Audio Workshop Puts Surround Sound Front and Center

The Sports Video Goup’s Audio Operations Workshop that took place on Dec. 13, part of SVG’s League Technology Summit (Dec. 13-14 at the Dolby Theatre and the New York Hilton), was a lot like sports in winter: subject to the weather. A massive Midwest snowstorm snarled air traffic, stranding a few of the audio mixers and executives scheduled to participate in SVG’s full day of panels. But most made it and close to a full house were engaged in a lively discussion on key challenges and issues facing broadcast sport sound.
Roger Charlesworth, executive director of the DTV Audio Group and co-developer of the Audio Operations Workshop’s agenda, set the tone when he described the industry’s transition from stereo to 5.1 Surround as experiencing “the turbulence of two formats at once.”
Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology for Turner Sports, amplified that theme, adding that the legacy stereo workflow could only give way to a streamlined 5.1 workflow methodology if the industry tackled it in a unified fashion. He stressed developing a common infrastructure that supports multiple 5.1 streams, is universally accepted and has the backing of both broadcasters and manufacturers.
Sahara indentified a stumbling block to this in the form of the current generation of remote broadcast trucks – the vast majority of which are rigged for stereo – that are halfway through their approximate 10-year working lifespans and thus close to fully amortized and turning profits. That’s not a point at which most broadcasters are inclined to sink additional capital into them to upgrade key audio equipment, such as larger, integrated routers that can support more embedded audio streams.
The point, Sahara said, is that the infrastructure has to catch up with the reality that much of the world is in 5.1, whether they like it or not (To underscore that point, NBCU’s Jim Starzynski later noted that three quarters of his net’s prime-time programming is now in 5.1).
The budgets for retooling may be tight but Jason Taubman, VP of design and new technology for truck builder Game Creek Video, made a strong point when he declared that new technology could save money as well as cost it. He noted that Game Creek’s new Dynasty truck was able to shed literally a ton of weight thanks to an advanced Evertz EMR router that required significantly less cabling, as well as a heavily MADI-capable Calrec Alpha console.
Greg Curry, senior audio engineer at the YES Network, reminded the audience that trucks have finite amounts of space for equipment and that 5.1 surround has added the need for more speakers for audio monitoring. “So many clients want the video monitor to be placed exactly where you want the center channel speaker to be,” he said. “That’s why moving to embedded audio is so important – it will free up space for better speaker placement.”
Jean-Paul Moerman, international projects and applications manager for Salzbrenner Stagetec Media Group, put some international context to the day by discussing how European broadcasters have moved away from copper and to fiber-optic cabling at a much greater rate than in the States. The example of the EuroStar Song competition broadcast wasn’t exactly a sports event, but the way the combination of fiber and a 64,000-I/O router capability enabled audio to move over up to 50 miles of cable holding up to 396 channels of discrete audio and seamlessly move from event to event during the show would be happily applied to sprawling events over here. “Digital crosspoints also allow for much simpler resetting of the system between events,” he said.
During a presentation on key points of the C.A.L.M Act, now on its way to President Obama’s desk for signature and which would regulate relative volumes of commercials versus program audio, NBC Universal principal engineer and audio architect Jim Starzynski pointed out that, among other things, the legislation gives the FCC some measure of control over audio on cable for the first time. Starzynski stressed that C.A.L.M puts the emphasis on level management further upstream in the workflow. “It gets dealt with at the commercial ingest point,” he said. “We don’t want stations automatically putting on conventional processing on the final stage. That would be suicide. We’d be back where we started with NTSC .”
Other panels and presentations included Fox EVP operations and engineering Richard Friedel discussing the strategic importance of working cooperatively to create the infrastructure needed to manage demand for 5.1. And a lengthy and lively extended panel featuring mixers Greg Curry and Phil Adler, as well as ESPN senior technical audio producer Kevin Cleary and NBC Olympics audio guru Bob Dixon broke the “fourth wall” and created a two-way dialog directly with the audience about topics ranging from microphone choices (or lack thereof), acoustical design of remote truck audio areas and the fact that much of the sports audio infrastructure is freelance and the training and consistency issues that arise from that.
It was, in a very real sense, its own kind of surround sound.