A Variety of Motives Spur Broadcast-Audio Education Initiatives
Once upon a time, you learned about broadcast audio the same way you learned about sex: you figured it out as you went along. But that has been changing considerably in the past several years.
Manufacturers have been stepping up their training efforts; console suppliers in particular having been doing so as part of a market-expansion strategy, to familiarize a wider range of the freelance pool with their products. For-profit schools like Full Sail and Art Institute have added and expanded course offerings that focus specifically on broadcast sound, increasingly with an emphasis on sports audio and mixing. And the DTV Audio Group and a trio of network sports divisions are set to launch an initiative that will bring online learning and certification to the freelance-mixer base.
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Sennheiser’s four-year-old Sound Academy program is characteristic of the new wave of broadcast-audio education in that it was sparked by a global technology shift.
Director of Advanced Projects and Engineering Services Joe Ciaudelli, who oversees the program, explains: “Suddenly, it was about to become more challenging to operate multichannel wireless microphone systems. You used to be able to take a wireless out of the box, and it just worked. Now, with spectrum reallocation and the While Spaces issue, you need to get best practices together. That was our first course.”
Since then, Sound Academy has added modules for recording and postproduction, encompassing use of shotgun and lavaliere microphones.
Sennheiser has also launched a mentor program that pairs promising students in professional audio-education programs with a veteran sports mixer. For example, David Polster, a music production major in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University in Athens, observed Fox Sports audio consultant and senior mixer Fred Aldous at work on the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, NC, last May. Other mentors in the program have included A1 Randy Flick during a live HBO boxing event at the Foxwoods Resort Casino and A1 Phil Adler during a live broadcast of the Raiders-49ers NFL game in October.
Training programs have the collateral benefit of broadening the skill sets of the freelance-engineer pool, particularly when fiber transport and digital routing are added.
For example, last year, Stagetec opened an office in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, an audio-rich locale that has a reported 60 recording studios in less than 3 square miles. Operators are invited to become familiar with Stagetec work surfaces there and at seminars the company holds on customer sites.
Stagetec USA President Rusty Waite says audio training has gotten better in recent years but still lags behind Europe’s, particularly when it comes to fiber-based systems.
“There is a freelance pool of A1s in Europe, too,” he points out, “but they tend to have come from the ranks of state broadcasters, which stress the fundamentals and give them wider experience: the same OB van will do a sports event in the morning and a music show that same night. They have also embraced fiber for transport, which is happening more slowly here.”
Console manufacturer Lawo is in the planning stages of a national training program in the North American market aimed at familiarizing freelance mixers with its desks and routers. “Routing is more integral to mixing now, and there’s not a lot of opportunities for freelance mixers to get hands-on with a console/router combination,” says VP of Sales Michael Mueller. “[Mixers] need exposure to new technologies as they come along, and they don’t always have the luxury of getting that information easily.”
For-profit academies have substantially improved their offerings in sports sound.
Full Sail’s Sports Marketing and Media BS program was started five years ago and now has 199 students. Director of Audio Programs Dana Roun says a corresponding technical-track degree is in development and the school hopes to be able to announce a target launch date soon.
Until then, the technical side of broadcast is managed by Corey Jacobs, course director of audio and video technologies and show production, the live curriculum that covers broadcast audio. The program, which teaches broadcast-audio fundamentals among other things, benefits from intern relationships with ESPN, by way of Disney’s presence in nearly Orlando, and with NEP. The latter has taken interns from Full Sail, as well as from other schools, as part of truck-building and -deployment crews.
“The apprenticeship with NEP has been absolutely great, and I have four former students there,” says Jacobs. “I had two students out doing the NBA finals and a ton more working regionally.”
Still, he says, only a small fraction of his students indicate that they want to pursue careers in sports AV. Of classes ranging from 10 to 42 students, he says, 10%-15% will show serious interest in the field. But, Jacobs adds, visits by guest lecturers, such as racing A1 Dave Shoemaker and ESPN Senior Technical Audio Producer Kevin Cleary, can generate some additional enthusiasm.
So, too, can working on the ESPN Sports Lab. The project-based research and development center, opened at Full Sail last year, serves as an on-campus hub for students, faculty, and ESPN employees to produce content and technologies that can be used across ESPN’s properties, including its Websites, television programs, mobile applications.
The best inducements may be the rare opportunities to get hands-on with sports. For example, with high school football season ramping up, Full Sail students can mike up students, route the signal back to a field console, and send it either to the school’s streaming system or to coaches’ tapes.
Olympics mixer Dennis Baxter has long also been an educator; he penned the Television Sound Engineering textbook and teaches advanced classes at his TV Sound Workshops. Last year, he began teaching a curriculum in broadcast audio, which he designed, at the Art Institute in Atlanta, a bachelor’s-degree program with a focus in live audio. He says the program continues to add broadcast courses, including surround-sound design and communication systems.
“I revamped the Introduction to Broadcasting class into Audio for Broadcasting,” he says. “This summer, I added another class — Advanced Broadcasting — and, in 2012, I am adding specific courses in the principles of digital mixing consoles, surround-sound design, DSP, digital communications systems, plus digital media distribution and transport. By the end of 2012. the Art Institute will award a focused broadcast-audio degree, which will include eight broadcast-specific courses derived from industry input and recommendations.”
In addition to class time, students spend 30 hours of hands-on time in the Institute’s Sound Lab, which replicates the live broadcast experience with complex broadcast equipment and a mixing simulator.
Baxter says the quality of broadcast-audio education continues to increase, although he’s also concerned that there may not be enough broadcast veterans available to teach it effectively.
This fall. the DTV Audio Group will unveil the first in a series of online broadcast-audio tutorials. This initiative, funded by and developed in collaboration with networks Fox, NBC, and Turner, is focused on DTV audio operations and uses state-of the art distance-learning techniques to educate and assess operators in the field. A beta version was released earlier in the year to a selected group of A1s.
This online initiative came in an effort to efficiently leverage resources to reach a large number of users in the midst of an economic quagmire, according to DTV Audio Group Executive Director Roger Charlesworth. “The recession cut into network budgets in the last few years, and that affected training budgets, too,” he says. “This approach allowed several networks to pool their funding and get a result that addresses their freelancers in a consistent way much more cost-effectively.”
Users can access the tutorials online, study them, and then take an assessment test, which will reflect that they understand the materials. The test results will also be available to the participating networks, allowing them to see which mixers have completed the various modules.
The first module is focused on practical application of the ATSC A/85 loudness-management recommended practice. Charlesworth says future modules will address aspects of 5.1 production and workflow; serial digital, embedded, and MADI audio-signal management; and multiplatform-compatible production strategy.
In general, training the next generation of sports technicians is a widespread concern. Opportunities for broadcast-audio education have proliferated in recent years, and that’s a good thing.
What’s less certain is how a variety of disparate approaches born of differing motivations will affect the consistency of that training. Stagetec’s Waite speculates that it might take further convergence among organizations, schools, and manufacturers in the future to create comprehensive, predictable training.
“The DTV initiative is an example of that, and it’s a good idea, because training needs to encompass more generic improvements in audio technology and less specific manufacturers’ solutions,” he says. “The future is going to require constant learning, and we’ve all got to find a way to make that happen.”