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The Sound-Reinforcement Secrets of TED

The Sound-Reinforcement Secrets of TED

Mina Bissell, cancer researcher, speaks during Session 11: Taking Another Look, at TEDGlobal 2012 on Friday, June 29, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

With more than one billion views—that’s 1.5 million daily views—TED Talks have become the nonpareil of idea sharing. The TED mobile app is wildly popular. TED e-books extend the brand’s multimedia mission. As educational tools, TED Talks are played to complement curricula and spark student discussion—and they do so unfailingly.

The TED recipe is clearly working. So what is a TED Talk? While topics range from flying robots to bioluminescence, every talk shares the same elements—one person on a stage with an idea to share in less than 18 minutes.

The Most E-Mailed Talks in History
TED is a non-profit organization devoted to “Ideas worth spreading.” Its acronym stands for technology, entertainment, and design, though TED Talks explore myriad topics. Started in 1984 as a four-day conference in California, TED has grown to support meaningful discussion and paradigm-shifting ideas.

The online success began in June 2006 when TED’s executive producer of media, June Cohen, led an experiment to post six free talks online. Three months later, according to, the first million views had been logged. This enthusiastic response prompted TED to shift its focus to the online distribution of ideas and commit to releasing all of its best material, free of charge.

Two primary TED Conferences are held each year in Long Beach, California, starring the world’s most original thinkers and doers. TEDGlobal, independently organized TEDx events, and related TED gatherings pepper the annual calendar for thought leaders.

The "A" Team

TED talks are equal parts inspiring and accessible. What we don’t see during the captivating clips are the project managers, designers, and technical staff, as well as deftly deployed audiovisual technologies that bring TED ideas to full fruition.McCune Audio Video Lighting, based in South San Francisco, has handled production for TED since its beginning. Their team includes audio department head, Nick Malgieri, and project manager, Pete Bender, who has worked every major TED Conference since TED3. Although busy preparing for the recent TED2013, Malgieri and Bender made time to share their sound reinforcement insight.

Hearing Matters at TED

There is no official audio gear used for TED Talks, but any TED regular can quickly recognize the low-profile, neutral-hue headset worn by most presenters. The audio team has used various microphones, including the Countryman E6 and now the DPA 4088. “The DPA 4088s allow fantastic rejection of the room noise from the PA system,” Malgieri said. The post-production teams spent years trying to reduce room noise until, this year, they requested more ambient mics in the room for selectively adding noise back in. This proved to be a good solution; it solved various issues related to the combination of live sound and TV post-broadcast on site—in real-time—during events.

Malgieri and Bender confirmed that AV technicians are often asked about the equipment they use for TED as it seems to influence what happens at other live events. “TED-related clients as well as some of our corporate clients ask [what we use],” Bender said.

They explained that TED Talks’ popularity has helped champion the headset mic. “I have many other clients who are hesitant and feel more comfortable with lavs, even in environments where they don’t work,” Malgieri said. “I merely tell them that I use the headsets for TED, and they are immediately more comfortable making the switch.”

Besides room noise, another challenge for AV technicians is the diversity of TED presenters; each conference features dozens of speakers with varying levels of stage experience. Malgieri said that dual-ear mics, such as the DPA 4088, are ideal for first-time TED speakers; no “handholding" is required. TED events also feature speakers who require creative mic'ing placement, such as accommodating masks to protect their identity, and presenters who dance on stage. The tech team can outfit users with lavaliere microphones for backup purposes when necessary. As always, rehearsal and preparation are critical for success during live events.

Process and Mixing
Another key to the audio system design is the ability to process at the mixer, which helps technicians stay flexible from one presenter to the next. They use 16 channels of Dan Dugan auto mixing along with the WNS noise reduction waves plug-in to overcome gain-before-feedback. This configuration also helps improve room acoustics and on-stage variables. “We end up with enough headroom to sculpt the tone as necessary because the presenters are so different from one TED Talk to the next,” Malgieri said.

Back It Up
Quality and dependability are always at odds with TED’s audio system, particularly with the pressures of live broadcasting and post-production. The schedule of the event is also challenging. “We’ve definitely had to take a ‘no-compromise’ approach to the system,” Malgieri continued. “We’re very pro-active about anticipating any change or addition to be as prepared as possible.”

Since audio system failure is never an option for a TED Talk, the tech team wires a primary and a backup of virtually every audio source and many of the destinations.

The TED Tech of Tomorrow
TED promotes itself as forward-thinking in many regards. This core mission also informs the way TED commissions and uses technology in their events.

Malgieri explained that earlier this year technicians incorporated a large Optocore/DiGiCo fiber-optic network of six DiGiCo consoles and I/O racks. The Optocore system proved to be an asset—low latency, dependable, and incredibly flexible. “We also utilized the new Shure ULX-D digital wireless which allowed better audio quality as well as more robust frequency coordination, since the digital transmission is much narrower and more resilient to intermodulation issues.”

To achieve a fully digital signal path to the speakers, the technical team uses optical AES/EBU converters for most of their playback devices. Malgieri says that the optical converters, wireless audio solutions, and Optocore/DiGiCo system exemplify the cutting-edge technology that helps TED reach the highest level of quality and the broadest audience possible.

  • “If there is an advancement in technology, TED Talks are well-suited to take advantage of it,” he said.

Margot Douaihy is an erstwhile instructor at Marywood University in Pennsylvania. Now she is the editor of AV Technology and On/Off Campus: Tools & Strategies for the Evolving Classroom. If she is wearing headphones, she is probably listening to a TED Talk.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D.
Margot Douaihy, Ph.D.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D., is a lecturer at Franklin Pierce University.