What’s It Like to Work the Super Bowl?
Guest Feature: Alex Guessard
Tell us about yourself - where did you grow up, what were you into growing up?
I grew up in the French part of Switzerland, close to the Alps. I had an early interest in audio. My family owned a music store, recording studio, and theatre company. Growing up in that environment, I was able to start mixing bands at the age of 15. I then pursued a musical engineering degree, and once I completed my studies, I jumped in feet first into the industry.
Give us your background, what were you doing pre-COVID, how did you get there?
I began my career working for a dance company in Germany. I then moved to Australia to freelance on various tours. Over time, the bands I worked with led me to the United States, where many were based. After several years of touring, I transitioned into the world of television production, where I met individuals from the company ATK, a company I have now worked with for quite some time. ATK is a boutique company specializing in TV events such as American Idol, the Grammys, and the Super Bowl.
How did your work with the Super Bowl begin?
I have been working with the Super Bowl now for about ten years, with many people around me working the event for twenty to thirty years. Audio-wise we are a very eclectic crew. Everybody on that team is very talented; they have been hand-picked to work this event year after year. Several team members are freelance; however, I got my start via ATK. A role had opened up as the patch group, essentially a hub that the audio team calls where all the signal flows through; I was the manager. I then progressed into the role of a STEM engineer. When the lead designer and mixer decided to retire, I took over his position. I have held the job for the last five years. It is a fantastic group of humans across boards with several departments having years' worth of experience. Everyone knows the routine. It is a very unusual show where the crew reunites once a year.
What are your key responsibilities in producing the show?
The designer needs to develop a system that will cover and be acoustically pleasant for the entire stadium. You need to be very aware of stage design and camera angles in this role. Line of sight is a crucial detail. You cannot have any speakers blocking the scoreboard or game. With ATK, we came up with a design where rolling carts with small to medium-sized PA systems are deployed throughout the stadium. Budget is also a key factor. We have an audio system that delivers all sound to broadcasts around the world. While my team’s primary responsibility is to provide sound to the stadium and talent, additional freelancers deliver the sound to networks, creating the on-air signal. My work starts six months in advance when we go look at the new stadium. In the last few years, we have had the advantage of producing the show at the stadium that we were already familiar with from previous years. Usually, the NFL has the system of having the game at new stadiums a few years after opening. When working with new stadiums, we have to survey to see what methods we will use. There are times when we can use the audio put in place and others where we may need to bring in a custom system. Multiple meetings take place to review the design perfecting until about a month or two out. From there, custom systems get ready for shipping, and I arrive on-site about two weeks before the show to begin the build and tune the designs. Sound checks are one of the final steps to make sure systems are a go. On show day, my responsibility includes pre-game with the national anthem and the halftime show. A different designer handles the audio of the game itself.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you resolve?
This year the planning process started very late. The questions of where, when, and if the Super Bowl would take place were up in the air leading up to the event. Nobody knew what we were getting into this year. One of the biggest hurdles we faced was the limited access to the venue before the show. The stadium was reserved for the players and coaches. There are eight minutes before the show, where all carts and departments come onto the field and create a complete stadium system. It really is very crazy when you think about it. Hundreds and hundreds of people are required to move equipment around ten to twenty people per cart. Stage lighting and audio could consist of fifty to sixty carts. All these individuals need to be choreographed. It takes nights and nights of rehearsal for the system to be put in place in a short timeframe. Without having access to the field, we had to come up with an entirely different operation. We came up with a system of speakers on elevators. With the press of a button, we were able to bring the speakers out of hidden view and ready to power up to produce the show's sound. The stage was no longer on the field this year. It was built in the stadium structure in a flat concourse. This is very unusual, but changes had to be put in place due to COVID.
What nuances are involved in working the Super Bowl that you haven't felt elsewhere?
This event is massive, from people involved in the operation to distance to get from place to place in the venue. You cannot run a typical audio cable the same way you can in an average show. The Super Bowl is a well-oiled machine with the best of the best coming together year after year. It is a very calm environment due to the seasoned professionals.
What COVID precautions were put in place?
Regulations due to COVID included regular temperature checks, PCR testing every 48 hours, and how we conduct ourselves on-site. Mobility getting around leading up the event required only two people per car, one in front one in back wearing N-95 masks. Scanning took place so that your location was known at all times. The protocol was very well put in place.
What would a crisis look like in your role working here and how have you handled problems like that as they came up?
The entire audio design is based on redundancy. Everything we do has multiple paths. If we were to fail somewhere, we might not even notice because automatic failovers are put in place as part of the overall audio design. There are some areas where these failovers are more manual. However, a backup is put in place for every component of the system. With the high viewership, we cannot fail; failing is not an option. There is fail-safe after fail-safe; the show will go on no matter what.
Which halftime show was your favorite to be a part of?
Unfortunately, I was not a part of the Prince show. In the memory of many, this was one of the strongest halftime shows ever. In the past few years, Lady Gaga has had a powerful performance, in my opinion. It was a good atmosphere: the look, the sound, and surprise moments.
How does working the Super Bowl contribute to your overall career growth?
It is one of the largest shows you can work on between audience and viewership. It does bring a status. However, at the end of the day, you are only as good as your last show.
Would you say this is the biggest achievement in your career so far?
It has to be due to its cultural importance in America. It is the most awaited event of the year. The event is purely adrenaline-based.
Now that you’ve accomplished this, what’s your next dream gig?
I enjoy complex events like this with a sophisticated network and audio path. I also like bringing it back to the basics, like mixing bands and not worrying about TV and various production elements that go hand in hand with broadcast.
What is your biggest tip to someone wanting to get involved in an event of this size?
To get to that level, it is vital to find a mentor or company already involved in this line of work. You already need to be on the top of your game. Get some experience of doing some touring or festival. It also takes a level of maturity and a cool head that seems to come with age.