BROADCAST: CTVOBs Bill Morris on the next generation of engineers

Morris writes his monthly column on a train from Blackpool to Manchester on his return from the set of Strictly Come Dancing
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Sir John Betjeman, the most loved and popular of all our Poet Laureates, once famously declared: ‘People’s backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens and houses that back onto railways are public benefactors.’ This certainly rings true as I sit writing this letter aboard the Blackpool to Manchester train, as I?return from four days with the Strictly Come Dancing team.

This is the third year that the BBC has brought the live show out of Television Centre to the nation’s centre of Ballroom Dancing and the second year that CTV Outside Broadcasts has provided its technical home from home.

Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom has to be one of the most magnificent ballrooms in the world. Designed by Frank Matcham in 1897, its ornate and cavernous interior is enclosed by a barrel vaulted, neo-baroque roof, intricately decorated with gilded plasterwork and festooned with opulent scenes of Pre-Raphaelite figures. The enormous, suspended mahogany block dance floor provides a suitable sound board to make the most of the equally well crafted and designed L-Acoustics PA arrays installed for the show by Plus 4.

This is the first time I have encountered the Digico SD7 mixer at one of our locations and my initial impression is a good one. I like the straightforward layout of the board and I especially like the programmable and intuitive LED colour coding for group assignments... Gimmicky perhaps, but really very useful in the twilight world of front of house.

Stewart Chaney, Plus 4’s MD has bought two of the 250-channel variants of the desk and has been very impressed with their ease of integration via MADI coax and optical networks with his existing PA stock. I am told that Digico are working on a broadcast variant of the desk (which hopefully will include touch down PFL on the faders.) I look forward to its arrival, if its as good as its FOH sister it should sell very well.

Individual musician monitoring is provided using the Aviom A-16 personal monitoring system, which allows each performer to produce their own bespoke monitor mix. The really clever function is that it utilises a central LAN router, linking each performer’s A-16 unit via a single strand of standard Cat 5 cable, which provides crystal clarity with no latency. I am already working out how we can transfer this product into the Outside Broadcast domain for various production and announcer applications. It was good to see, however, that most of the monitor sources were originating from a good solid PM1D that was being driven in the stage-left wing.

Tony Revell, the show’s sound supervisor and his extensive team have their work cut out for them on location. It is a very busy live television production encompassing a live dance band, multiple vocalists, contestants and upwards of 50 RF mic channels and countless other line sources. In addition, there is a guest artist with the band and a performance by Cirque Du Soleil. All isolated sources are split to the Red TX mobile where the music is mixed and sent on to the OB truck. Within the OB sound area, grams, presenters, performers and the show as a whole is created, at which point surround stems are on-passed for broadcast via a final 5.1 encoding suite.

At one end of the Tower Ballroom stands the famous stage, where a fabulous Wurlitzer Organ (with perhaps even more coloured lights than the Digico SD7) emerges most afternoons to accompany the assembled tea dancers. One hundred feet above the stage in bold calligraphy for all to see is a line from Shakespeare: ‘Bid Me Discourse, I will enchant Thine Ear’. It is discourse that becomes the subject matter for one of our longest standing seasonal Outside Broadcasts, The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

The lectures have been taking place in the world famous Faraday lecture theatre since 1825 and on several occasions have taken ‘sound’ as their core subject. Most notably in 1873, when John Tyndall presented his lecture, The Motion and Sensation of Sound. The lectures have been televised since the 1960s. I remember with great affection sitting with my late father watching the lectures as a young boy, little knowing that some 40 years later I would be part of the crew broadcasting them. I have been directly involved with the televising of the lectures for the past 12 years.

As soon as we park the OB in Albemarle St Mayfair, among all the glitz and west-end shoppers, we know that Christmas is almost upon us. As a Fellow of the RI, I am passionate about enthusing young people to get involved in science and technology as a subject. The Outside Broadcast industry is in urgent need of budding engineers and eager technicians to join its ranks.
Happy Christmas to you and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

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