Television Sound

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Twenty Years of TV Sound by Colin Berwick

Colin and camera
In this photo, I'm operating an EMI 2001 colour camera on my A course. After a brief spell using the Marconi mark 7 cameras when colour started, the BBC opted for the smaller(!) EMI which became the main studio and OB camera for about a decade. The Marconis were relocated in the News and Presentation studios. Despite their similar body size, the EMI was smaller overall because the lens was mounted inside the body of the camera with only the lens hood projecting. On the Marconi, the lens stuck out at least 18" at the front.
On this page, Colin looks back on his twenty years on BBC staff, including some thoughts about microphones in television. On the second page he describes the sound desk in TC6, with photos taken in 1985.

I joined the Sound Department of the Television Service in July 1972, and after a three-month course (A13) at Wood Norton, was based at TV Centre. I left the Corporation 20 years later - to the day! - on grounds of redundancy; many were to follow! Since then I have worked as a freelance recordist, often for the BBC.

Having completed the induction (A) course, I and my fellow trainees reported to TVC to be given our itinerary for the "circus"; a series of visits and brief attachments to other technical departments in TV & Radio, at the end of which we were assigned to our crews. I went to crew two. My first programme was Nationwide in Studio E, Lime Grove on Monday 13th November 1972. At the end of the rig I asked a crew member, "What do I do now?" In his usual, lugubrious tone he replied, "Observe!".

My 20 years in the BBC were split equally between three posts. Firstly as a general sound assistant/boom operator, then as tape and grams operator servicing everything from Jackanory to major opera, with the action in Studio 1 at TVC and the orchestra in Fairfield Hall. Finally, as studio/location sound supervisor for the newly created Topical Production Centre in Lime Grove, where I mixed all of the live current affairs output, including the single camera inserts.
The Television Theatre

When I joined the Television Service it was still enjoying its "Golden Age". One felt part of something special. I had wanted to be a TV technician since I was a child, having caught occasional glimpses of behind the scenes activities on Blue Peter with Christopher Trace. When I was 10, a friend's father (I think he worked in the scenery department) obtained some tickets for Crackerjack and I was asked to go. That sealed it for me; I was hooked. Sitting in the stalls at the Television Theatre, I paid more attention to the crew than Eamonn Andrews. My only recollection of the show was the strength of Eamonn's make-up and that Eden Kane was the star turn! I also remember that there was a small, but loud, musical ensemble just to the right of our seats, making it difficult to hear dialogue when there was a music cue. Only the camera left side of the stalls had seats. Down the centre was a camera runway, used by a Mole crane to get those high tracking-out shots at the end of so many musical items. To the right of that was a technical area.

I was later to work on Crackerjack many times, with Ed Stewart presenting and Peter Glaze still doing the same routines. On some shows I was the boom operator (Fisher boom with an AKG gun mic), sometimes general sound assistant, sometimes PA mixer. Often, during rehearsal, I would sit in the same area of the stalls and think about the seed that had been sown years before. By now, the band area had been enclosed and sound-proofed.

I liked working at the Television Theatre. Being down the road from the Centre, one was rarely disturbed by managers! It was also nearer the shops and the admin office and so was handy for collecting T&Ds (expenses forms) not to mention the pub on the corner!

I did many shows from there especially as a grams operator, as I preferred working on light entertainment to drama. I like anything with music, really. For me, one of the most memorable was the first series which Jasper Carrott did for the BBC, called Carrott's Lib. It was a live hour long sketch show broadcast after Match of the Day on Saturday evening. We would rehearse and pre-record on Friday and come on duty at lunchtime Saturday to rehearse the full show. Having been to a planning meeting earlier in the week, I was asked by the producer to find suitable bits of music and sound effects to fit the script.

I remember well the first transmission. Having blocked during the afternoon and dress rehearsed the full show after dinner break, we went into line-up for an hour or so, to colour match the cameras and send bars and tone to Network Control. During this time the production team changed the running order!

With 15 minutes to transmission and a lots of tape cues, I found myself having to re-edit my tapes to fit the new running order. I had three Studers laced up and an RP2/1 pair for atmos discs. I finished splicing as the red lights started to flash for "2 minutes to TX". Thank goodness the show started with a monologue as my heart was thumping and I was beginning to doubt that I could do the business. I also had to sub-mix the band!

