vista 8 live broadcast and production digital console

Technical team

Ballandi Entertainment

Cesare Gigli, director

RAI Impianti Speciali (Special Systems)

Alessandro Bernardi, manager
Mauro Severoni, sound engineer coordinator
Fabio Spadoni, sound engineer
Alessandro Amendolara, sound engineer
Marco Diano, in-studio band sound reinforcement
Emilio Logozzi, in-studio band sound reinforcement
Franco De Lucia, in-studio band sound reinforcement
Emanuele Moscardi, monitors
Gabriele Vacca, monitors
Edoardo Scognamilio, sound reinforcement, vocal mics