Feature: Swing out sister
Feature: Swing out sister
One of China’s latest broadcast hits combines reality TV with a musical talent show as all-female contestants battle it out for the top slot. Sue Su reports from Hunan
Mango TV’s all-female talent show, Sisters Who Make Waves, has become a major hit across China since the first season aired last year. The much-anticipated second season went on-air just four months after the first one ended, with its April finale featuring popular singers such as Na Ying, Zhou Bichang and Joey Jung. With production values even higher than for the first season, which had already raised the bar, sound director He Biao designed a huge and complex wireless system for both the reality TV and the performance areas, using the new L-Acoustics K3 line array he purchased last year. This was the first-time use of K3 on a Chinese entertainment show, and the largest K3 system used on a show of this kind in Asia.
“The sound requirements were greater than those of the first season,” says audio director Li Ming. “We wanted the performances to equal or exceed the sound of a top concert, and deliver a good experience to audiences both onsite and in front of the TV. We have worked with Mr He's team for many years. From both a technical and an artistic point of view, they are one of the top teams in China.”
The venue for this season was a hall in Hunan International Conference and Exhibition Center. Special staging, scenery and facilities were constructed for the show, which featured a reality TV element alongside stage performances, with both parts recorded in the same space at the same time. To solve the problem of crosstalk and reflection, the production team invested in sound insulation and absorption treatment between the two areas to provide acoustic isolation, allowing both areas to be used for simultaneous recording.
The performance area was equipped with a main and a second stage, connected by a long, narrow T-section in the middle. A 60m-wide audience area on either side of the stages accommodated around 2,000 people. The seating, together with complicated stage mechanisms and lighting equipment, limited the flown weight of the sound system. “The first season was held in another venue, and L-Acoustics Kara was used,” continues He. “This season, the venue was relatively large but its load-bearing was limited. We needed lighter speakers with a high output, and L-Acoustics had just launched the K3, which was a perfect fit in terms of weight, SPL and bass performance for the show.”
Launched last year, the dual 12-inch K3 is of a similar size to many dual 10-inch boxes on the market. The show’s FOH engineer, Naho Yamada from MSI Japan, is one of the first engineers to use K3 in Asia. “When I heard K3 for the first time, I thought its sound was very gentle,” she says. “I have used K1 and K2 three-way systems in this venue before, but although K3 is a two-way speaker, it has a similar energy output and can achieve a similar effect.”
A total of 36 K3s in four hangs of nine were used to cover the entire audience, complemented by eight ground-stacked KS28 subwoofers divided into four groups. Two Kara cabinets were placed on top of one of the subwoofer stacks to provide front fill. Two further Karas provided front fill for the judges. The system was driven by 10 LA12X amplified controllers, six of which were powering the K3s.
“In our original design, each column had six K3s, but after two episodes, live bands were added into the show for the first time. We added three more to each column, so that the whole system could achieve very high energy and wider coverage,” explained He. “The K3 is light in weight and is very good at reproducing low frequencies. It is particularly suitable for venues with load-bearing issues, such as theatres, or for use in the L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound system. Its two-way design also means one power amplifier can drive more speakers, which is a good return on investment.”
The design and planning of the wireless systems was crucial given the complex radio frequency environment onsite. In addition to strong emissions from the neighbouring Hunan Radio and Television Center, there were numerous wireless camera, communications and intercom systems that could cause interference, and the show itself also needed a lot of radio frequencies. Five groups of 10 Shure UA874 active directional antennas with Belden 9913 coaxial cable for increased RF stability took care of the performance area, all of which were connected to a Wisycom MAT288 RF diversity matrix combiner and distributed to the receivers of the wireless system. More than 100 frequency points between 470Hz and 714Hz ended up being used across the site.
Over 60 channels of wireless systems were used for performances at the show finale, which was broadcast live, with performers and hosts using nearly 50 channels of Sennheiser Digital 6000 and 9000 wireless microphone systems. Handheld mics were Sennheiser SKM 9000 with Neumann KK 205 capsules, with Sennheiser HSP 4 headsets using Digital 6000 SK 6212 beltpack transmitters. An additional 16 channels of Shure Axient Digital, mostly equipped with KSM8 capsules, picked up the bands and judges.
In-ear monitoring (IEM) systems play an important role in TV production, and all live performances featured Shure PSM 1000 wireless personal monitoring systems, with 12 groups of transmission channels and more than 50 beltpacks on the finale. For the first time, He used the Contour XO IEM headphones launched by L-Acoustics and JH Audio last year to align the system. “It is very close to the sound characteristics of L-Acoustics,” he comments. “What you hear from the earphone and in the speakers is basically the same.”
Wedge monitors were from the domestic Hiend Plus brand, including A15 and smaller A8 models on the main stage, second stage and backstage area. Two bands performed in the finale with a changeover time of just five minutes. The sound team made two transport carts to convey musical instruments, microphones and cables to the stage in the 30-second window available after the first band had finished playing. A five-person team handled the transition, connecting the changeover band, running a test for the FOH, monitor, and OB engineers and retreating.
