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The Grand Ole Opry's new sound

The broadcast control room of the Grand Ole Opry was upgraded with a 104-channel, 48kHZ Euphonix System 5 console.

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN, turns 80 this year and has spent most of those 80 years as the sonic signature of country music. Television broadcasts have been carried on select weekends for the past two years on the Great American Country (GAC) cable network. Before that, Viacom's Country Music Television (CMT) broadcast the shows on most weekends for two years. CMT, the successor to the Nashville Network (TNN), was founded by Gaylord Broadcasting before it was sold to CBS cable, then a division of Westinghouse in 1997. Gaylord Entertainment owns the Opry House and the adjacent Gaylord Opryland Resort, where WSM-AM — the long-time radio broadcaster of the Opry — has a glass-walled booth in the lobby from which several on-air shows are done.

Ole systems

The Opry hired Steve Gibson, a music industry veteran, well-known session guitarist and studio owner in Nashville for the last 30 years, as a music and creative consultant to help plan its audio systems upgrades. Given the importance of the Opry's sound to the business of country music, was surprised at the relative complacency he found at its broadcast operations.

Problems included an older AMS Neve V3 console, the maintenance of which Gibson described as lacking, with broken channel strips and a general reliance on outdated technology. For example, the broadcasts were being archived to ADAT decks.

Grand solutions

There were also lax operational modalities. An example: The Opry signal path was routed through unnecessary copper and transformers. It then passed through several other switching and console variables before arriving at the transmitter.

Opry general manager Pete Fisher invited Gibson and George Massenburg, a well-known mixing and mastering engineer and audio systems developer, in as consultants in March 2002. They established a novel and ultimately effective strategy: repairing the broadcast sound by starting at the stage. The concept was to improve the broadcast sound by first improving the live sound the audience heard.

Working on the notion that country music is essentially acoustic music, Gibson advised that many of the direct-insertion inputs, such as guitar amplifiers, be amplified using microphones instead. A new FOH console was installed, a 64-input ATI Paragon II with recall faders and assignable soft keys feeding a flown JBL Vertech PA system.

Massenburg discovered that the Opry House's meager acoustical treatments had deteriorated, with missing acoustical tiles or tiles that had been painted over. Additions made were primarily absorptive foam on walls and additional heavy curtains on the rear and side walls to minimize reflections. This allows shows to be played louder in the hall, generating increased excitement, which translates to better performances.

FOH engineer Tommy Hensley works the Opry House’s ATI Paragon II console, which can generate any combination of up to 32 mono or 16 stereo monitor mixes.

Consulting analyst Sam Berkow identified acoustical nodes as a major problem. His analysis revealed frequency masking in the room from resonance areas under the main balcony. These received additional acoustical treatments.

Once the house sound had been upgraded, the consultants redid the broadcast control room, located midlevel against the Opry House's rear wall. A 104-channel, 48kHz Euphonix System 5 console replaced the aging V Series desk. King Williams and Steve Marcantonio mix the show for TV and radio from there, recording it to an AMD Opteron 264 (3.65GB of RAM, 1TB local hard drive) running Steinberg Nuendo 3.02 recording software (timecode locked) with a redundant backup system. Reference monitors are Genelec 8050As with Genelec 7070A subs.

The television audio is routed to an AMS Neve Capricorn digital music console in a room behind the stage. Radio goes directly to the transmitter from the System 5 audio console. The digital music console takes various audio elements, including live OB interview inserts, theme and bumper music and house applause microphones, and mixes them with the stereo music mix sent from the audio console.

Williams splits the output of the Euphonix into two stereo feeds. Stereo 1 feeds everything except television. Stereo 2 goes to the Capricorn for broadcast. Stereo 1 has a Smart Research C2 compressor applied. A slaved unit is applied to Stereo 2.

One of the operational changes to the broadcast is that the audio console sends an audience-minus mix to the digital music console, where Johnson adds his own ambience in. This avoids the comb filtering previously experienced as a byproduct of the latency engendered by the two digital consoles doing A/D conversions at different points in the signal path.

Another change was the implementation of an RTS PL-type IC system. The two-channel system runs over the same line. And a multipin connector beneath the stage allows the audio crew to give the Opry intercoms their own instantly recallable configurations. This is needed because the studios are used for other programs during the week.

This AMD Opteron computer screen at the Opry runs Steinberg Nuendo 3.02 software.

Choosing the audio console was based on a combination of performance and price. The onboard snapshot automation meshes nicely with the high volume of artists and musicians who perform during the show. Regular performers, such as Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner, have their level and EQ setting stored and ready to be recalled instantly.

The Opry House plans to purchase a RAID-type storage system to migrate the current FireWire drives for archiving.

Opry changes

The changes in the house sound rippled back to the broadcasts with some unexpected challenges. The improved stage monitoring system, mixed by an 80-input Harrison LPC, was louder and was bleeding into the larger number of open microphones onstage. This was rectified to a degree by varying the microphone placements.

Mixing techniques also had to change. Gibson says low-frequency information, which increased significantly as the stage sound amplified mechanical coupling with the stage itself, is attenuated to broadcast. Broadcast mixes that once relied heavily on artificial reverb and were often overly compressed now use organic ambience from more audience microphones, with a lighter touch on compression overall. The result is what Gibson says is a more realistic acoustical sound that translates well to broadcast when it leaves the Opry House and travels via Vyvx to GAC's earth station uplink in Denver.

Music on television is proliferating, and Gibson is convinced that all efforts to send a good signal out of a venue are still at the mercy of transmission formats, cable in particular. The audio department has multiple real-time monitoring options to toggle between during shows, including the AM radio, DirecTV satellite and local Comcast cable returns, all periodically compared with the live signal to the control room.

The bottom line, though, is that the Grand Ole Opry has reasserted its position as the sonic signature of country music and now has broadcast audio that can back that up.

Dan Daley is a journalist and author who covers business and pro audio technology.

Design Team

Jon Mire, technical services manager
Steve Gibson, music director and audio consultant
George Massenburg, audio consultant
Steve Marcantonio, television and audio broadcast engineer
King Williams, audio broadcast engineer
Kevin Reinen, chief technology engineer
Sam Berkow, acoustics consultant

Equipment List

Allen Smart C2 stereo compressor

AMD Opteron main recording system

AMS Neve Capricorn

ATI Paragon II recall console

EMT 140 Plate Reverb

System 5 audio console
64 remote mic pre amps
Converters A/D D/A

8050A reference monitor
7070A sub

Harrison LPC console

JBL Vertech PA system

Lexicon dual 480L

Steinberg Nuendo 3.02 recording software

T.C. Electronic TC 2290

360 Systems
Instant Replay