Industry Experts Discuss the Challenges of Surround Sound at SVG Forum

By Carolyn Braff

The challenge of making surround sound work still looms large in the sports and entertainment industries, but on July 27, a dialog began that may change the way networks, sound mixers, and broadcasters think about sound. More than seventy audio professionals attended the Sports Video Group’s day-long seminar, “The Surround Sound Challenge: Making 5.1 Work in Real-Time.” The invited guests spent the day listening to, learning about, and discussing the present and future role that surround sound occupies in the world of sports and entertainment broadcasts. Sponsored by Dolby Laboratories, the forum took place in the Dolby Screening Room in New York City.

The day was divided into eight segments, each of which was headlined by a keynote speaker. Tom Sahara, Senior Sports Director of Remote Operations and IT for Turner Sports, kicked off the seminar with a presentation explaining the most common complaints about 5.1 surround sound, noting consumers’ inability to hear announcers over crowd noise, and the fact that the majority of surround sound audiences are not viewing content in an optimized listening environment. Sahara presented a guide for how to compress and modify announcer and crowd noise, and expressed the need to process sound mixes for stereo and mono in addition to surround sound, a process more easily said than done.

Jim Hilson, Dolby Laboratories Senior Broadcast Audio Specialist, gave the first of three presentations by Dolby Laboratories. Hilson discussed the challenges of mixing surround sound from a mobile production unit, explaining the issues involved with consoles, pre-production, transmission feeds, metadata, and what is required to monitor the audio mix.

The second case study of the day was presented by Fox Sports Audio Consultant Fred Aldous, who began his presentation by revealing that television viewers turn away faster from bad audio than from bad video, further indicating the importance of the day’s event. Aldous discussed the importance of making the total down mix the priority for sound technicians, since 98% of American television viewers still rely on stereo sound. By upmixing, Aldous explained, technicians can eliminate the collapsing effect that is inevitable when 5.1 sound is forced into a stereo format.

ESPN Remote Operations Audio Project Manager Ron Scalise gave the most candid presentation of the day, revealing his personal agenda when developing sound mixes for ESPN programming: “the realistic approach is boring.” Repeatedly referencing the “wow factor,” Scalise explained how his mixes are aggressive and aim toward bringing the action home bigger and better than it may be from the stands. Scalise discussed the freedoms that have been allowed to sound designers in recent years, including putting microphones on popcorn vendors at baseball games, college bands in football stadiums, and the” idiot” fans who take their shirts off in 30-degree weather to show support for their teams.

The second Dolby Laboratories presentation was made by Director of Broadcast Products Rocky Graham, who discussed the challenges involved in transporting and distributing sound. Graham detailed the challenges working against quality sound transmission, including equipment compatibility, access to individual channels, and bandwidth and storage constraints, and explained the advantages and disadvantages inherent in various distribution methods.

Bob Dixon, Sound Design Project Manager for NBC Olympics, gave the final network presentation of the day, detailing his view that surround sound “has a long way to go.” Dixon elucidated the need for standards, ground rules, and training for mixers, and explained that “play time” is essential for audio technicians to learn to correctly use surround sound equipment in order to create exceptional programming.

The final speaker of the day was Ken Hunold, Broadcast Applications Engineer for Dolby Laboratories, who explained how to correctly measure and set program loudness. Hunold provided case studies in television broadcasts of drag racing, NASCAR, Major League Baseball, and basketball games to show the discrepancies in dial norms between the broadcasts, as well as the range of loudness covered in a single broadcast.

The final hour of the seminar was the most dynamic, as Aldous, Dixon, Sahara, and Scalise all took the stage together in a panel discussion on the future of surround sound in sports. Spurred by a flurry of audience participation, the four experts discussed the necessity of educating mixers and engineers in order to set a standard for loudness across the networks. Sahara revealed, “I have problems with engineers deciding what zero is zero.” Sahara went on to explain that as analog fades out of style and digital becomes the standard, he is optimistic about the possibility of consistent channel-to-channel loudness. However, he expressed the need for groups to work together across networks, and to put broadcasters back in control, rather than bankers.

The day-long seminar answered some questions about the future of surround sound and raised many more. Podcasts of the event will soon be available from the SVG website,