Veteran Sound Mixer Eric Schilling Fine Tunes The Grammy Awards

It’s hard to keep track of the number of awards veteran live audio mixing professional Eric Schilling has won, but at least eight Prime Time Emmys and seven Grammy Awards. Ironically, that is more than many of the legendary artists who appeared at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards at the Arena on February 4th this year, including Celine Dion (7) and Billy Joel (6).

Schilling took a few minutes to chat with Live Design from one of two Music Mix Mobile trucks parked outside the arena. He discussed his many years working on the Grammy Award Show, the new change in tech this year, and why, if things don't go to plan, the audience of 16.9 million viewers rarely have any idea that there is anything wrong.

“A good broadcast is about planning – we plan for all the things that can go wrong,“ says Schilling. A month before the show he gets together with audio department head, Mike Abbott, and talks through who will be on the show and any potential challenges. Technology changes slowly on this show, including the Music Mix Mobile trucks which have served the Grammy Awards for the last 14 years, in addition to most of America’s other large-scale live for broadcast events. The truck features German Lawo Consoles, Eric calls these “the guts of the sound, they don’t crash,” and space for Pro Tools engineer, Stacey Hempel, Music Mix Mobile/EIC co-owner Joel Singer, and Eric himself.

Grammy Awards 2024

In addition to the Lawo Consoles they have Waves SuperRack Performer VST3 hosted plug ins, and Waves SuperRack Soundgrid processing, which is the heart of their outboard dynamics and effects on a MADI/Ravenna Network. Singer says, “Mostly everything we do is plug-in based, with the exception of a TC6000 Reverb and Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer. We mix and match pieces so I play with new gear all the time.” He continues, “We use Pro Tools recorders because they are the best in the business. The most expensive also, but there is a reason for that.”

This year's show did see a couple of changes; the adoption of the Cohesion PA system and, for the first time, the audio department switched to fiber from cable.

Cohesion Cluster
(Cohesion Cluster)

Schilling says, "For the first time in our world, copper between trucks is gone. There is not one coaxial cable between us and the Denali [production truck]. Coaxial is thick cable and we were running hundreds of feet of it and it weighs a ton making it labor intensive. Running fiber is much easier and we don’t have to deal with the ground interaction and hum that coaxial picks up if it is running next to power.”

During rehearsals, each artist gets about an hour and a half on stage to run through their performance for cameras, lights, and audio. Schilling says, “I write a cue sheet for each one, I get my sounds and EQ and take a snapshot of the board for that performance, but the reason I don’t automate program for it is that a lot of times in live performance the band will not play it the same way. I write notes and have a cue sheet so I know when they get to the bridge or when the guitar solo will happen etc, but they will always amp it up for the live performance.“

Frequently, the rep for the band will be in the truck with them, and Schilling will agree to a cue, but with the proviso that he trusts it will work and happen as described. “I say look, you know where the bodies are buried in the song, I need you to apprise me of what will happen. But at the end of the day, I’m responsible for the mix, so it is always live. Occasionally, after the rehearsals, the rep will come in and say, ‘We are doing something completely different!’” Some artists, like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, rarely sing in rehearsal which is fine with Schilling and Singer, they are prepared, and other times performances are impossible to account for anything that may happen, such as Pink singing live while suspended in a harness from the roof. 

The satellite stage

The crew choreograph handing out mics for each performance, the most challenging one for this year was the In Memoriam segment which began with Stevie Wonder and a piano on the satellite stage. A lot of people were involved including a piano tuner, during a very quick changeover.  Making sure all the mics are working reliably is a huge responsibility and there is always a global spare in the stage manager’s pocket. Fifteen years ago, Schilling was listening in to stage crew comms and heard that a Justin Timberlake's mic was not working—either the batteries were dead or not properly connected—as his performance was about to start. Schilling told them to give him the spare mic rather than try to switch out the batteries, and he dialed in the spare just as the artist was going on stage and the music had started. Both Schilling and Singer listen to comms traffic and flag up issues to each other. Schilling says, “I have learned to tune it out but I can catch things, for example, if I hear the show director say we are running behind and need to go to something else I hear it and can react.”

RELATED: The 66th Annual Grammy Awards