Surround Microphones Seek Greater Acceptance

The dedicated surround microphone occupies a unique niche in pro audio in general and sports broadcasting in particular. Somewhat exotic, technically sophisticated, relatively expensive, attractively complex yet seductively suggesting a simple solution for what has become a significant differentiator for competing networks, the surround mic remains relatively rare on sports shows, more often brought in by entrepreneurial freelance A1s than specified for a truck’s microphone complement.

That may be changing.

Holophone CEO Jonathan Godfrey says he’s seeing more network interest in the dedicated surround microphone. Without specifying which ones, he notes that, over the past six months, two major networks have been demonstrating his company’s H2 and H4 multichannel microphones.

“In the near term, the way that these kinds of microphones will find their way into sports broadcasts is the same, usually through freelancers who invest in them and rent them to their clients,” he says. “But there has also been interest expressed on the part of the major networks. I’d say that a greater level of engagement is imminent.”

This heightened interest, Godfrey adds, stems from the increasing ubiquity of discrete 5.1 surround on sports shows and the networks’ goal to standardize how they achieve it.

DPA Microphones also experienced more interest from sports broadcasters, including ESPN, in the past year, according to Sales and Marketing Coordinator James Capparelle. Some of that, he says, is driven by the $3,300 price point of DPA’s 5100 mobile surround microphone, which is less than half the cost of most competing products in the market.

However, he adds, inertia still tends to work against wider uptake of dedicated microphones. “We spend time at trade shows talking to the networks about this, and the interest is there, even a bit more than in the past, but they also tend to be set in their ways when it comes to how they approach surround.”

That’s not surprising since those ways have been working quite well, using conventional mono and stereo microphones and techniques. The way Phil Adler, mixer for the NFL on CBS, uses various microphones to construct his surround sound fields underscores this. In a typical NFL stadium, he says, “with a single surround microphone, you’re capturing ambience from one location. Multiple mics capture samples from all over the large stadium for different crowd reactions, different PA slapback, and so on. If one fan near a mic is whistling, blowing a horn, I can dump it and favor another. Same for equipment failure. For my shows, multiple mic placement and type — a combination of wide cardioid, shotgun, and stereo X/Y most of the time — make for a more flexible and interesting ambient mix. A single microphone location locks you in.”

If major networks are looking more closely at dedicated surround microphones, they’re likely doing so on an ad hoc basis rather than strategically. ESPN has no policy in place to consider acquisition of surround microphones, according to Coordinating Technical Manager Henry Rousseau, adding that the network continues to instruct its A1s to create surround-sound fields using individual microphone elements and processing them through systems like the DaySequerra Mono2Stereo Intelligent DTS-Neural mono-to-stereo broadcast-audio converter. But, he adds, the door remains open to incorporating such microphones into ESPN’s workflow: “I’d never say no.”

Fred Aldous, audio consultant and senior mixer, Fox Sports, is similarly open-minded on the subject. “As far as I know, we are not in testing mode at this time,” he says in an e-mail, “[but] that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t test something that absolutely blows my socks off.”

Deeper penetration of dedicated surround microphones continues to be challenged by high costs and entrenched methodologies. The great diversity of sports in the U.S. may also work against greater uptake of dedicated surround microphones. Unlike in soccer-saturated Europe, where the football stadiums are relatively uniform and wide shots — often the best context for surround microphones — are more common, many new stadiums and arenas in the U.S. are so architecturally distinct from each other that placement of these kinds of microphones, which is critical to their optimization, requires more experimentation in each venue than hard-pressed A1s have time for. But surround-microphone manufacturers are today voicing more optimism about their products becoming more widely used tools in sports broadcasting. It’s likely not misplaced hope: there will be more, not less, multichannel audio in sports going forward.