Truck Environment Poses Challenge to Audio Mixers

By Dan Daley

When mixers are asked about audio monitors, their responses tend to focus on the trucks that the speakers are in rather than the speakers themselves. Unanimously, sports-audio mixers find that the monitors themselves are generally fine, regardless of type or technology; it’s the monitoring environment that concerns them.

“Not one truck is really designed around what a good audio-monitoring environment should be,” says Phil Adler, who freelances on football, college hoops, and pro boxing for CBS Sports and other networks.

He figures he’s lucky that his personal monitoring preference, the Genelec 1031 speaker, seems to be the de facto standard for most trucks. “It’s what my ears are tuned for,” he says, adding that he has been just as pleased at other points in time with Blue Sky and Tannoy monitors. “The challenge has been the [monitoring] environment in general and the placement of speakers specifically.”

Freelancer Jonathan Freed, who mixes pro football and basketball, agrees that the monitoring environment suffers in the design of most trucks. “The biggest challenge in monitoring is the lack of consistency of the mixing environments,” he says, suggesting that the designs may be ergonomically efficient but give short shrift to the acoustics. He would like to encourage more emphasis on acoustics among remote-van designers. “It can be done well,” he asserts. “There are trucks out there where the mixing environment does work well. But,” he adds, “it all comes down to education and awareness of the issue among truck designers and builders.”

The Stepchild Effect

Remote trucks are a physical manifestation of broadcast audio’s stepchild relationship with video, an unintentional bias that, surprisingly, has carried over to the era of multichannel broadcast audio.

Like his colleagues, mixer Michael Abbott has developed ways to deal with less-than-stellar monitoring situations. For instance, he carries a Radio Shack SPL meter with him to calibrate the sound field, and on trucks where he cannot access the gain control of a powered monitor because it has been soffited, he changes the gain structure another way: he runs the speaker into a line amp on the console and uses its gain control to attenuate speaker level for 5.1 mixes. “It’s a work-around, I know,” he says, “but it’s part of how you establish your reference in a mix environment. If you don’t have that, you can’t have a good mix.”

Truck ergonomics has both obvious and subtle impact on monitoring. As HD propels the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratio for video monitors, it also creates that much less room for audio in the monitoring array. Also, Adler points out, placement of the center-channel monitor is often skewed by video electronics, and the same type of speaker as the left and right monitors is used for the center but rotated 90 degrees on its side to fit above the video display. “Then the tweeters don’t line up properly,” he says, “and that can lead to phasing issues.”

Many sports-audio mixers have some music-mixing experience in their backgrounds, and that has helped equip them to deal with truncated monitoring space in the field. “Yes, I do believe that I can handle some of the mixing environments better because I have done music mixing,” says Freed. “It trains the ear to help me better hear through the environments I have to work in.”

Many mixers also bring music to work, not just to enjoy but also to use as a reference to suss out a listening environment. Adler, for example, uses the Steely Dan and Lyle Lovett tracks on his iPod. “Stuff that’s well recorded and with good clear vocals helps you evaluate the monitoring pretty quickly,” he explains. And while music engineers still are known to carry around a pair of their own near-field reference monitors, the nature and size of broadcast field audio make that impossible, so mixers often use headphones, such as the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 that Adler uses.

So while audio monitoring continues to be a subjective topic, mixers continue to adapt to the remote environment in which they work.