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Who'd be an SM?

Martin Vennard | 12:33 UK time, Monday, 8 October 2007

One of our sound engineers, or SMs (that's studio managers not sado masochists), travelling with the team in South Africa is Sarah. She wanted to let you know a bit about the work they do:


"We arrived in Musina (Messina) on the border with Zimbabwe late afternoon on Saturday following a long six-hour journey by car, mostly through driving rain – albeit getting warmer since leaving Johannesburg. About 100km south of Musina we had to go through a mountain range and there was a very exciting moment when six baboons crossed the road ahead of us – of course I didn’t have my camera out at that moment!

My friends have said that there will be so many baboons around that I will definitely get a picture at some point – and I’d better or my 6-year-old, Daniel, will never believe that I wasn’t making it up.


Tired and hot we went straight to the venue for Monday's programme and although the ISDN line connector box didn’t look quite right to me, upon testing it all worked which was great. In fact the ISDNs at all three venues we have recced all work, which is brilliant, although that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many things that could still go wrong! Or as I should put it ‘challenges to overcome’….

Legend has it that one of my esteemed colleagues was asked during a Q & A session in Cleveland, Ohio, how difficult it was to make the technical arrangements to deliver a programme like WHYS to the world, and he replied, ‘Well, it’s just a couple of wires’. Well, I’d like to set the record straight about that by explaining the technical effort that has gone into this trip and exactly what we have to do on the road.


When you listen to a programme like this it perhaps doesn’t sound too complicated – just a few microphones – a natural ‘conversation’ but there is an awful lot going on that enables you to hear it as the 13 flight cases filled with 250 Kg of audio accessories testifies.

From every venue we broadcast we need to have at least two high quality audio ISDN connections – these can either be sourced through a special telecoms socket or via satellite phones. These carry all the things that need to be heard……the sound that we are making locally (i.e. Ros and audience contributors) is sent to our studio in London, who send back to us all the sound that they are making, which includes international telephone callers.

On another line we establish what we call a co-ordination circuit, which is basically a direct line for the editor of the programme (Mark in this case) to speak to the editor in London (David Mazower).

At each venue we set up a studio area that contains the controls for all the equipment we need – racks mounted with equipment and sockets – plus a mixing desk and a talkback unit. It is our job to connect everything up in such a way that everybody can hear what they need to hear (including the audience through a PA system) but not what they don’t.


Mark needs to be able to quietly communicate with the producers holding ‘roving’ microphones, and the presenters –though sometimes not all together! This requires making sure that what is feeding the headphones is derived from the correct sources, which has already had to be duplicated several times.

We also use up to six wireless microphones, and three wireless headphone feeds, though we never know how many frequencies we’ll be able to find until we’re setting up on the day. For every microphone and headset we need to find and then set a frequency.

And all that is before the programme is even on air when anything could happen! Just a couple of wires. I don’t think so!"


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