Different But The Same: Talking With Broadcast Mixer Andrew Stoakley About The Craft

Different But The Same: Talking With Broadcast Mixer Andrew Stoakley About The Craft

Looking at the similarities and differences in tools and technique between mixing for broadcast versus front of house.

Andrew Stoakley is a television audio production mixer with 25 years of experience in remote mobile work, mixing a wide range of sports broadcasts (MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL, CFL, MLS, curling and many others) along the way. He’s currently the production show mixer for the Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts, and I recently had the opportunity to chat with him about his work as a broadcast mixer and the unique challenges of the job.

Michael Lawrence: Your job is broadcast audio, but a lot of what you’re doing is live. It’s still live sound at its core. What are some of the similarities and differences between mixing a band live on stage and doing a live broadcast mix?

Andrew Stoakley: I think the biggest thing is comms. I’m talking about RTS intercoms, not ClearCom, which are just two-way communications, party lines and so forth. But when you use an RTS matrix-based intercom, it adds an entire new level of expertise and knowledge that most live audio engineers haven’t been exposed to.

When you’re dealing with live bands, there might be four [comms] channels: stage, production, audio, and lights, for example. But on the shows that I do, for example the curling broadcasts for the national networks here in Canada, I’m using a 264-channel matrix intercom system. It’s all point to point, and I have 60 or 70 channels of comms. For me, adding that element is a big difference.

Broadcast mixer Andrew Stoakley.

The mixing part is really the same: you’re pushing faders up and down to make things louder and softer, depending on what the band wants. In terms of mixing, that’s really all I’m doing for live sports – we call it following the puck – I’m chasing the on-field play that the director and producer are calling, and I’m just trying to capture that.

With TV sports, the biggest thing we hear complaints about is that people can’t hear the talent over the effects [microphones placed to capture the on-field sounds]. And that’s where I find that sometimes folks get a little too heavy handed with the effects mics, and you bury the voices of the announcers, and that’s what people tune in for. They want to hear the announcers talking about the game. I try to make sure that the announcers are clear and intelligible, so you can hear and understand what they’re talking about, but also you’re hearing all those awesome noises you’re hearing on the field of play.

ML: And I would draw a parallel there to the way that I approach a theatrical production or a music performance. Effects are great, and we all love our reverbs and delays and so on, but at the end of the day if you can’t hear the words, the show is just a waste of your time.

AS: Absolutely.

ML: So in that sense, I think the priorities are exactly the same. And I would think a difference with broadcast in general is that you’re wrangling a much larger number of inputs than we are. You mention following the puck – you must be able to get to a tremendous number of inputs very quickly. How do you handle that?

AS: Yeah, and not only inputs but outputs. I have probably double the number of outputs that I have inputs, because of the intercom and the TV router in the truck, and I’m sending stuff everywhere. The biggest thing with broadcast consoles is that you need a desk that has fader space that you can access right away. I can’t be searching through pages and pages of inputs to find what I need, because by then it’s already done.

My specialty is baseball – I’m the home show mixer for the Toronto Blue Jays in addition to doing about 40 to 50 of their road games every year. I also mix curling all winter long. With those types of mixes, I need to have the effects mics right in front of me. For curling, there are 30 RF microphones on top of 20 ice effects mics buried in the ice. So right there are 50 faders that I need to get access to, on top of the 14 talent mics that we have. I need to be able to access whatever mic I’m using right in that instant. If I have to go looking for it, I’ll miss it.

When I’m building the console, I tend to have all the effects mics within a foot, maybe a foot and a half, of where I’m sitting at the console. I’m still old school, and although we’re digital, I still come from an analog world and so I place all of the effects mics to the left side of the desk and all of the sources to the right side.

Because in the old days, as you know, there were mono faders to the left and stereo faders and groups to the right. So that’s how I learned, and that’s how I still build stuff, even though in the digital world I can put anything wherever I want. My mind is still wired to do it that way, and a lot of times it’s just muscle memory, right? If I’m mixing, and somebody comes into the room and there’s an issue, I still have to mix the show while I’m dealing with that. So I know by muscle memory where the effects mics are, and I can look at the video monitors and still mix the show while I’m putting fires out. If I changed that layout, I’d be lost.

ML: I think so much is made of the “sound of the desk,” and I personally believe that when we’re talking about professionally manufactured, competent stuff, the margins are very, very small. To me, it’s about how quickly I can navigate this tool. I need to be able to pay attention to what’s happening, not digging around in menus. So for me, it’s groups, colors, custom fader layers. I’m going to pick a desk based on how quickly I can get it to do what I need it to do.

