Backstage At The Grammys: Inside The Machinery Of Music’s Biggest Night – Forbes
Music’s biggest night is known for its glitz and glamor, with tens of millions of people tuning in to see superstar artists showing up to the ceremony in tuxes, gowns and the occasional giant egg.
But the Grammys wouldn’t work if it weren’t for hordes of people making the production hum along behind the scenes, including some 200 on the audio side alone. Ahead of this year’s 59th annual awards, the Grammy brass took FORBES on an exclusive tour of the machinery that makes the show click.
“The Recording Academy takes special pride in their mission to present the artists the best way they can be presented,” says Hank Neuberger, the Grammy Award Telecast Advisor to Broadcast Audio, who’s been working on the show for 29 years. “We are the gold standard … in many ways, this is the most demanding production in live TV.”
On the eve of the Grammys, I was ushered through a gate behind the Staples Center. My first stop: a pair of $750,000 trucks, each barely bigger than a typical UPS van but packed with a studio’s worth of equipment, responsible for the recording and mixing of the entire show. The trucks handle 192 audio tracks and feature fully redundant systems in case one breaks down.
After rehearsals, acts can come to the trucks and review their tapes. Sometimes, it’s not just the music they’re interested in tweaking. Bob Wartinbee, the mix assist engineer who owns one of the trucks, remembers Mick Jagger coming by several years ago and studying the tape to figure out at what point in his performance he should take his jacket off. “It’s good to have that reference material,” says Wartinbee.
Wartinbee’s truck and its mirror image sit just outside the Staples Center; down the two-lane ramp nearby, the rest of the Grammy infrastructure hums away underground. Dozens of palettes packed with full drum sets and pianos are positioned along the walls, ready to be wheeled onstage for each of the 22 performances; vast batches of flowers languish next to elaborate chandeliers and disco balls the size of a Mini Cooper.
In one corner is parked yet another, even more expensive truck. This one–worth roughly $14 million with all its components included, according to systems engineer Hugh Healy–is really more of a mobile home crammed with audio equipment. Inside, it feels like a cross between a studio and a submarine. “We land about 300 inputs,” Healy explains.
After the audio is recorded and mixed in the trucks upstairs, it passes through Healy’s vehicle, where the other elements of the production are mixed in, from the jokes by host James Corden to noise from the audience. The final product is transmitted via fiber and satellite back to New York in less than one second as the show unfolds.
My next stop is a smaller, wood-paneled truck that contains the show’s ProTools apparatus, which handles the backing tracks for certain performances. Though the Grammy performances are live, some songs include, say, an entire orchestra. There’s not enough time or room to wheel such a group onto the stage.
Years ago, handling backing tracks was very complicated. “The tricky part was that they each had a different system,” says ProTools mixer Pablo Munguia. This often left acts turning on the systems responsible for their backing tracks one minute before starting their performances; a slow laptop boot-up could potentially cause disaster. Now everything is stored with Munguia.
A few steps away sits a series of tables home to 60-70 wireless microphones, many of which cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 apiece. Each act has its own set, with brands ranging from Shure to Sennheiser; some artists keep their handhelds with them–including Beyoncé, who’s known to favor a golden microphone.
One of the people who oversees the operation is audio coordinator Michael Abbott, whose makeshift office is located a few dozen feet from the microphone tables. His crew consists of 40 audio professionals and 15-20 local crew members. He’s been working on the show since 1984. “In the old days, bands would show up and we’d just say, ‘Hey, what do you need?'” says Abbott.
These days, the entire operation has grown both in terms of size and safeguards. But occasionally, something goes awry anyway. Last year, while Adele’s piano was being lifted onto a stage, a microphone fell, causing a clanking noise in the broadcast and throwing off the singer’s performance.
“All you can do is learn from your mistakes,” says Abbott. “Communication only goes so far.”
It’s remarkable, though, that there aren’t more mishaps in a 3.5-hour broadcast with more than 1,000 inputs–especially given that most of the performances are mashups created exclusively for the Grammys.
“In the studio, artists get weeks of time,” says Glenn Lorbecki, Grammy Award Telecast Advisor to Music Mix Audio. “Here we have them for two to three hours.”
Then, like that, it’s over–and the crew must break down the entire production by the end of the night. Next year, the show rolls on to New York. And you can bet all the same pricey equipment and the same exacting standards will be there, too.
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