Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pushing the Broadcast Limit: Q&A With Hank Neuberger

Hank Neuberger is an acclaimed recording engineer and producer with credits including Cheap Trick, Ohio Players, Pete Townsend, Nine Inch Nails, Lady Antebellum, Dave Matthews Band, Leonard Cohen, Ramsey Lewis, Anthrax, John Prine, Jerry Butler, Guster, and the cast album for the TONY Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” He is the President and Founder of Springboard Productions, specialists in Festival Webcast production. He has served as Chairman of the Board for both The Recording Academy and the MusiCares foundation.

1. What was the last project you released?
The Austin City Limits Music Festival live webcast on, syndicated widely on such outlets as Apple TV, Xbox, Samsung Smart TVs and, among others. Currently I’m right in the middle of planning our next set of productions, which start with Coachella and Bonnaroo. The Austin City Limits Festival is one of the biggest festivals in the country. It’s two consecutive weekends now. It’s been going since 2002. Some of the artists featured last year were Calvin Harris, Lorde, Skrillex, Childish Gambino, Chromeo and more. At that event I’m the video producer, so my company Springboard Productions is responsible for all the video on the site, and the live webcast. I bring a crew of between 80 and 100 people, and all the video and audio equipment. We capture the video from four or five stages, supply it to the IMAX screens, and also produce a multi-channel live webcast. And that’s my job.

2. What is the most challenging aspect of the current business climate from your perspective?
The business model is dependent on outside sponsorship. The festival promoters are not going to produce these webcasts without sponsorship. So my job is to help make that relationship successful between an outside sponsor, who’s getting in the digital space, and the promoter of the festival, and that requires both technical and creative focus. We also handle artist relations, we do clearances, we’re involved in transmission – every aspect of putting this program together. I’m very fortunate to have also produced live webcasts from Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and many other festivals over the last 10 years. While the technology has evolved dramatically, the business model is unchanged—my clients, the Festival Promoters, still rely on sponsors to underwrite the high-quality multi-channel, multi-day, multi-stage webcast production – and I have to make that work. My scope includes all the “deliverables.” The promoter relies on us to deliver back to the sponsor what they agreed to, and that is typically a multi-channel webcast with the top artists from the festival. I’ve been fortunate to work with all the top artists over the years that are at the festivals. We’ve webcast Coldplay, Arcade Fire, McCartney, Kanye, Prince, Radiohead, Jay Z – all of the world’s top artists that perform at festivals have appeared in our webcasts, and now that I am really thinking about it, I’ve done probably 50 festival webcasts in 10 years.

3. How has your production workflow changed in the past few years?
My training is as a recording engineer, mixer and recording studio builder and manager. I’ve done that my entire professional career. I started in the festival world by recording and providing audio downloads of jam band artists from the early Bonnaroo festivals. And one day a festival promoter was starting a new festival in Chicago and they were reviving the name “Lollapalooza,” and they said to me “we have a sponsor that wants to webcast that, do you know how?” And I took a deep breath and said, “SURE.” And that was in 2005. So that’s how I pivoted from purely audio to video and audio and webcast. And it’s come a long way in ten years. That’s really the bulk of my work nowadays. Springboard Productions is primarily a festival webcast production entity. We deliver shows to cable networks too – AXS, Palladia and Fuse, for instance – but I would say it all starts with the webcast. The production complexity has only increased over the years, with more and more deliverables. These days at a festival, we often require a crew of 100, working 14 hours a day or more. We are generally supplying all the video services at the Festival, with our program feeding the iMag Screens for the fans, a closed-circuit Fest Network around the site, and three simultaneous channels of live performances, with hosted interviews, in the webcast for no less than nine hours a day. These days, we also frequently have multiple transmission delivery ingest points to target. It’s more complex every year.

4. Have you discovered any new gear or software this year?
One big change is that we no longer use Satellite Uplinks for any of our transmission. The vulnerability to weather interference, the compression introduced, and the long broadcast hours inspired us to develop our own mobile unit with on-site encoding for Transmission-over-IP. This has delivered higher quality and greater reliability at a lower cost.

For the audio at festivals, we put a multi-track Pro Tools setup, either a truck or a flypack, at every stage to do a custom broadcast mix. We find that mix is generally superior to simply using the front-of-house mix in most cases. But it’s really because the front-of-house mixer is mixing for the live audience under the sky at the event. Our mix is obviously going to be different than what works at the venue, and it is what would be appropriate to come through your laptop or your phone or your Apple TV. So that’s why I think it generally is superior. So we always try and have multi-track mixing at all the stages that we’re shooting. As an interesting side bar, we are constantly discussing when we’ll be able to deliver surround sound on these webcasts. We’re not there yet, the host platforms haven’t supported it yet, but with the imminent virtual reality delivery from the festivals I expect that surround sound will be expected. And for me, personally having been involved in the first GRAMMY® Awards broadcast in surround sound, I’d love to do all the festivals in surround. We can easily mix our festival audio in 5.1. It’s delivering it all the way to the end user in the home with consistency that has not been quite as easy on the current platforms. But I think the imminent application of VR technology may kick-start that and make delivering 5.1 more practical. It’s Festival Season, the best time of the year!

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