Demand Grows for Mics Up Close to the Action

The hubbub around the repositioning of the NFL umpire and the concomitant loss of a microphone close to the line of scrimmage has put the notion of wiring athletes for sound on the front burner like never before. The trend has penetrated most major-league sports to some extent; the variables include sanctioning of the practice by the leagues, player associations and management, and the individual players themselves. But broadcast-audio mixers agree that having a microphone up close to the action has become an essential part of the sports soundscape.

“In my opinion, there is nothing like proximity to allow a mixer to capture the close-up feel for the sport,” says Jonathan Freed, who mixes NFL, NCAA, and NBA games. “This can, if used tastefully, create a more cinematic audio soundscape with some intimacy to match the close-up ability of the cameras.”

Quantum 5X Systems developed the first dedicated on-player miking system, miking several NBA players in 2007. Since then, the trend has grown enough for the company to announce a significant expansion of its product line this month.

Joining Quantum’s original QT-1000 Playermic, in use by the NBA, MLB, and other leagues for three years, is the new QT-5000 remote-control audio system (RCAS), which allows remote control of all transmitter settings and monitoring of status via a 2.4-GHz RF control channel. This capability enables audio technicians to turn microphones on and off and make on-the-fly adjustments to frequency and audio level in the middle of a game or a play without touching the transmitter. And, for water sports, there is now a fully immersible microphone and transmitter, the AquaMic, a waterproofed version of Quantum’s QT-256 micro-transmitter that the Washington Nationals used throughout much of this year’s MLB season.

Quantum 5X President Allen Kool says the need to enhance the viewer experience is driving the trend to wire more players, and that’s driving microphone R&D. “The challenge is to create microphone and transmitter designs that the players are comfortable with and that are safe for them to use,” he says. And extending control of the audio beyond the player and into the hands of justifiably nervous league officials, the company’s new RefSwitch “pop-less” wireless on/off control works up to 75 ft. away from the base station.

It’s a burgeoning sector that microphone makers are eyeing. The SM Series is Lectrosonics’ entry into the market, used by NFL Films and developed for both sports and theatrical applications. “Both markets have similar needs: the mic needs to be very small, comfortable, resistant to sweat and heat but still have a strong transmission signal,” says Karl Winkler, director of business development at Lectrosonics. “The important thing for sports is that there’s no potential for injury from wearing a microphone if the player falls on it.”

The company’s Super-Miniature Digital Hybrid Wireless UHF beltpack transmitters are variable with outputs between 100 mW and 250 mW. “We find that 100 mW seems to do the trick most of the time,” Winkler says, “but, as distances increase, the extra power is there if needed.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the trend is being mimicked down the sports ladder. The Quantum 5X’s dealer in Illinois has sent several demo units to area universities and high school football teams, including the Libertyville High School Wildcats.

But, as the notion of wiring players for sound grows in popularity with fans, it’s also counterbalanced by justifiable concerns on the part of the leagues and, by extension, college and secondary-school athletic organizations.

“Technically, it’s easier than ever to mic athletes,” says Phil Adler, who mixes NFL and other sports for CBS. But, when it comes to access to those mics by the networks, he cautions, “As long as there’s a governing body or league in charge of the sport, you’ll never hear those mics live. Those days are long gone. Everyone is sensitive about trash talk and inappropriate behavior making air, not to mention secret play calls, [so] those ‘sounds of the game’ segments are recorded, screened, and edited before broadcast, even if it happened a few minutes before.”

The NFL has reportedly encrypted the RF signal of the mics on their players this season.

Adler points out that the goodwill between the networks and the teams they cover can be damaged if something gets out that is embarrassing. “When that happens, the broadcaster could lose access to players, coaches, and inside information that really is value-add [to viewers], and hearing players on the field just isn’t worth that kind of risk,” he says. “As much as player mics may be flavorful, it’s a spice that is very carefully applied.”