It all went well and I came off the air as high as a kite, knowing we had to do it all again next week. I believe we had an audience of 19 million! It's amazing what adrenalin can do. Happy days.

The theatre was relinquished by the BBC some years ago and underwent a major refurbishment. It is now a "proper" commercially run theatre again, staging touring musical or comedy acts; the modern equivalent of its former life as a music hall (The Shepherds Bush Empire).

I was recently back there filming backstage at the Children in Need Comedy Night. It has changed rather a lot from the days of "The Val Doonican Show" and "The Generation Game". The BBC had extended the performing area into the stalls. Now it is back looking more like the theatre is once was; except for a bar in the middle of the stalls! The band room has gone. The stage area has a sound-proofed inner wall to isolate it from the backstage area, and the audience is once again allowed into the "gods", which had been closed for years on grounds of safety. There are still traces of the BBC's tenancy, including old cable ducts and telephone numbers pencilled on walls in the old lighting store. Better than pulling it down.
Lime Grove

I remember about 1974, Studio G at Lime Grove was coaxed back into service having been in mothballs for ages. It was re-commissioned to broadcast Blue Peter, which had been kicked out of TVC by the World Cup. The studio, like TC5 had Mole booms with 4033's and had never been colourised. The show was live and included a display of entries to the Blue Peter Painting Competition. As I stood on by boom platform, I thought it sad that this colourful wall of pictures should go out in monochrome. Still, at least they were televised. As we neared the end of transmission, all of the studio monitors went black, a puff of smoke was said to have come from the apparatus room and the show ended in sound only. A triumph! The studio was never used again.

When current affairs was taken over by News in the late 80s, operations moved back to TVC where one's duties then included mixing daily news. Lime Grove was then demolished. A sad day, for although it may have been a bit of a dump, it had history and atmosphere.

When I joined, TV sound was moving away from dynamic to capacitor microphones. AKG C28's had been around for a while, but only on stands for musical items. Studio booms (Fisher type), which had been fitted with AKG D25's, were being converted to carry the new phantom powered C451's. They were specially modified versions with DIN screw connectors as the XLR type were thought to rattle. They had fixed 150Hz roll-off to counter the rumble of the boom mechanics. I remember everyone complaining about the high frequency response which now made audible every noise imaginable: the swish of a costume; camera cables scraping across the floor and the phantom pencil dropper! All previously hidden in the mellower sound of a dynamic microphone. It was like having one's ears washed out! Many a retake was now being asked for by the sound supervisor because of extraneous noise. As for the air-conditioning......

The exception to the move towards capacitor mics was studio TC5, which was still black and white and had two of the older Mole Richardson booms. These were fitted with the previously ubiquitous STC 4033.

These days, the "personal" body-worn radio microphone is the king, with some productions deploying a dozen or more. I believe that the lead dancers in Riverdance wore them in their shoes! Even drama productions have to resort to them, hidden in costumes.

In "the old days", TV sound pick-up was achieved with the use of booms fitted with a decent directional mic. One might use the odd small mic (BK6 or D109) hidden in a flower arrangement, but the skill of the boom operator was paramount; following the action and the cutting of shots, whilst avoiding boom shadows or dipping into shot. (I once got the whole of the boom in shot on a live Tomorrow's World when Raymond Baxter knelt to point out some detail on a piece of equipment. I dropped with him and the vision mixer cut to a wide shot!)

Sound had perspective; it matched the picture. I'm sure that lighting directors are pleased with the freedom it gives them to light for visual effect, without having to consider boom shadows, but the result is that we have become used to a closer, flatter TV sound than was once the case.

In addition to being used in music balances, the 4038 was commonly deployed as an audience reaction mic; its figure of eight polar diagram lending itself to having a PA speaker slung beside it from a lighting bar.

Only once was I asked to rig an AXBT; actually two of them. They were not stores items and had to be specially requested. It was for a programme featuring the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. The mics were mounted on floor stands and placed in the front line for lead instruments and vocal. A U87 was slung above to fill in.

I remember a variant of radio's much used D202 called the 224E, which was housed in a silver-finish tube to look more attractive on screen. It was superseded by the smaller C451, which could be mounted in booms, on small table stands and have the VR1 or VR2 extension tubes fitted to make it less obtrusive as lead vocal mike. TV sound was always a compromise between what sounded right and what looked good, hence the awful miniature "personal mic" clipped to lapels. Try fitting one to a lady wearing a high-necked dress or sweater!

