NILES, IL. Jan. 15, 2014—The most ambitious television event of 2013 may well have been the December 5 broadcast of The Sound of Music Live! on NBC, starring Carrie Underwood in the iconic role of Maria von Trapp. This live, three-hour event was a full staging of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical. It was reportedly the first full-length theatrical play televised live in 47 years. To help ensure a successful production, eight-time Emmy winner Klaus Landsberg was engaged as sound mixer, while Firehouse Productions of Red Hook, N.Y., was brought in to provide audio and wireless coordination.
“We do a lot of major live events in Manhattan, so this was nothing new for us,” says Mark Dittmar, VP of Design & Engineering for Firehouse. “And just as we do for the Tony Awards and the VMA telecast—which both require higher channel counts—we went with the Shure UHF-R Series. Always reliable, always flawless.”
The production was realized at Grumman Studios, located in Bethpage, Long Island, a massive facility that was originally used for building and testing aircraft by manufacturer Northrup Grumman. “The stage we were in is where they built the lunar lander back in the ‘60s,” says Klaus Landsberg. “The sound stages are huge, but we needed all that room for our sets. For wireless, we used 62 channels of Shure. Most of that was micro bodypacks for the cast, including double-miking for the principal cast. Then we also had four wireless fishpoles to pick up off-camera lines.”
The wireless system design and frequency coordination were handled by Vinnie Siniscal of Firehouse Productions, who brought in a specialized antenna system to maximize RF gain across four diversity zones. Siniscal used IAS software from Professional Wireless to do his frequency calculations in advance, and then used Shure Wireless Workbench® 6 to monitor the RF, audio, and battery status of all systems. To ensure sufficient battery life with the Shure UR1M micro-packs, the team chose lithium AAA batteries, which provide nine hours of continuous power. Each actor’s wireless channels stayed with them throughout the show, requiring a virtual army of audio A2s and wardrobe techs to move bodypacks during wardrobe changes, making sure the hair mics stayed in place.
Sound mixer Landsberg knew he could rely on the sound quality and stability of the Shure UHF-R systems. “The wireless sounded great, even though it was all hair mics,” he reports. “The only issue was with the nuns, who basically did all the background vocals live. The way their wimples (headdresses) wrap around their heads created a kind of cone and picked up more background than we wanted. So I did a little EQ on those mics and added just a touch of reverb. Everything else was pretty natural.”
With a large cast moving from set to set across a 300-page script, Landsberg set up snapshots on his Studer digital console for each of the show’s 11 acts, grouping inputs across his VCAs to help keep everything accessible. “Ironically, it was more important to mute unused channels than anything else, just to keep the noise floor as low as possible,” he notes. “The actual wireless systems were never an issue—great sound, and plenty of gain. Firehouse Productions made sure of that.”
According to Mark Dittmar, control of unwanted noise was the biggest audio challenge in The Sound of Music Live! Ironically, this was caused in part by having no live audience. “Having so many live mics in a big, open room with no audience meant that every little thing could be heard,” he notes. “Having a large, working water fountain on set, plus having to move cameras between sets and 1,800 moving lights with fans…you could hear it, especially during the quiet moments. So we did a lot of technical rehearsals, and also installed a huge amount of soundproofing, trying to deaden the room and soak up the unwanted sound.”
Fortunately, the technical crew was on site for nearly three months, enabling all the technical challenges to be addressed before the live broadcast. Overall, the wireless systems ranked pretty low on the audio team’s list of concerns. “We love the Shure UHF-R Series,” says Mark Dittmar of Firehouse. “They’re just so reliable, and they sound great. We own nearly 300 channels of them, and use them for everything from live TV to major tours. Next month, we’ll be using them for the NBA All-Star Game weekend. It’s our go-to wireless system.”
While reviews of the production were mixed, its impact as a special televised event was profound. With more than 18 million viewers, The Sound of Music Live! was a huge ratings success for NBC, prompting the network to immediately sign executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to produce another new family-friendly musical theater event for the 2014 holiday season.