The Sound of Curling: NBC’s Malone Discusses Rock-Solid Audio Transport

As a sport, curling dates back to the early 16th century, and the pace and strategizing of “chess on ice,” as it has been dubbed, have remained relatively unchanged since then. But at the Sochi Olympics, one aspect of it got a lot speedier.

Karl Malone, in his first Olympics broadcast as NBC director of sound design, a role he took on after Bob Dixon retired last year, lauds the faster transmission times for audio, which allowed video and an international soundtrack to be sent from Russia to NBC Sports Group’s Stamford, CT, operations center. There, new announce audio was created for the curling events and embedded, then shipped back to Sochi for retransmission to NBC television networks and online streams, effectively defying the nine-hour time differential between Sochi and Stamford.

“It’s amazing what we can do now with fast transmission lines,” said Malone, who also designed commentary systems for the Sochi Olympics, a role he had played for the London, Vancouver, Beijing, and Athens Games.

In a detailed e-mail during the Sochi Games, he laid out what went on for one of the Olympics’ most arcane events. Stamford is one of six broadcast facilities — the others are in Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Dry Creek, CO; Burbank, CA; Hialeah, FL (Telemundo); and New York City’s Rockefeller Center — that the network dedicated to Olympics coverage and is the one where the curling announce crew of Fred Roggin, Kevin Martin, and Pete Fenson were based.

“Curling is both an NBC Sochi and an NBC@Home production,” Malone explained. “We have announcers in both countries calling individual sheets [curling’s rectangular ice-covered field of play] to either one of the NBC networks or to our online streams. We have announcers in Stamford call a live curling sheet, we send them with international sound, and they voice it, and it comes back to us in Sochi for transmission on CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, or NBCSN [NBC Sports Network].”

There were four individual curling sheets at the Sochi curling venue, which the host broadcaster covered with four individual production- and sound-control rooms each equipped with a Lawo mc56 console connected via fiber to individual Dallis stage boxes. These stage boxes were assigned to their respective sheets and provided inputs to the console router of the field-of-play (FOP) microphones. There were 10 Audio-Technica lavaliere mics along the individual sheets, hidden at floor level in the soft boundary surrounding the sheet. All curling teams were miked with RF lavalieres to pick up the instruction and tactical talk among team members. And 5.1-surround crowd mics were shared among the four audio consoles, since the position of the crowd didn’t change in relation to the four sheets.

Malone noted that all handheld cameras as well as jibs had shotgun mics attached. The host broadcaster provided NBC with a mix of 5.1-surround crowd sound, athlete lavs, and the FOP sounds of the stone moving down the sheet, as well as a discrete LFE channel specifically to capture the sound of contact between stones.

“NBC has a commentary position utilizing a Tieline [Commander] G3 that transmits via IP codec,” Malone said. “It is part of what NBC calls a ‘pureworld with camera’ system, where we have a Tieline G3 plus a camera for on-camera pieces plus a camera drop in the mix zone for interviews and another standup position for what is referred to as ‘the 5th end break.’ We utilized a Livelink — a remote camera interface system to get the camera [feed] to the NBC Technical Operations Center (TOC) in the broadcast compound — as well as an in-sync audio output of the Tieline G3 for the on camera and also four-wire comms for a stage manager via RVON [RTS (Request to Send) Voice Over Network] from the TOC. These are quite complex little venues where we try to do as much as we can and push the equipment to offer us as much as it can give without having to bring in racks of equipment.

“This NBC commentary,” he continued, “is mapped in the IBC along with the host 5.1-surround mix to give us a complete audio-production workflow. All four Pureworld venues go through our NBC Pureworld ‘factory’ in the IBC, where there are four producer rooms, where producers coordinate with the talent at the venue as well as choose the camera feeds to send through to the live NBC control room for air. There is a Pureworld technical hub with an A1 who monitors, adjusts, coordinates, and generally ensures that the feeds get on-air cleanly and efficiently.”

Commentary Over Fiber
As for the migration from copper cabling to fiber for these Games, Malone said the reasons behind it were clear and compelling: “One was that the general length of [cable] runs between the compounds and announce/studio areas necessitated a different approach to point-to-point connections, and also the potential noise issues with copper in generally wet conditions made a fiber approach more attractive.” Copper also requires extra line amps and links to get the audio where it needs to be, he added, noting that fiber is substantially lighter, which reduces shipping costs (there was a reported 192 miles of fiber-optic cable at NBC’s compound in Sochi).

He said NBC used the Roland S-4000 fiber snake system, which had been deployed for previous Olympics and was, in his words, “extremely solid.” The system was also used at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the Sheyba and Bolshoi hockey venues and for figure skating.

“These systems were primarily used at our bigger venues with studios, where we needed a larger amount of facilities,” he said. “These roll-around fiber racks are also outfitted with Studio Technologies Model 46 interfaces, which allowed us to input four-wire communications at the truck end and ‘wet’ the pairs at the booth/studio end for RTS two-wire beltpacks, as well as Model 42s to wet the IFBs. We still have a need for some copper DT interconnects, but the amount required has vastly reduced from previous games. There is also an environmentally conscious element to reducing any requirement for copper.

“For commentary,” he continued, “we worked with Bill Lance from Lance Design to develop fiber commentary systems for most of NBC’s Olympic venues. The Lance ADX range is an Ethernet/fiber-based audio-transmission system using CobraNet networking technology and is full-bandwidth, low-latency via standard Ethernet media. The system is fully redundant, having both primary and secondary ports as well as our request for primary and secondary network switches. The Lance commentary systems made a big impact on the quality and consistency of NBC commentary audio and were lauded by NBC audio engineers and announcers alike.”

The Sochi Olympics, which closed Sunday, took surround and effects sound — key elements in immersive sports-broadcast audio — to another plane, said Malone, adding that he was “very happy with the quality of sound NBC achieved both in the general 5.1 ambience and field-of-play effects [and] also in the quality and consistency of commentary audio. That’s exciting for the future.”