• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Mark Schubin, media engineer at the Met

    [Opera Lively interview # 102] Opera Lively talked with Mark Schubin, the free-lance engineer-in-charge of the Media Department at the Met, about his work for the Met Live in HD and radio broadcasts, and media recording of opera. Mr. Schubin is a top world expert in his field, and has worked for the Met for the last 40 years. He helped design the "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcasts. He has done extensive research on the interface of media technology and opera, and an account of his research with 36,000 words and pictures can be found [here]. A fascinating lecture by him can be found on YouTube, [here], where he discourses for almost two hours on the topic of "The Fandom of the Opera: How the Audience for a Four-Century-Old Art Form Helped Create the Modern Media World." This is highly recommended reading, don't miss it!

    Mr. Schublin clarified that his work is not related to the acoustics in the main auditorium, since his department deals with things leaving the opera house (radio, TV, cinemacasts, internet streaming, satellite radio, recordings); the sound and video departments at the Met deal with things in the house. Picking up sound from the stage for broadcast or recording isn't particularly affected by the house behind it, so, the auditorium sound is not what he does. He wanted to make a point, though, that despite what some people seem to believe, the Met does no sound reinforcement. On occasion, an opera calls for it, e.g., the big loudspeaker cluster that made the announcements about the path of the hurricane in Mahagonny, or the microphones that John Adams wrote nto the score of Dr. Atomic. When there is a sound effect, the loudspeakers are featured very prominently on the stage. There are no hidden speakers.

    While they fall outside of his area of expertise, as an opera-goer he loves the acoustics at the Met, and underlines that he enjoys listening from the farthest spotlight booth, above the Family Circle. He adds that in spite of the main auditorium having received no acoustic changes since 1966, the Met and the much smaller Alice Tully Hall in his opinion are the two that sound the best, among Lincoln Center's many auditoriums. New York City Opera on the other hand was long plagued by the sound of the New York State Theater, and they did try electronic enhancement.

    Let's read this interesting interview about some of the technical aspects of what goes on behind the scenes, during the Met broadcasts and recordings - don't miss the last answer!


    Opera Lively - How is the sound captured for the Met Live in HD?

    Mark Schubin - There are typically 10 or 11 microphones in the orchestra pit, generally one for each orchestra section; the harp usually gets its own mic. For the singers, the basic pickup is four pairs of microphones across the lip of the stage: left, left center, right center, and right. Each pair has a short shotgun for distant pickup and a cardioid for closer pickup. There are three distant microphones in the house for ambiance pickup. Depending on the staging (e.g., use of the rear stage or a piece of scenery blocking the pickup), there can be some augmentation. That is all up to the Met's audio producer, Jay David Saks, who is in charge of the type of mics, their positioning, and their mix for radio, TV, and cinema transmissions. Of course, the announcer, interviewers, and guests all need mics.

    FYI, one of my favorite T-shirts says, "Real singers don't need microphones." It is a favorite at many opera-house sound departments.

    OL - How is the sound captured for DVDs? Is it different for blu-ray discs?

    MS - The pickup is the same for everything; the mix can change somewhat. For example, the typical home surround-sound setup has the surround speakers behind the listener. The typical cinema surround-sound setup has the surround speakers in front of the listener. So the mixes are adjusted accordingly.

    OL - How is the sound track for a recording produced? Do you digitally eliminate audience noise? How do you balance voices and orchestra?

    MS - I am not aware of any digital elimination of audience noise, but I haven't checked audio post lately. The balance is up to Jay; I'm an engineer, not an artist.

    OL - Please walk us through the routine of your job. How is the planning done?

    MS - As early as possible!! For example, I start looking at solar-interference issues typically 18 months in advance. I attend the two big broadcasting conventions each year (the National Association of Broadcasters in the U.S. and the International Broadcasting Convention) and note the trends so I can bring them to the attention of the Met. My being freelance is helpful, because I can let the Met know of trends elsewhere. I also participate in standardization work for a number of professional societies and institutes. As an example, I saw a demo of a new, much-more-sensitive camera at IBC one year, and the Met was using it the next season; this past April, I saw an important improvement in picture-monitoring technology, and we arranged to get it in about a week. I've been working for years now with engineers in Japan on a special project at the Met using technology that's still evolving.