AS: That’s why I’m a fan of Calrec consoles. I think they’re the best for sports. Lawo consoles are also very good. I’ve spoken with a lot of mixers in North America and in the UK, and as far as I’m concerned, those consoles are the best on the market.

It’s all about whether I can just sit down at a desk and start figuring things out. In television, when I show up, the clock has already started. The puck drops or the first pitch is thrown whether I’m ready or not. So if I show up and I’m in a world that I don’t know, I can go from a good mood to a bad mood really fast if it’s something that I can’t figure out.

Actually, I’ll take an older analog Neve console any day of the week. I had the pleasure of meeting Rupert Neve once when he was at the CBC doing some work on some of the old consoles they had. What a lovely man he is, and way too smart. I just sat in the room and listened to him talk to the engineers.

You can’t beat the sound of the old analog consoles. And that really helps with signal flow. Anyone who’s starting out in this industry should have to work on analog consoles, because it teaches signal flow.

ML: Right! I teach on analog, and the students should be able to operate that thing in their sleep before we move to digital. Because you have to know gain structure and how these different elements are placed in the circuit. And if you don’t understand that and get in front of a digital desk, you’re going to have no idea what you’re doing.

AS: No! And I do some workshops at a local college here, and I come in and I talk about gain structure. In the digital world, the headroom and the gain structure are a lot more forgiving than analog. The analog world really teaches you about how something should sound.

I love to make my mix hotter than it probably should be because I like to hear the “candy.” I want the announcers to have to talk over the effects. I don’t like a subtle mix. I like an aggressive mix. That’s just me, but if I’m tuning into a hockey game, I want to hear the skates and the sticks. I want to hear the mid-ice crashes, the chatter on the ice, the refs yelling at the guys. I like that candy.

Sometimes the producer might ask me to back it off a little bit and I will, but I still try to push it as much as I can. So my mixes tend to be a little more aggressive than some others, but that’s just me.

ML: I think we’re talking about artistic interpretation, which is no different than working with a band. How are we supporting what’s happening, whether that’s an artist on stage, or an athlete playing a game?

One of my favorite sports moves is “Miracle” with Kurt Russell, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team playing against the Soviets. And one of the special features on the DVD shows the sound designers talking about miking skates and ice and sticks and pucks, and all of the things they did to make that sound immersive.

When I watched it at first, I thought, “Wow, there’s so much more behind this than people realize,” and you’re doing the same thing every night. You’re not just putting a couple shotgun mics up in the rafters and letting it go.

AS: And that’s how it used to be! If you go back and you look at World Series from the 1970s and 80s, you barely heard anything on the field, as opposed to now, where you hear everything. This past season, I put two mics in the walls at the Rogers Centre. The very first game I did it, within the first two innings, Kevin Pillar, the centerfielder, ran straight into the wall at full speed about a foot away from the mic and it sounded awesome. I was fist-pumping in the control room, yelling “Yes!”

Our work paid off, we heard it, the producer loved it, our talent loved it, so now it’s there all the time. I probably should have turned it down a little bit in the mix, but if I’m going to put that stuff out there, I want people to hear it.

ML: Something I’ve learned is that subtlety is often lost in a mix for many people. Studies show that musicians and engineers will hear things in a mix far before an average listener because we’re trained to hear it. So sometimes we think we’re going way overboard, but it’s just right. Sometimes you just have to trust how you’re hearing things.

AS: You have to trust your ears! Some of the kids I teach are so obsessed with meters. Meters just give a visual confirmation that you have a signal. But what are your ears telling you? So many students don’t trust their ears. They say, “Well the meter looks fine.”

Right, but the meter can look fine if you just have [a sine wave] tone into it. A meter’s not going to tell you if the mix is muddy, or if the voices of the announcers are buried. Again, what are your ears telling you?

ML: Such great advice for everyone working in audio. Go back a few decades and there wasn’t the robust metering and processing that we have now. There was no choice but to trust your ears. And now there are all of these fancy analyzers and processors, and there’s a tendency to almost devalue what you’re hearing.

But the meters and processing are just tools that help us do our job. Of course, our ears are fallible, we can be fooled, but at the end of the day, the audience members aren’t holding analyzers. They’re listening. So you have to pay attention to how it sounds to you.

AS: Right!

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