Shure, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser provide RF power to CMA Awards telecast

A crack audio production team led by audio co-producers Michael Abbott and Tom Davis staged the live telecast of the 43rd Annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards Nov. 11 at Nashville’s Sommet Center. With responsibilities including audio for both broadcast and the packed venue, Abbott and Davis assembled an elite team that included John Harris and Jay Vicari in the Music Mix Mobile (M3) production truck, production mixers Mark King (broadcast) and Patrick Baltzell (house), and house music mixer Rick Shimer. Baltzell was also the system’s sound designer, putting together a multizone house PA system to cover two stages.

With 20 musical acts jammed into a three-hour program, Abbott and Davis focused on two principles of success for a smooth program: using the best available equipment and ensuring that each artist was in his or her comfort zone while performing. Those two principles came together in the area of wireless microphones, where the preferences of artists and broadcast mixers can clash with the realities of operating hundreds of frequencies during a live telecast.

Abbott, with extensive experience as audio producer of major award shows, uses the latest technology to ensure that every artist can be accommodated with his or her microphone of choice. “As award shows have evolved, we’ve realized that it’s best to allow the artist the use of their preferred microphones whenever possible,” Abbott said. “And with today’s recallable signal routing systems, that’s much easier to accommodate than it was in the past. We have RF systems from all three major manufacturers patched into our antenna system.”

This has created a much more harmonious environment for performers, sound engineers and manufacturers than in the past, when a strong desire for uniformity from the broadcast side virtually assured some degree of conflict with artist endorsements or preferences. At the CMA Awards, the plan was to supply enough systems from Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Shure to eliminate any disagreements. The total number of available vocal systems was 32. “We have all the wireless systems patched into our master antenna system, so we can accommodate any artist need within reason,” Abbott said. “It used to require a lot of crosspatching, but now it’s a matter of just remapping a channel onto an input. So if it’s what makes the artist comfortable, that’s what we’re going to use.” As an example, co-host Carrie Underwood brought her personal, blinged-out Shure UR2/SM58 to perform with. The audio team assigned it a frequency via one of the Shure receivers already in place, preserving the artist’s preferred look without a hitch.

This is not to say that wireless mics are a simple matter in an award show environment. Between wireless mics, in-ear systems, RFPL and walkie-talkie communications, there were literally several hundred “authorized” wireless channels to coordinate, so keeping the channels set to go on-air clean required constant attention. “It’s a tribute to today’s wireless systems that we can do this at all,” said Tom Davis, co-audio producer. “We didn’t have a single dropout during the broadcast. In fact, I don’t think we had a hiccup in the five days of setup and rehearsals.”

And it’s a good thing that’s true, because, true to the spirit of technology in broadcasting, the production requirements of the show continue to expand to the operational limits of the equipment available. “The stage design was awesome this year,” Davis said. “But as staging technology grows, a lot of these physical production elements are putting more and more RF and EMF onto the stage than they ever have before, and that can be challenging. Our wireless guys spend a lot of their time looking at and trying to contain it. Antenna placement and combiners become key, especially how they’re deployed. You’ve got to use the best equipment and constantly do frequency sweeps and fine-tune it during the week. That’s really important when you’re running that many frequencies.”

So with the latest in wireless systems, the audio crew for the CMA Awards achieved flawless on-air wireless microphone performance, something that only a few years ago would have been a rarity. “They call this country music’s biggest night,” Abbott said, “so the stakes are high. It’s our job to make things as seamless as possible for the performers. It takes a great crew and a lot of preparation to make it happen. And in a fragile RF world, we had a very good evening.”