    OL - Does the planning change a lot for different operas?

    MS - Yes. The illumination level, the contrast ratio, and the staging can all be issues. Our video controllers work closely with the Met lighting department. And before each cinema transmission, we have a big meeting with all departments at which we review our rehearsal and decide who can help with what and how.

    OL - What happens on performance days?

    MS - We typically begin between 6 am and 8 am. The reason is that we need the stage electricians to power and cable our production trucks and move the equipment in, and we lose them to the morning stage rehearsal that starts later.

    Before a performance day, we will have a setup day (and more cabling days at the beginning of the season), a so-called "lighting-test" day (really our first chance to see what the issues on stage are), and a "rehearsal" (shooting a performance prior to the transmission). The camera operators will work with the TV director in "camera conferences," and Jay and his audio team will have their own rehearsal and SiriusXM broadcasts.

    OL - When do you need to get there?

    MS - I get there before the stage crew (but usually after the truck crew parks). I like to be there first so I can see what issues come up. Sometimes a car will be parked where a truck needs to go. Sometimes a lens will have been damaged at a previous show. Sometimes, a building will have been erected in a satellite path. Sometimes there will be construction or a blizzard or a hurricane. When those things happen, we need to come up with workarounds.

    OL - How many technicians work in your department?

    MS - Each camera has an operator. There are three video controllers who adjust the look of the cameras to match what's desired. There are audio mixers dealing with the main music pickup (in the radio booth), the List Hall radio-feature mix, the TV production mix (adding interviews and playback features), the surround-sound cinema mix, and the multi-track archiving. There are audio assistants to deal with communications and interview mics. There are video assistants (called utilities) to deal with cables and equipment. There is a subtitlist and a graphics supervisor. There is a vision mixer (cutting or dissolving the cameras). There are two people dealing with video recording and playback. There are technicians dealing with the robotic camera(s). There are truck engineers and transmission supervisors (including some outside the United States). The exact number of people will vary from opera to opera, and we change the way we do things when better systems arrive.

    OL - How busy does it get?

    MS - Just before the cinemacast start is the busiest. We are simultaneously sending out different radio and cinema tests, checking mics, rehearsing intermissions, rehearsing the show opening, and making changes. If a singer is indisposed and is replaced, we need to change the art cards we send out. And, on bad-weather days, we're also planning workarounds (we
    have a backup satellite-transmission center outside Dallas, for example).

    OL - What do you guys do during the performance?

    MS - For me, specifically, I mostly listen and watch. We engineers-in-charge have a saying, "If I'm working, you're in trouble." I should have done most of my job before the show starts. But, if there's a fire, I help put it out. For the others on the crew, it depends what's going on.

    During the intermission of "Barber," for example, there was an on-camera move that began in the principal artists dressing area and followed two characters to the stage, around the back, and into position. On screen, you saw only them; off screen, in addition to the camera operator and assistant, there were seven people frantically coiling hundreds of feet of cable so it wouldn't be in the way or in the shot. The video controllers might be frantically "re-painting" the camera images to deal with a scene change. Sometimes we'll shoot an interview live in the truck while the show is going out. The audio crew might be testing intermission microphones and communications. The recording crew might be changing loads, checking them, and labeling them. The transmission crew might be talking a cinema operator in Russia through the procedure for re-tuning a receiver. And, of course, the camera operators are taking desired shots according to the instructions of the director and associate director.

    OL - In those performances that are recorded, what happens in the next few days?

    MS - For the media department, everything we do is live; future playback is based on the live recording. Our biggest concern immediately after recording is testing, labeling, and protecting. We never want all copies in the same place, where an accident can wipe everything out. We don't even want the same software to be used for everything, in case a software flaw becomes revealed later. Love might mean never having to say you're sorry, but live means not being able to. For one of our recording systems, one set of recordings doesn't even leave the truck until after we've received confirmation that the set we sent out has already been successfully cloned.

