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Cubase — Conductor of the Eurovision Song Contest 2013

Words: Frederick Norén

The Eurovision Song Contest 2013 was held in Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. Host of the contest was the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, and Malmö Arena was chosen as the host venue, a recently built top-modern facility and the fourth largest indoor arena in Sweden. Only thirty minutes away from Copenhagen, it was the perfect battleground for the countries involved. Months of preparation, a vast amount of people, specialised companies and freelance workers helped to make the weeklong media event into a three night live broadcast to all of Europe — a reported 170 million people watched the two semi-finals and the final. Regardless of musical tastes, the contest was an audio-visual success, and thirty-nine countries got the chance to show their finest act.

As a relative newcomer in Malmö, living approximately a five-minute drive from Malmö Arena, I got the chance to visit ESC during rehearsals thanks to an old friend and colleague. Peter Degerfeldt and I studied Audio Engineering at the university more than fifteen years ago and even though time sure flies we still keep in touch.

So Peter, please tell me what your responsibilities are for the show?
Well, I’m in charge of the music playback computers during the show and right now we are rehearsing the performance of each country making sure everything runs like a clock.

Tell me about your preparations for the show.
I’ve prepared the music backgrounds to a predetermined time code scheme together with the music supervisor and music mixing engineer. This was done over a month ago mainly to give the light and video directors something to work with. Having each song locked to a specific time code starting position is essential on a large show like this. Naturally the contestants are given the chance to change their music background — as long as they follow the rules of the contest — which means that I’ve worked long and hard to import new sound files as soon as they show up.

Speaking of the music backgrounds, what are the requirements?
The song must be an original composition, no longer than three minutes and it has to contain the mandatory key change [laughs]. No, just kidding. Each contestant is given the opportunity to send either a stereo mix or up to nine stereo stems of the mix without any vocal tracks — backing vocals are strictly forbidden. Our recommendation is to send stems because then we can better prepare the song for the broadcast processors and fit in the live vocals more easily. Fact is that most viewers still listen to the show through TV speakers and that has to be accounted for when mixing the music. I’ve compared some of the premixed stereo mixes to the mixes we’ve done with the stems, and the result is so much better when we do the mixing. I’d say about a third of the contestants have sent stems and the rest have sent stereo mixes. The music director has expressively told the contestants that flat-out limited music backgrounds will not be accepted.

Have any productions been sent back for re-mastering to a lower RMS-level?
Yes! Let’s just say that everybody’s happy with the music now.

Please tell me about your setup.
I’m running Cubase 7 on two Mac computers and both programs are simultaneously started by a custom-made USB remote control with Play and Stop buttons. The twenty-four analog outputs of each computer are connected to three Radial SW8 Auto-Switchers, so if one computer fails to playback the drone tone, the audio from the second computer is automatically switched into place. I’ve used Cubase on a number of big TV shows and I have full confidence in it, but you never know with computers — it’s essential to have a backup system running in sync. So far I’ve never had to switch computer — knock on wood.

What do you think about Cubase 7?
To be honest I haven’t had time to really explore the new features and I’m still getting used to the new mixer, but I like the fact that channels can be hidden inside the mixer. Sometimes I need to edit on the fly and so far Cubase 7 hasn’t let me down. Working with live TV shows I need to keep the setup as simple as possible so I’m not running any plug-ins apart from the SMTPE generator and a tone generator for the Radial boxes. The project I use now is actually rather simple compared to the large project I used for the grand finale of the Swedish Idol last year — it contained more than three hundred tracks. If I could wish for new features the first would be a Play Lock function that forces the user to hit Stop twice, just to prevent accidental show stoppers. Another feature I would love to have in Cubase is a simple way of combining two mono files into a stereo file.

I know you are using another DAW in your own studio, but you use Cubase for paying jobs, right?
Well, hitting play and have a “Disk To Slow” prompt show up is not an option working with live shows. Depending on the artist, I’ve used a couple of different DAWs, but Cubase has been the natural choice for big TV shows like the Swedish Idol, X-Factor and now the Eurovision. It mainly has to do with the music director and mixing engineer — he uses Nuendo in his daily work with both stereo and surround mixes. It’s very handy to be able to load his prepped Nuendo projects directly into Cubase without a fuss — and it sure doesn’t hurt that Cubase is so intuitive to use. The SMPTE-generating plug-in is essential when sending time code to the other technical departments and it makes external synchronization hardware abundant.

In a technical way Cubase is the conductor of this show because if the SMTPE time code isn’t generated and distributed to the rest of the crew, well then nothing starts — no light, no video and no sound.

So are you considering switching to Cubase for your own studio productions?
I’m pretty old school when it comes to music production and I know my way around the DAW I use, but all the live work I’ve done for artists and TV shows has kind of forced me into using Cubase, and I’m beginning to appreciate what it has to offer both in technical and creative terms. There’s no question about its robust playback engine and I’m informed that it has become even more robust with the release of Cubase 7. In practical terms, it’s just handy to be able to load and prepare the music for the live shows I’m working with, before hitting the road, and I have to admit that Cubase is a road-worthy companion.

As I leave the rehearsals and head back to my own studio, I can’t help but think of the old days when the competing songs were performed by an orchestra and a real conductor. Things change…

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Banner photograph: © Copyright by Dennis Stachel