Surround On The Air.Driving Surround

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It’s April, and it’s still cold up in Portland, ME, so engineer Lance Vardis is used to the jokes about remote recording in this part of the country being done in an “ice box.” But in his mind, one particular box has a mission beyond simply recording music or even just mixing it in surround; it can, he believes, help drive the surround format itself.

The box is Unit 6, the remote recording truck owned by CSP Mobile Productions, a company whose bare-knuckled Yankee-trader heritage could help the vision of not just doing, but also proactively promoting, surround — especially in the broadcast arena. Brought online as CSP’s first dedicated audio truck and joining the company’s two video trucks already in service, Unit 6 can trace its broadcast heritage back to company president Nat Thompson’s grandfather, who, in the early 1920s, started the Maine Radio Co. with the acquisition of the state’s first commercial broadcast license, specifically for the purpose of promoting his hotel on Portland’s Congress Square. In 1926, the station became one of the first NBC network affiliates, which it remained as it grew to three radio stations and, later, with the addition of two television stations, became Maine Radio & Television, until the broadcast outlets were sold in 1998, leaving remote operations as CSP’s core business. CSP began remote work in 1989, with the advent of their first video truck.

Unit 6 was conceived from the start as a surround-based facility, intended for live music event recording markets, as well as to support remote video broadcasting. But Vardis — a freelance engineer who has worked closely with CSP since 1996 and whose background in broadcast, live sound, and music recording suits this truck’s mission perfectly — believes that its true niche is in surround music broadcasting. Though it’s an application in a nascent stage, Vardis says actively promoting the truck’s surround capabilities to concert promoters, recording artists, and content providers such as record labels and home video distributors will ultimately drive both the truck’s and surround music’s fortunes.

“Basically, what we’re doing here is bringing the surround capability out of the studio and right to the venue,” Vardis says. “Live music is the perfect vehicle for multichannel recording, and it’s been what has driven the DVD music market thus far,” referring to DVD music videos in general and live concert DVDs in particular. “It’s as close as you can get to being in the club or the arena that night. What we hope is that when [broadcasters and promoters] hear how much surround adds to a music broadcast, it’ll encourage them to pursue more and more music broadcasts in surround. We need to get the feeling going that surround is an attraction for viewers — that it increases the chances of success for broadcast and music video surround.”
The first test of Unit 6’s capabilities came shortly after the truck was commissioned last November, at a Foo Fighters concert at The Tabernacle in Atlanta. Vardis knew that the concert, being broadcast in stereo for Pay-Per-View, was ultimately destined for a DVD-Video release in surround, which would be mixed in the same truck back in Portland, then sent to Gateway Mastering, in the same city, to be mastered by Bob Ludwig. He approached the recording of the concert accordingly, feeding a 2-channel mix to the broadcast and recording the show on 48 tracks of 24-bit TASCAM DA-78 decks.

The truck’s audio media complement is completely digital, and also includes TASCAM DA-46 24-bit and DA-40 16-bit DAT decks, as well as an HHB 850

CD-R recorder and a TASCAM MD-301 MiniDisc deck. The console will ultimately be a Yamaha PM-1D digital console, which was delivered just before we went to press. In the meantime, the truck is fitted with an 8-bus Yamaha PM-4000 analog console, which Vardis says is useful because it was designed as a live sound reinforcement console and is also commonly used in broadcast trucks.

With the DVD in mind, Vardis set up additional ambience microphones, choosing a pair of AKG 414’s set up in an omnicoincident configuration at the rear of the hall, as well as four Sennheiser shotgun mics in a planar array across the front of the stage attached to a lighting truss and facing the crowd. “It was a good combination to catch both the fullness of the hall’s sound and the audience’s enthusiasm,” he says. “Making sure you have the crowd as part of the surround experience is a great way to pull the listener into the environment of the concert and convey the full impact of the surround experience.”

Monitoring for the concert was done in stereo, since the broadcast was the immediate mission of the project. But the truck’s control room has a full surround monitoring array implemented as part of its basic design. Five Genelec 1031 powered monitors make up the LCRS array, with a Genelec 1092 sub for the LFE channel. The control room takes up about 20 linear feet of the 28-foot box, with eight feet across. The LCRS array speakers are all soffit-mounted, and, despite the closer quarters that surround mixers might be accustomed to in fixed-base studios, Vardis says the basic theory of surround speaker placement holds for mobile applications.

“The left and right speakers are equidistant from each other and from the sweet spot behind the console,” he explains. “The rears are also equidistant from each other, set up at between 110 and 120 degrees off-axis. The acoustical performance of the truck matches that of any other surround-oriented control room. We did it that way on purpose, because we hope to use the truck for non-broadcast surround music mixing applications in the future, as well.” A veteran of the audio sections of many video remote trucks, Vardis says that Unit 6 is “positively luxurious’ compared with the amount of space audio generally gets in remote broadcast environments.

Still, the monitoring set up has be flexible, accommodating both stereo and mono reference for broadcast and able to allow the mixer to anticipate the surround result with some accuracy. Vardis uses a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors for 1- and 2-channel reference, and says that the surround monitoring in the nearfield environment that a truck dictates works well as long as monitoring levels are kept within reason. To increase monitoring accuracy, Vardis and CSP vice president of operations Len Chase designed and added diffusion in the control room’s ceiling and bass traps in the corners.

The acoustical design component was a little tricky, because the truck box also has to accommodate a client lounge — Vardis likes to use the broadcast term for it, referring to the lounge as the “green room.” The lounge takes up 10 feet at the rear of the truck, is fitted with couches, offers a clear view of the two 42-inch plasma video monitors in the control area, and has its own pair of NS-10 speakers.

Even the lounge has a role in promoting surround; Vardis says the truck was designed to be as close to a recording studio as feasible in a truck in order to make recording artists, producers, and visiting engineers comfortable. “The point is to keep the focus on surround sound,” he says. The same applies to the choices for the Genelec monitoring and the console — Vardis says he could have gone with a small-format digital mixer for space considerations, but preferred the more conventional control surface layout of the PM-1D, with dedicated knobs for EQ and other functions.

Ultimately, says Vardis, the idea of bringing surround capability to live venues is compelling because a major component of surround is the emotion that it brings to music recordings, and being able to mix in the same environment that a live project was recorded in provides a useful emotional continuity. “When you bring up the mix again in the truck, you’re also recalling the emotional memory of the recording experience,” he explains. “It gets your focus right back on the show, and all the ideas you got during the recording for surround placement come right back to you. And I think the more the truck gets out there and people get to experience that emotional connection, the faster the concept of surround music for broadcast will get into producers’ heads.”

Contact CSP Mobile Productions at 207-375-6052 or visit their Web site at

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