    That's my area, the engineering one. Meanwhile, there are two different artistic paths. The television director and the main Met video editor deal with the decision editing of the pictures. Jay and the main Met audio post mixer deal with the decisions of the post-production audio mix.

    OL - How many hours or days it takes to get it all together, and to get to the final product of a performance sound track?

    MS - It depends on the delivery requirements. PBS or the media distributor will usually have schedules that have to be met. We make it happen in whatever the allotted time is.

    OL - Are there any interesting stories to tell about mishaps or emergencies?

    MS - Sure! The main TV production mixing console is supposed to be bulletproof. You can pull its power plug while it's on the air, and the audio will continue to pass through it. We did that test. But we also managed to break it. So, while the show was on the air, we converted the multi-track mix console into the main production console; we had to reverse the transmission paths to make that work. We've had satellites fall out of orbit, the production truck get hit by a bus -- whatever happens, we work around it.

    When I started working at the Met 40 years ago, the TV audio mixer at the time told me about a fairly recent show on which he was an audio assistant, and the main audio mixer dropped dead just before the show. The police came and said the body couldn't be moved. So he had to mix the whole show leaning over a corpse.

    OL - Any issues when dealing with singers, instrumentalists, or conductors?

    MS - Sometimes, but their points are almost always well taken. The instrumentalists, for example, make sure we don't have noisy or distracting cameras, for which we thank them.

    OL - Do you interface with them?

    MS - Mostly the audio assistants, who need to hand them their mics.

    OL - Are there specific requests that are made to you from any of them?

    MS - Not really. When a singer is a host, she might make a request about how she is to be
    prompted, but that's about it.

    OL - Are there any innovations planned for the future, new research, new techniques or equipments, that you look forward to and would like to share with us?

    MS - Well, I'd love to be able to subtitle the interviews live; we're keeping track of that technology, but it's not there yet. There are some major changes in TV technology that we're also keeping an eye on. Manufacturers sometimes bring us equipment to test because we're the toughest environment. When I give a lecture to television engineers about what we do and how little time we have to do it, they sometimes shake their heads in awe. One lament from an audience member at a digital television symposium was, "We can never complain about anything ever again!"

    OL - What is the subject of your research?

    MS - All of the above is related to my role as freelance engineer-in-charge at the Met. My 36,000 words have virtually nothing to do with that. They're related to my research into the intersecting histories of media-technology and opera. While I think our crews and our tight schedules are second to none, what I do at the Met is not so different from what engineers-in-charge do at the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or big news events.

    OL - What has opera done for the technology?

    MS - What opera has done for the media is unique!

    Opera was responsible for:
    - the first electronic home entertainment (1880)
    - the first stereo sound transmission (1881)
    - the first pay-cable (in 1885!)
    - the first consumer headphones (no later than 1888)
    - movies (1886)
    - sound movies (1894)
    - the first newscast (1893)
    - the first sportscast (1886)
    - broadcasting (1900)
    - broadcast rights (courtesy of Verdi in the 19th century)
    - geostationary satellites (the principles were developed in the early
    17th century)

    The first opera on TV was broadcast in 1934, five years before television was supposedly introduced at the New York World's Fair. And opera was seen in so-called "compatible" color TV in a home before such color TV was authorized anywhere in the world. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy used to transmit opera to test their equipment. Nellie Melba was almost killed doing an early radio broadcast. Opera has connections to the first Cinerama movie, the first round-the-world television broadcast -- even the large-hadron collider at the European Centre for Nuclear Research outside Geneva.

    OL - Thank you Mr. Schubin, for your interesting information, and for the work you do for us, opera lovers.

    MS - You're welcome!

free html visitor counters
hit counter

Official Media Partners of Opera Carolina

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Opera Carolina

Official Media Partners of NC Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of North Carolina Opera

Official Media Partners of Greensboro Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Greensboro Opera

Official Media Partners of The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute and Piedmont Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute
of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Piedmont Opera

Official Media Partners of Asheville Lyric Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of Asheville Lyric Opera

Official Media Partners of UNC Opera

Opera Lively is the Official Media Partner of UNC Opera
Dept. of Music, UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences