Now in its 37th season, the PBS concert series Austin City Limits has captured an incredible variety of artists from every corner of the musical spectrum.
Long-time audio director David Hough of originating station KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, notes that one constant across those decades of television’s longest-running music series has been the use of Shure microphones.
“For all 37 years I’ve been with Austin City Limits, we’ve always had Shure vocal mics downstage, and they’ve always worked great,” Hough notes. “I remember when we shot the pilot; the fellow we rented the PA system from brought a bunch of scratched-up Shure mics he had been using.
“We wanted a good look for television, so he hand-painted them with white epoxy paint. It was a different look, but of course they sounded fabulous. The SM58 is still one of our go-to vocal mics today. When you think about it, that’s pretty amazing.”
While the SM58 remains a constant, virtually everything else in the production of today’s Austin City Limits is thoroughly up to date. Taping has moved from Studio 6A at KLRU to a new venue, ACL Live at The Moody Theater, a state-of-the-art facility with great sightlines and more seating capacity for what has always been one of the hottest tickets in Austin.
Typically, the station does between 18 and 20 tapings to create the 13 one-hour shows that comprise a season.
“We’ve moved with the times, of course, and that includes our choice of microphones,” Hough explains. “With the new venue four miles from our studios, we knew we needed new mic stock to go with it. Shure has a wide selection of products that really help us capture the sound and flavor of the concerts we’re taping.”
Among the new models that have found a home on the new stage is the Beta 181, a compact side-address condenser microphone that Hough tried on drum overheads. “I used it on Flogging Molly, one of the first tapings in the new venue,” he notes. “I’ve been using it ever since. The sound is clear, and they just disappear on camera because they’re so small.”
Shure mics are found all over the drum kit. The SM57 is a given on snare. Typically, the kick drum gets a Beta 91A boundary mic and a Beta 52®A dynamic, creating a rich, full bottom with plenty of attack. “We love the new Beta 98A on toms,” Hough continues. “They sound really punchy, and the new mounting kit is solid. And, of course, they are very low profile, which is very important for TV.”
The focus of nearly all bands rests squarely on the vocals, and Hough leans toward the dynamics that have been a mainstay throughout his career. “Of course, we try to let the bands sing on what they’re most comfortable with,” he shares, “but our go-to mics are the Beta 58A and SM58, hardwired, especially with loud monitors and PA. The new KSM9 is a sweet-sounding vocal mic, too.”
Austin City Limits prefers to keep wireless use to a minimum. The production keeps a couple channels each of Shure UHF-R Series handhelds and PSM 900 personal monitors on hand, but generally allows the artist to use the RF systems they are carrying.
“The whole point of Austin City Limits is to capture a live performance without distraction,” explains Hough. “We encourage the artists to play to the audience, not the camera. In fact, we tape over the camera tally lights so the artist won’t know which one is on. Obviously, an audible dropout would be a problem, so even though wireless systems sound great and are pretty bulletproof, our philosophy is that you just can’t beat the reliability of a cable.”
To avoid the use of lavalier mics for backstage interviews, the SM89 shotgun mic or VP88 stereo mic might be used on or behind the camera. Pre-show audio glitches are typically identified and addressed with the phase reversers, transformers, attenuators, and other problem-solvers in the Shure A15 Series.
For example, the show owns 16 Shure MX202 hanging microphones, originally intended to capture audience reaction. But when an orchestra came in, Hough deployed the mics to provide exceptional pickup of the string section without visual distraction.
“I dropped four MX202s over the violins and cellos, and I had a great mix without even trying. Even the vibraphone jumped right out,” he reports. “The sound was very pleasing, with plenty of clarity and treble. I love that mic; it’s terrific.”
While the show’s musical agenda has never been easy to pin down, Austin City Limits viewers can be assured that they will be treated to great musicianship and songwriting in a natural concert atmosphere, faithfully captured by a wide range of Shure microphones. Producer Terry Lickona has again booked an impressive mix of artist appearances, including Coldplay, Miranda Lambert, Jeff Bridges, Widespread Panic, Gillian Welch, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to name a few.
“This is shaping up to be a great season for Austin City Limits,” concludes Hough. “The new venue and our Shure mics have really upgraded our production, and the musical performances we’ve captured have been fantastic.” The current season of Austin City Limits began its run in early October, and continues weekly on PBS through January.