At the controls of a DiGiCo Quantum 7 console was monitor engineer Yang Fan. “There are a lot of performers in this show; in the early days, there were 30 performers and a big band with a string orchestra. Every performer had to listen to their own mix,” he explains, adding this meant his system had to deal with a large amount of IEM and wedge signals. The different mixes and fast changeover required between the two bands left in the finale also presented a great challenge. “The DiGiCo allowed me to quickly operate routing and switching scenes,” he continues. “It responds very quickly, allowing me to switch back and forth between artists and bands in a short time.”
All shows apart from the live finale were recorded for future broadcast, with two consoles used to record performances: the aforementioned DiGiCo Quantum 7 and an SD5 for FOH. For the live finale, two further Quantum 7s were used as OB consoles for music and language mixing, respectively. The four consoles shared a fibre optic loop composed of three DiGiCo SD-Racks. The finale included 18 songs performed live, for which He invited renowned sound engineer Lin Mengyang – with whom he’s worked for nearly 10 years – to take charge of music mixing for OB. Once this mix was completed, it was handed over to the language mixing station, where it the final mix was carried out by Hunan TV sound engineer, Zhong Jihua, then sent to an OB van equipped with a Lawo MC256 console where the video was embedded.
In addition to the stereo OB mix, the live broadcast finale also offered a 3D sound version using 3D binaural rendering technology. Several microphones were set up in the performance area to pick up the ambience. The 3D mix was carried out in another OB van equipped with a Stage Tec Aurus console connected via MADI to a Klang:fabrik immersive IEM mixing system from Klang:technologies, provided by distributor Rightway Audio. After the immersive mix was completed using Klang:fabrik, the signal was output to the Lawo MC256 for video embedding, and the stereo and binaural versions could be listened to at home using ordinary headphones.
“Nowadays, the quality of network streaming and TV broadcasts is getting higher and higher,” says Xiong Zhaomin, the Hunan TV sound engineer who handled the binaural mix. “We have been researching how we can make the sound keep up with it; immersive mixing technology has been at the forefront of audio production for the past 10 years.” Xiong used five groups with a total of 40 sound objects to render the sound scenes in the show. “Binaural rendering technology is mainly aimed at viewers using headphones,” she continues. “This will give them a more immersive listening environment, and they will be able to participate more fully in the show.”
Another Hunan TV engineer, Lai Fan, drew attention to the convenience of using Klang technology. “This is an effective production method because there’s no need to change all the signal chains, nor is it bound to any manufacturer. We only need Klang equipment to do the algorithm,” he explains. “The only downside is that it currently only supports headphones, not external speakers. As more and more people use mobile phones and headphones to watch programmes, we believe that binaural rendering is a way for audiences to appreciate better sound without adding any costs.”
The reality TV area, fitted out with good acoustic insulation to provide a suitable recording environment, consisted of eight small rehearsal rooms, a larger, 30m2 rehearsal room and some public areas. Sennheiser evolution 500 series systems in all the rooms recorded the artists’ daily interaction and rehearsals using around 50 transmitters, each with one fixed and two portable receivers.
So that the show director could communicate with each of the locations from a director's station, He designed a public address system of JBL EON612 12-inch active speakers for each room. A large matrix to distribute routing signals was created on a DiGiCo SD12, which was also used to record artists’ dialogue during the show and relay it to the postproduction department.
All of the rehearsal rooms were equipped with independent systems consisting of an analogue console, microphones and speakers including A8, A15, CL15 and S22 models supplied by Guangzhou Highend Plus Technology Co.
The audio team responsible for the reality TV part of the show also needed to track and record the artists, who lived together in five villas during the show, for more than 16 hours every day. The villas were equipped with Neumann KM 184 wired microphones to pick up their day-to-day conversations, with dialogue in the car to and from the performance venue captured by portable recorders.
The entire sound system was moved in and set up in December 2020 by Shanghai Weifa Culture Media Center and Highend Plus. L-Acoustics and DiGiCo distributor Rightway Audio sent two engineers, Zhao Haozhi and Li Wenxi, to provide onsite support, with Sennheiser and Shure also providing engineers to assist in radio frequency planning.
Viewers watching Sisters Who Make Waves were not only affected by the positivity and spirit of the female artists, who ranged between 30 and 50 years in age, but will also remember the strong bond created by the artists living and performing together over the course of the series. He’s team also established a strong bond of its own in this challenging environment. Working closely on two series running almost back-to-back, his team helped each other to deal with the meticulous preparations and hard work necessary on such high-pressure live TV.
“I always believe a good sound system is created by a good team,” He says. “All technicians need to be serious and responsible, because if a problem occurs, no matter how small, it will be infinitely magnified. Behind every outstanding show is the result of everyone's joint efforts.”