Olympics Audio: Wider, Better, More

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



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Asked about the intricacies of scoping out a given sport site for audio, Dixon says, “It isn't very different from miking a drum kit, a piano or a stage filled with tap dancers. We have to know each sport intimately — what's involved and what does that involvement ‘sound like’? Once you can identify the type of sound involved and how that sound is made, you look at where you can get away with putting microphones. Will the International Olympic Committee allow us to put a microphone very close to the source of the sound if we make it invisible to the eye and to feet that might trip over cables? Or will they say we can't get any closer than 8, 10 or 50 feet?

“For the Winter Games, there are a lot more long-distance sound pickups required,” he continues. “People skiing down a mountain need a lot of microphone operators pointing a lot of shotgun microphones over a very big area. Sounds of the Winter Games have a lot of scraping — edges of skis, edges of ice skate blades, edges of sled runners, curling rocks sliding on the ice. The Summer Games have a lot of footfalls, races, jumps, landings, springs from vaults, diving boards. All these require different techniques. You have to know your microphones: What do they do well? How will they work on capturing this kind of sound from that distance?

“Consider the issue of a 5.1 ambience from an outdoor stadium. The ambience in this case is mostly the sound of the crowd in a very big, open space. We don't want to mike individuals; we want the sound of a large group. However, we want to preserve the transients of handclaps and have the identifiable sound of a group shouting in unison. We don't want a bunch of P.A. in this signal either. You have to calculate that you need to have different sounds coming from five different speakers. Using lots of mics is not my favorite thing to do; I think it destroys clarity. But a great directional mic can be suspended with its back to the P.A. speakers and give a nice representation of the sound of a crowd. Do this five times from five different places, and you can get a great foundation for your show mix.

“Sometimes we mike different segments of the audience for their response to a sport happening right in front of them. As examples, athletics, gymnastics and wrestling have several competitions going on at the same time. So we would mike the audience right in that area as a sweetening to the coverage of that competition. We're using Audio-Technica 4050s at each venue to do this. This gives us the same type of sound from each venue, and I think they are terrific in their openness, clarity, transient response — all the things I want from a high-quality microphone on a job like this.”


Even though 5.1 mixes for all events will be delivered from Beijing, Starzynski assures, “We are also paying close attention to the 2-channel downmixed version of our surround sound audio, as this feeds analog standard-definition stereo viewers, still our largest audience. The network's standard-definition downmix will be set to Lo-Ro [stereo only] to create the absolute best stereo sound with much attention paid to the return monitoring feed at the main commercial control mixing console in Studio 6A in New York. Mix engineers in China and New York are well aware of the importance of this soundtrack and will be monitoring it most of the time, in addition to frequent checks of the discrete 5.1 for the DTV service and analog and digital air checks of WNBC and WNBC-DT, our station in New York City. We are also paying close attention to maintain a -23dBFS average loudness for the broadcast. Both Beijing and Stateside engineers will make adjustments as needed to create great sound for both SD and HD.” All programming that goes out in stereo only will also have a 5.1 counterpart soundtrack that's printed on an archival HDCAM-SR videotape should the need arise for surround coverage on that event at some other point. The archiving and repurposing of many feeds to cover promos and feature packages — often involving post sweetening — is handled at 30 Rock.

Starzynski describes the signal chain for a typical event at the Beijing games: “In China, the venue creates audio/video at the event location and sends this via HD-SDI communications hard-line to the IBC. The IBC receives, processes, routes, mixes and ultimately releases this signal via satellite using an MPEG transport stream to NBCU headquarters at 30 Rock. BOC in New York City receives and properly routes the signal to a specific control room assigned to do commercial or release control for that event.

“For commercial control for HD on the DTV network, event and commercial sources are each assigned a separate 5.1 fader on the mix desk and an engineer is responsible for monitoring the signals and timing of the crossfades between sources,” Starzynski continues. “If there's a concern with the delivered audio, the New York control room contacts the IBC in China asking for a fix to the problem at the point of origin. The output of this room feeds HD distribution and a downmix feeds the Lo-Ro signal to SD distribution.

“BOC then creates multiple time zone feeds on separate distribution channels for HD and SD: The SD signal remains stereo and is distributed digitally to our SD TV stations. Those stations apply processing as necessary to handle dynamics limitations in analog transmission. Each station accomplishes this differently.

“For HD,” Starzynski continues, “the audio signal is demuxed from HD-SDI to AES-3id in BOC for both stereo and 5.1 stations. For 5.1 stations, it's applied as discrete L/R, C, LFE, Ls, Rs and audio metadata to the satellite encoder. Stereo stations receive a downmix of the 5.1. The DTV stations take the appropriate feed and integrate it in their HD distribution system locally. The audio is ultimately applied to the DTV audio encoder. Surround-capable stations use the network metadata that's matched properly for loudness and dynamics, and transmit it with the audio to the audience to control home receivers with the network program. Stereo DTV stations send the downmixed network audio to the home, along with metadata chosen and distributed by the station. In the end, the audience receives a high-quality, highly produced 5.1 or stereo digital soundtrack of this world-class event with absolute minimal dynamics processing and consistent loudness.”

Complex stuff, to be sure. So when you hear a 350-pound Bulgarian grunting as he throws the shot put, appreciate not just the effort the athlete has made to hurl that 16-pound metal ball more than 70 feet, but also the precision team of audio pros and high-tech gear required to deliver that grunt to your living room!

Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.

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