Tech Focus: Remote Audio Monitoring, Part 1

A little speaker goes a long way in big TV sound

Remote-production trucks are shrinking, and the form factors for the speakers used in them are being reduced commensurately. And this is all in support of bigger sound on television.

“We’re constantly being asked to build smaller speakers,” reports Chris Fichera, VP, audio, Group One, distributor of the Blue Sky speaker brand, which has been specified for a number of trucks designed for ESPN by truck builder NEP. “It’s a space issue and a weight issue, certainly,” he explains, “but it’s also the fact that new-generation trucks are getting smaller and that the audio compartments on even the larger trucks are also getting smaller. So they’re asking for smaller speakers.”

Because of that and because content producers are increasingly looking to smaller, Sprinter-type vans for broader coverage of smaller sports events and are shipping more flypacks to event locations, Blue Sky is responding with a new speaker model, expected to be available early next year, that will be more compact than its current, 13- x 8- x 11.75-in. SAT 6.

Other companies are doing the same. Genelec, whose self-powered speakers are widely regarded as the market leader for production trucks, this year introduced its 8320A model, which, at 9.5 x 6 x 5.625 in., could nearly fit into a Manhattan apartment mailbox. According to Genelec Marketing Director Will Eggleston, that model and the slightly larger 8330 were developed for the downsized OB trucks. But, he says, the real challenge was doing so while still integrating some of the recent technology advances in audio monitors.

These advances include automatic calibration of speaker response to the environments they’re used in. The 8320 incorporates Genelec’s Loudspeaker Manager (GLM) control network and software, allowing monitor-settings adjustment and full system control, and its AutoCal, which automatically aligns the monitor’s level, timing, and EQ to accommodate room response anomalies.

“Small spaces are very difficult to align objectively, and they get more difficult as they get smaller,” says Eggleston. “Speakers have to be set up at all different distances [in an audio compartment], and it’s hard to figure out how to get them all to arrive at the same point in space at the same time. Every speaker is going into an unknown environment, and trucks are especially unpredictable. Fortunately, we have better tools to do that now, and we can integrate them into the speakers.”

Blue Sky’s Audio Management Controller (AMC), introduced this year, can be used with more than the company’s own speakers, says Fichera, and will also be compatible with its smaller speakers due out next year. At a cost of $3,000 for the system, he adds, it addresses the necessity of small-room acoustical measurement that tends to get overlooked in OB environments. “The idea of properly measuring these kinds of environments has gained real legitimacy very quickly. That’s because it can make a huge difference in creating an accurate monitoring environment.”

Measuring 10.5 x 5.875 x 8.125 in. and shipping now, the new 7 Series speakers are JBL’s entry into downsized mobile audio. Peter Chaikin, senior manager, recording and broadcast products, JBL, says the speakers were developed with broadcast and evolving OB-truck design in mind.

“The problem has always been that smaller speakers meant lower output and limited bandwidth,” he explains. “But the audio-monitoring environment in trucks needs to be smaller but also has maintain the quality of sound you’d get in a studio. So we set out to [meet] these divergent goals.”

The conflict has been resolved, Chaikin says, with patented transducer and acoustic technologies from JBL’s flagship M2 reference monitor, along with central power from Crown DCi 8|300N eight- and four-channel power amplifiers with internal DSP and room EQ that allows the speaker enclosures themselves to be smaller. (Blue Sky speakers also are passive; Genelec speakers, most incorporating an integrated amplifier, address that issue with smaller Class D amplifiers.) The 7 Series speakers reproduce accurately to 30 Hz, which obviates a sub, says Chaikin.

All three companies see monitoring for remote production at an inflection point, with object-based audio and new multichannel formats on the horizon. They see smaller form factors and footprints as the physical response to this and software-based solutions as the way to address such issues as time-aligned sound arrival in disparate environments and to deal with the AoIP signal transport that will inevitably make its way from plant to truck.

The landscape is reminiscent of the migration from analog to digital consoles, when the shift from fully tactile work surfaces to virtual layered ones opened up that OB market to a wider array of vendors. Where this competition will be different, however, is that, whatever brand or type of speaker is used, one thing is sure: there will be a lot more of them in every truck.

Click here for Tech Focus: Remote Audio Monitoring, Part 2.