Backstage at the CMA Award Show

Image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group (this was last year)

Image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group (this was last year)

Every once in a while something totally unexpected and totally cool pops up. As I write this, it’s the Sunday before the 2015 CMA Awards show. Yesterday as I was eating my Cowboy Eggs and Bacon breakfast, I read an email from long-time CTW listener. He said he was in town doing coms for the CMA’s and wondered if I would be interested in a backstage tour. It didn’t take long to say, “Yes!” 

I just got back, and thought it would be fun to share some of it with you. I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to be “that guy,” but I’ll try to describe some of the very fascinating things I saw. Much of this is pretty typical for an awards show like this; in fact, many of the same trucks and crew to all the major award shows. Still, it’s cool to see, and I came away with a few very important thoughts that relate to church production.

Two of Everything

Most people know the CMA’s have two stages in the venue that alternate performances. Because of this, there are two of almost everything. But it’s not always split for Stage A and Stage B. There are two separate monitor worlds, one for each stage. And there are two consoles at FOH, but one is for all the band mixing, while the other is for everything else. There are two broadcast audio trucks, but one is “live” and one is “preset.” There are also two video trucks but there is so much going on in both it’s hard to tell you what is what. 

I’m not sure this is 100% true, but it also looked that most of the key production positions also had a primary and secondary tech working them. I know from experience that having a dedicated A2 on a big weekend can be a huge stress reliever, and I regret not learning that lesson earlier in my career.

By the Numbers

Everyone wants to know how many channels of this or that there are, so I’ll see how I can do with recall. I believe the FOH guy told me they are running about 242 inputs at FOH. All the live desks are DiGiCo SD5s and SD7s, while the broadcast consoles are Calrec. The show has 16 cameras, including 5 jibs and a SteadiCam. There were some 250 channels of wireless between mic’s, IEMs and coms. Each stage has 10 wireless IEMs, 4 wired IEMs, and there were 16 wedge mixes, though I don’t think that was per stage. Coms is an interesting blend of digital point-to-point and analog party line depending on application. I think there were some 90+ com packs.

Lessons Learned

Whenever I get the chance to do something like this, I always try to see what I can learn that will improve my productions. Here are some of the takeaways. 

Give yourself enough time. The show is Wednesday night, and they’ve been there for almost a week already. I believe one of the reasons for the low stress I sensed is because they all had enough time to do their jobs well. It helps that the same companies do this show every year, and it’s pretty dialed. But they also know how much time it takes and allow for it. Too often, we try to cram 3 weeks worth of work into 1 and kill ourselves. My best Christmas productions where the ones where I started way in advance. 

Have enough help. The number of people back stage was staggering. Everyone had a job, and typically it was just one job. I didn’t see anyone trying to program lights while simultaneously fixing audio problems or setting up drum risers. We often complain about the lack of help in church productions, but I wonder if it’s because we don’t ask enough people to help. Or perhaps if we’re trying to do productions we can’t reasonably do because we don’t have the help. 

Don’t be a jerk. As Keith took me around, he introduced me to many of the high level production folks. Every single one of them stood and talked with us for a few minutes, even though they had no reason to do so. I’ve been guilty of this at times, people will bring family members by during a production and I’ll say hi and rush off to do something “important.” Perhaps because I didn’t have enough help or enough time. Hmmm… But everyone I met was super-cool and gracious. 

Those production guys are real people. I have frankly been quite embarrassed during some award shows some years as I watch the social media stream just rip the production—and thus, the production crew—to shreds. Now, I’ll agree that there are certain shows where the audio or camera work or whatever is less than stellar. But before you hit Tweet on that scathing critique, think about how it would feel if every member of your congregation tweeted about your last mistake.

I got to meet and talk to the guy who does the final 5.1 broadcast mix. He basically gets stems and puts them all together, while he has about 20 people talking on the coms the entire time. When I told him that I felt the CMA Awards had the best broadcast mix of any award show, he was genuinely grateful for the praise. He told me that they usually don’t hear positive comments like that from viewers, so it meant a lot. Think about that before you tweet next time, OK?

Overall, it was a great couple of hours. I want to thank Keith for inviting me and everyone I talked with for just being cool. I’ll be out of town on Wednesday, but you can bet I’ll have my DVR set so I can watch the whole show when I get home.

Roland