Have you ever wondered who provides the time buzzer sounds on Have I Got News for You, University Challenge or Catchphrase? The answer is a grams operator. A grams op typically works in the sound gallery, playing in pre-recorded sound effects and music. The term originates from the era when sound effects were played out from gramophones. Sound effects, like a contestant’s buzzer on a game show, will be rigged into the grams operator’s equipment so they can control the sound that comes out when the sound is triggered. So the operator and the grams equipment are absolutely key to any production requiring these sound effects.
The need for a refresh of Maidstone Studios (MSL) Studio 2 Grams became apparent when preparing for the production of Inside No. 9 “Deadline” in October 2018. To ensure the show was a success, the limitation of the current grams desk (a modest Yamaha 01V) meant that it had to be replaced with a bigger hired-in mixer. I worked as technical director on the show and had in my possession a grams desk rescued from the ashes of The London Studios. Whilst debriefing after the live show (which was pretty epic to work on) with management at MSL, I put together a proposal to upgrade the sound studio to improve its overall performance.
Knowing the gallery still had surprises to give, we found a window between shows to fix what we knew about and provide a buffer for what we didn’t. Our window was set for three weeks in May culminating in the deadline of a new series of STV’s Catchphrase. The challenge was to successfully decommission the existing equipment and install, commission and test the new equipment within that small window of time, before the grams desk was next required.
I visited in January 2019 to gather information and begin my design. I spent the next few weeks working on the design in between MotoGP and F1 commitments. Once the design was completed, I produced technical drawings and procured the equipment.
Once we began work we found a previous installation of a Studer Vista8 from the prior Calrec M2 desk had left a large number of redundant cables under the floor, blocking our path to the krone frame. We carefully removed these cables as well as jackfields and krones that were no longer required.
All outboard gear was removed, tested and refitted, existing cables all checked and repaired or replaced where necessary.
The woodwork was repurposed to create one neat surface in the sound area and charging and network facilities added to acknowledge the growing use of laptops in the grams operator role. Dave Trewyn, of MSL, designed and built an overhead bridge section for the grams desk to accommodate talkback, PPMs and lighting for the operator. He also custom built an amplifier to allow the grams op to mix talkback and grams audio into headphones to compensate for the close proximity of the grams op to the sound supervisor.
We added more ad hoc outboard equipment positions for unbalanced devices and hired sfx players. We also installed additional MADI tie lines to reflect the way multitrack recording has evolved. I worked closely with the sound supervisor, Kev Amos, ahead of the inaugural show to ensure all needs would be met.
The grams desk’s first production was Catchphrase for STV, which was a good example of a relatively grams-heavy show with midi-controlled contestant buzzers and VT playback. I attended tech briefings to ensure the needs of the show were met, and I was also the guarantee engineer for the rig and first record, which meant I was heavily involved in the production. Everyone was pleased with the result and the excellent feedback we received from clients. The studio has since been used successfully for more Catchphrase shows as well as Celebrity Catchphrase, the election debate between Corbyn & Johnson and Rugby World Cup for ITV Sport.
Hannah Chambers is a partner at Hawk Media Partnership and led the design and build of the Maidstone Studios grams desk in 2019.
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