X Factor™, the popular UK television competition that migrated across the pond, is now in its sophomore season here in the U.S. The series debuted this past September on Fox with snarky Brit personality/producer Simon Cowell at the helm with a pair of pop mavens (Britney Spears and Demi Lovato) and industry stalwarts (LA Reid) judging a slew of hopeful singers vying for a five million dollar purse. The Los Angeles-based production took a bit of a different tact this year for its audio footprint, adopting one of the newly released DiGiCo SD5 consoles and a pair of SDRacks at FOH, with an SD10 for monitors—provided by ATK Audiotek—connected via an Optocore fiber optics network. [The six-city audition tour also employed DiGiCo SD8 and SD9 consoles.] ATK, the company that handled the Grammy production, successfully made the switch to DiGiCo for the elite music awards show back in February and that decision cascaded into the X Factor TV production as well.
"This year on X Factor we've jumped in with both feet with DiGiCo," explains FOH engineer Jeff Peterson, who was also a consultant for the Grammy production. "Last year's X Factor was a learning experience as we'd never done the show before and the console we were using wasn't big enough to really handle the live show. We managed to make it through, but it was a bit of a struggle. After the Grammy's in February, where we deployed six DiGiCo consoles all sharing preamps, I think it was a turning point, at least in our little corner of the industry—not just for the hardware, but it was also a litmus test for us audio techs and for the Los Angeles television engineers to really see just how stable the DiGiCo platform was. It performed really well and there was a noticeable improvement in sound quality, so on X Factor this year, I pushed to use the same system, to distribute our preamps digitally to broadcast instead of using analog splitters and multiple sets of preamps, and to keep everything in our signal path in the digital realm.
"We connected the DiGiCo SD5 and SD10 consoles via fiber to the two SDRacks racks and we've got a MADI split output to feed the preamps to the record truck," Peterson continues, "where broadcast music mixer Eric Schilling mixes the show on an AVID Icon system. So, from the preamp to the amplifier output, it's completely digital. Both Schilling and production broadcast mixer Mike Abbott were on the Grammys, too, and saw how well it worked with all the PA consoles sharing preamps and decided they were willing to try jumping onboard. It's really a control issue. The broadcast mixer no longer has control of the preamp that he's getting; it's all coming down to my console and I have to be disciplined not to reach up and grab the preamp knob. I communicate before we make a change so that everyone can scale their trims accordingly. This is a perfect place to do this kind of thing because it's a controlled environment. We have 16 live shows and just as many rehearsal days to develop the system, the workflow, the discipline and the communication—to really make it work moving forward. I expect that we'll be using a similar setup on the Grammy's next year, and on future shows after that."
Another new thing this year says Peterson is the routing of the playback sources, which is generated from the broadcast mix control room. "Normally it comes down line-level copper," he adds, "but this year Mike Abbott is giving us MADI streams from his console that he sends to FOH and monitors and in to the record truck, which is distributed from a Direct Out M.1k2 MADI router—so it's one less place to have copper and conversions. It's kinda funny in that MADI is 20 years old, but we're just now latching onto it now, which is great. It's nice, high-density, easy to connect."
Peterson's managing approximately 140 inputs made up of microphones from the judges, hosts, and contestants, multitrack playback, video and audio from the booth, and inputs for live guest bands. "I'm really not utilizing a whole lot of outputs for the SD5; the reason I wanted this desk was mainly for the input count, Waves plug-ins, the Opticore network and the SD-Racks. Overall, the desk's been really great. I'm also using the DiGiCo UB MADI USB interface for multitrack playback and virtual soundcheck with a MacBook Pro and ProTools."
In the ‘loft', a cozy space that hovers above stage right, is where freelance TV mixer Jason Batuyong manages monitors for the gaggle of contestants. It's a daunting array of in-ears (24 stereo channels for 12 sets of IEM), wedges (12 bi-amp for the stage plus 8 for guest bands), side-fills and overheads, as well as 16 or so direct stems that will be used for a personal monitoring system for background singers. "The wireless count is staggering, too," Batuyong laughs. "I just saw the number and I nearly lost my breath. It's way more than what are used at the Grammys!
"For the first time, too, all the contestants are on Ultimate Ears molds with Shure PSM 1000 in-ear monitors, which is a BIG help and so worth it. Our closest distance to a contestant from a monitor wedge is 10 feet, which is four feet outside of their operating range. And some of them are upwards of 30 feet away. And that's our challenge because of the set design in television; it has to look nice and clean. Monitor wedges just hanging out onstage looks sloppy. It may sound better, but it looks messy. We're also using Shure handheld mics."
On other shows he's worked on—from America's Got Talent to So You Think You Can Dance—he's mixed on other digital consoles, so for his first outing on a DiGiCo he was full of praise for the SD10. "I have a smile on my face every time I step up to the console. It's so cool. The compressors do exactly what you want them to do every time. Although it's a monitor console, the DiGiCo/Waves SoundGrid bundle may be a bit excessive for most people, but not for me, ‘cause I've got in-ears on the contestants, so it's going to sound like the studio in their heads… their brains are going to explode and it's going to be wonderful.
"The TrueVerb is unbelievable as far as the reverb is concerned. It sounds like a $12,000 reverb box. It's beautiful. I don't have to make many adjustments, I pick something I like and it's there; it's dialed in."
X Factor will continue through year's end, with the winner slated for picking just in time to celebrate over the Christmas holiday. With the show's new DiGiCo/Optocore system in place, it'll ensure that the behind-the-scenes production will run relatively smoothly—as smooth as it can be with live television. But more so, it'll be sounding better than ever. "It's amazing to plug in a new console and actually notice a difference in the sound," says Peterson. "We always thought the other one was just fine until we heard something better… and it changed our minds. I've drunk the DiGiCo Kool-Aid. The sound is very clear and the dynamics are far and away better and cleaner sounding and more powerful. We're going full speed ahead and are very happy with the results."