Broadcast Sound Gets Its Due at AES 2013

As AES Shows go, the 2013 edition, which took place at New York’s Javits Center Oct. 17-20, was one of the better ones of late. Attendance was reported up — preliminary numbers indicate 18,000 attendees over the first three days — at a time when pro-audio revenues have declined as digital technology reduces costs and the industry’s main engine — music recording — continues to be battered.

Loudness Still an Issue
But broadcast audio remains a bright spot for the business. Thursday’s Loudness Control for Radio and Internet Streaming session showed how far the loudness issue, which culminated in last year’s CALM Act in the U.S., has impacted broadcast sound around the world. Frank Foti of the Telos Alliance pointed out that, despite the standards that have emerged around the issue — ATSC A/85 in the U.S. and EBU R128, both largely based on the ITU’s BS.1770-2 standard — problems remain for radio and streaming, which weren’t directly addressed by these technical standards.

“It’s a new ballgame but with the old suspects,” he said of loudness problems in those media. He cited such issues as commercials inserted downstream of programmed content and creating unpredictable volume levels.

Foti also represents a not-small international contingent that maintains that, although the CALM Act has brought improvements to broadcast audio by imposing measurement standards (and penalties), it stops short of fully addressing the problem for all media. “There’s room for improvement,” he said, also suggesting that market-based solutions will create better results than more legislation will.

Systems inventor Robert Orban cautioned that loudness can engender listener fatigue on radio. That’s important to address, he said, “because radio is still the big driver” for most of broadcasting, including sports.

DTV Audio Group Confab
At the DTV Audio Group’s Friday-afternoon event, Turner Sports VP of Operations and Technology and Sports Video Group Chairman Tom Sahara opined in his keynote that mobile is going to be a huge driver for sports broadcasting. He cited statistics indicating that mobile video will constitute a full two-thirds of all video consumption by 2017, with a third of all online sports content available on mobile platforms. Audio will benefit from adaptive-streaming codecs and spatial audio object coding, which Sahara predicted will make surround sound feasible on personal mobile devices, techniques Turner Sports already uses to some extent for its online NBA and NASCAR streaming.

However, he cautioned, bandwidth will need to double by 2020 to accommodate all of this new content consumption and meet heightened demand. The bottom line, he said, is simply that the industry will need more spectrum. And, despite continued auctioning off of that spectrum by the federal government, Sahara maintained, “We are at a crossroads where we can really influence how the future unrolls in the U.S. [regarding spectrum allocation]. We need to be more proactive in planning for that.”

On a subsequent panel, Shure’s Mark Brunner provided a recap of the evolution of spectrum allocation over the past 15 years, through the declaration of the White Spaces in 2009 and the establishment of mechanisms, such as geolocation databases, to deal with diminishing availability. He also cited work being done by wireless-microphone manufacturers to wring more use out of what’s left in the ether for audio.

However, ESPN’s Jeff Willis acknowledged that “we have to face the fact that, at some point, there will be no UHF band left in many areas. … We’re going to have to depend on manufacturers to find new ways to use wireless mics, wireless IFBs, IEMs and so on.”

Sennheiser’s Joe Ciaudelli pointed out that some manufacturers are rising to that challenge, with such developments as smaller, more efficient RF antennas.

Henry Cohen, senior RF design engineer, CP Communications, punctuated that by noting that nearly half of ESPN’s 3,200 broadcast events each year use wireless audio systems with as many as 575 systems used on a single weekend this year. “We’re down to 13 [UHF RF] channels by the end of this year,” he said, “and we have to share them with other broadcasters.”

ESPN’s audio guru Kevin Cleary sardonically reminded the audience that the spectrum once taken for granted by broadcasters is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to its new consumer-oriented owners, money that even sports broadcasters can’t compete with. “We can’t bid for any of that, and yes, it can go away,” he said.

He also mentioned for the first time publicly that some networks, RF vendors, and manufacturers are participating in informal conference calls to discuss strategies and tactics for addressing disappearing spectrum. “We’re trying to shape our own future and trying to cohabitate with other users.”

Dolby Laboratories Senior Platform Engineer Nicholas Tsingos outlined Dolby’s AC-4 codec Atmos many-channel surround format, noting that object-based audio is now applicable for postproduction; it made its debut in several high-profile films this year. And underscoring what may become the next big buzzword in consumer and broadcast sound, he said object-based audio in general and Atmos in particular are the tools for the “personalization” of sound: the ability to let metadata customize the playback experience of multichannel sound for a wide array of platforms, environments, and tastes.

As the discussion of multichannel sound progressed, Cleary reminded the audience that “stereo is still a formidable contender” when it comes to sports broadcasting: “It sounds good and is all most consumers need or care about.” He added that going beyond 5.1 surround for live production will mean that OB trucks will need to be configured accordingly, which network budgets may not be ready to OK. “Who pays for the extra speakers?” he asked, only half jokingly.

Hardys Eggum, VP, media technology, HBO, responded that audio for entertainment of all types has to follow where consumers lead. “At some point, [marketplace] competition kicks in.”

Sahara added that metadata can be used to manage even the 22-channel arrays that Atmos calls for. NBCU director/Principal Audio Engineer Jim Starzinski observed that the real issues for many-channel sound will be in the production and postproduction workflow.

Brazil Arena Sound
On the panel Assuring High Quality Speech Intelligibility for Sports Events in Stadiums, three acoustical designers from Walters-Storyk Design Group discussed key issues for stadium audio: speech intelligibility, which John Storyk asserted is more critical than the frequency response of the system for sports events, and uniform sound coverage, which is critical to meeting FIFA rules and regulations.

The WSDG designers described the three major Brazilian stadium projects they’ve been working on in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. The Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte was completed last year and has already hosted Paul McCartney and will host the 2014 World Cup. Renovations on Independencia, Brazil’s largest stadium and also in Belo Horizonte, are approaching completion. Renovation of the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro will be completed later this year.

WSDG Brazil is tasked with designing the acoustics and the complete audio and video systems for all three stadiums. Key areas included analysis of requirements involved in design of stadium sound systems, including frequency response, target STL and STI values, coverage (SPL distribution), zoning, architectural and structural integration, and redundancy.

The focus has been on Brazil as both the World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics loom, but WSDG’s Sergio Molho pointed out that FIFA is planning to move more events into the Middle East and Africa in coming decades. “The regulations and requirements in Brazil changed often and sometimes radically” as the work on the venues there progressed, he said. “I expect that to continue to happen in other parts of the world in the future.”