When I first worked on the show, coverage of the host and his guests was by AKG C28 microphones with VR29 short extension tubes, mounted on small floor stands, one between each chair and pointing upwards. This rig worked well, but mics were prone to being knocked by boisterous artistes or fiddled with by nervous ones. There was also the problem of colouration from the audience PA.

On a couple of shows we experimented with a gun mic in a boom. This was fine if there was only one guest, but if there were more, the spread of people was too wide for the mic and there was a danger of one person being "off mic".

So, one sound supervisor suggested we try mounting two gun mics in the same boom, angled at about 30 degrees. The resulting rig (once we had worked out how to bodge it) was rather heavy and cumbersome. One could not operate the pan or tilt mechanism as the combined mass of two mics meant that they would continue to sway at the end of the arm. The operator also had to agree with the SS which was the main mic when only one was required.

Although it worked, the presence of a boom over the set restricted the shots the director could take (headroom). Also, when both mics were faded up, their combined pick-up was similar to a cardioid. Colouration from the PA was once again a problem.

The idea was abandoned and we went back to floor stands.

The design of the set itself presented us with a sound problem. Being a semi-circular wall, it acted like a parabolic reflector. Any mic coming close to the focal point was likely to pick up much more feedback from the audience. I think that this was another factor in abandoning the gun-mic-in-the-boom technique. Each new manifestation of the set had to be faced with some sound absorbing material, often carpet, to minimise reflections.

And in case you're wondering, yes, I was the boom operator on the Parkinson show when the Emu went mad. We were all stunned by what was going on in front of us. The chat area was on the left, with the performance area to the right, so the action was rather close to the edge of the set. The cameras on the left kept crabbing further over to keep the action in shot. There would have been a black drape behind the scenery and this would lessen the chance of the chance of them "shooting off". Under the circumstances, I doubt if anyone would have noticed anyway as all eyes were fixed on the proceedings. The attack started quite gently and I think we all thought it would end quickly, but no! Parky's chair suddenly went over and there he was on the floor with the bird on top of him.
An Experiment

Whilst working on the Generation Game in the theatre, we compared the use of a gun mic (AKG 816) and cardioid (AKG C451) in the boom for coverage of the contestants. With PA colouration again the main problem, it was found, to our surprise, that the cardioid performed better. Despite it's narrower polar diagram, because the transducer of a gun mic is half-way along its tube, when the tip of the mics are just out of shot, the cardioid is effectively closer to the source than is the gun.
Top of the Pops

During the 70's, most of the artistes on 'Top of the Pops' mimed. Occasionally there was a small orchestra in the studio (Johnny Pearson conducting) for those who could perform live, but most sound came off tape. The miming artistes still required a microphone to create the illusion of a live performance, so the sound crew would rig vocal mics (hand held or on stands) but not plug them in to the wall boxes. We later had some short cables made which could be tucked into a hole at the top of the mic stand.

However, the management were concerned that delicate and expensive equipment was being used in this way and arranged for some dummy microphones to be made by mechanical workshops. Six such dummies were produced. Perfect replicas of AKG C451 mics cut from a solid aluminium bar. Satin finished with DIN screw threads and slots in the top, all in a little carrying case. They looked very realistic. But they cost more than the real thing!

This created a discussion between the sound department and the props guys as to who should rig them, they now being only "props". The sound department won.

One enterprising sound crew decided to dispense with the cables and try radio hand mics. Because of the miming, they didn't have to work of course. So they took a DIN plug and removed its contents. Through the cable grip was passed a 2" long bolt, which was then bound in black PVC tape. When the plug was attached to a microphone, the bolt looked just like an aerial......and the sound quality.........!

We were always being asked what make they were....."special BBC design"......"not available in the shops!"

Colin and assistant

I can still recall my first editing exercise on a BTR2, followed by many more on a Leevers Rich; playing effects discs on the RP2/1; the "apple and biscuit"; rotary faders and, above all, production values. We made countless 50-minute dramas, musical and variety programmes; shows viewers wanted to watch. I remember recording an episode of Porridge (the one in which they dig an escape tunnel), which we later learned had an audience of 28 million! Those were the days.

Finally, and just for fun, a picture taken at Disneyworld in 1995 on a filming assignment. I'm the one on the right! Two portable mixers, 3 radio mic receivers, an MS stereo gun mic on a pole and an aching back. Oh for a job in "wireless"!