Olympics Audio: Wider, Better, More

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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The National Swimming Center

The National Swimming Center

It goes without saying that televising the Olympics — winter or summer — is a mammoth undertaking, and the complexity of the job has only increased as more and more programming is offered not just on network TV, but also through cable and the Internet, as well as increasingly presented in HD and surround. For this month's games in Beijing, NBC Universal is promising more than 1,200 hours of coverage across its network and cable stations, plus another 3,500 hours of live streams, rebroadcasts and highlight packages through its www.nbcolympics.com Web hub.

That's a whole lot of video — and, of course, there has to be audio to go with it. To get an idea of some of the challenges of televising the games from an audio perspective, we contacted two longtime veterans of NBC's Olympic coverage, both of whom were busy making preparations for the early August launch of the Beijing Games: Jim Starzynski, principal engineer and audio architect of NBC Universal Advanced Engineering in New York (aka, “30 Rock” for its Rockefeller Plaza address), and Bob Dixon, director of sound design and communications for NBC Olympics, who is on the ground in China in charge of coordinating the audio coverage there. Dixon, who's been designing sound coverage for the Summer Games since 1988 (in Seoul), says it takes up to two years to design the audio end of the Olympics coverage, “and after you get there, you need to go to each site and adjust plans to fit reality. The planning required is huge and filled with detail.”


Asked whether anything he learned from working the Athens 2004 (summer) and Turin 2006 (winter) games affected the approach to the Beijing coverage, Dixon replies, “I was not happy with trying to make two channels sound like six. This time, we will be able to transmit six discrete channels from each venue when it's live and send it directly to our 5.1-equipped home audiences, as long as their local stations are equipped to deal with 5.1; not all are. Now there are times when we have to upmix — for example, if something has been recorded and edited. Our infrastructure still has a lot of hardware that can't interface with 5.1 so we do a manual downmix to 2-channel at the same time we're doing our 5.1. We do it manually to tailor and preserve as much as possible the openness of the stereo. The more noncorrelated the 2-mix, the more an upmixer can do with it. This time, we're trying out the Linear Acoustic UpMax Neo for the upmix and that will happen as the piece gets played out to air.

“I've also concluded that microphones need to be delivering noncorrelated signals if you want an upmix to sound alive and spread out,” he continues. “Any matrix upmixing device will deliver identical signals in the left and right channels to the center-channel output. That can very quickly become a pretty big lump of sound.”

Meanwhile, on the New York end, Starzynski adds, “The Beijing games will be the first opportunity that we have to go with discrete audio distribution for the backhaul signal from the International Broadcast Center [IBC] in China to the Broadcast Operations Center [BOC] at 30 Rock in New York City. Our current plan is to use new transport-stream-encoding technology that accepts and encodes an HD-SDI [serial-digital interface] signal with video and data, and up to 12 channels of discrete embedded audio. The integrated receiver/decoder that is receiving the signal at the network in New York City hands off exactly the same HD-SDI signal for integration into plant distribution. This moves us from previous systems that used multiple devices to transport the video, data and multichannel audio, and streamlines what can otherwise be a complicated process.”


As for the on-site audio production for the multitude of Olympic events, Dixon notes, “We have seven sites with production facilities: athletics [track and field, ceremonies], gymnastics, aquatics [swimming and diving], beach volleyball, boxing, basketball and volleyball. All of these sites have digital audio consoles. Some venues get two when we have someone mixing sound effects and iso record mixes, and the other console does the main show mix. We also have five other locations where the audio mixing is on a much smaller scale. However, a 5.1 mix is available at every venue, so if it's live, it can go ‘home’ with discrete surround audio.”

In the recent past, the Calrec Q2 has been the top-of-the-line on-site mixing console of choice, but for these games they've moved to a more compact Calrec Bluefin Omega because, “We can't have remote trucks here in China like we would normally,” Dixon explains. “Those trucks have huge, beautiful consoles that let a sound mixer feel anything is possible, but the cost of transportation and paying for them while they're on the boat made it unfeasible. So we are using fly-packs everywhere. Some are from NEP Visions in England, one is from Bexel in the U.S. and several were designed and built by NBC Olympics. The size and power of a Bluefin Omega is a dream just made for these limitations. Their chief limitations are the number of faders one can have, so for our biggest venues we gave them two each. But the feature set has everything we're accustomed to having in our biggest remote trucks: having 5.1 inputs on one fader with spill panels to adjust the balance of the stems, and spill panels to enable a simultaneous stereo mixdown. Also, things like 5.1 monitoring with lots of internal and external 5.1 sources. I am very impressed with what Calrec has been able to do in a console of this size.” How many inputs might an event require? “In the past, we had consoles with 128 stereo analog inputs on Calrec Q2 consoles and they were filled, and we even had smaller consoles feeding submixes into them.”

Dixon says that for the smaller-scaled locations, DiGiCo DS-00 desks will suffice: “Our small venues used to be happy with 11 mono inputs and three stereo inputs,” he says, “but HD and surround have exploded the requirements for audio, even if we kept to the same number of elements, which, of course, we haven't. We've added more recording devices and more cameras with stereo microphones on them. But it's still a smaller event with a smaller budget and smaller amount of space to do it in. Trying to find something in between the Omega and the small digital consoles that aren't appropriate for television in 5.1 has not been easy, but DiGiCo was very proactive in trying to fill that gap for us. They have a usable number of inputs and outputs, they can monitor internal and external 5.1 signals, they have the build and sound quality, and the price point is very affordable.”

Queried whether the various mixers follow certain approaches to guarantee some sort of sonic consistency to the mixes, Dixon answers, “I have developed guidelines that they must keep in mind as they mix — ambience techniques, keeping things open and separate, not using limiters to do the mix, those kind of issues. But each mixer is quite experienced, and they do live sports for television for a living as freelancers. This is a very professional group experienced in surround coverage.”

Most of the technical setup is being done by people who have worked the Olympics for NBC before — contractors from the U.S., Canada and England mostly — “but we also employ a great deal of local help,” Dixon adds. “We are blessed in Beijing with a lot of local help that's smart and hard-working.”

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