Sports Venue Technology Summit: Venue Audio Is As Important As Venue Video
Venue owners often put most of their effort into the visual side of the audio/visual experience, but a panel of experts at the 2015 Sports Venue Technology Summit at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Tuesday laid out why good audio is just as important as dynamic video and scoreboards. It is also, unfortunately, more complex to manage properly when video needs trump audio needs.
“Sound is the forgotten stepchild in the arms race to HD and bigger and better scoreboards,” said Troy Bost, account executive, sports and entertainment, Parsons Electric, “but, if you’re trying to sell something on the scoreboard but no one can understand what is being said, [that’s no good].”
The lack of appreciation for quality audio often means that a venue and an integrator may take a sledgehammer approach: when in doubt, crank it up and add more decibels. Bost explained that such an approach is shortsighted and often wrong.
“It is not normally the case that the audio is not loud enough but rather that people cannot understand what is being said,” he pointed out. “It does not need to be loud to be heard, and, over all, things are getting better.”
There are basically three categories of venue audio, according to Josh Beaudoin, associate principal, WJHW. The first are older venues with aging sound systems that need to be replaced and, no matter how well the production team manages the audio, good things will never happen. The second are those systems that are set up correctly but have operational issues. And the third are the systems that can do everything needed to provide a quality experience but no one really knows how to get the most out of.
One of the biggest issues is often that the audio content coming into the system is very diverse and there’s no one way to handle it all. A referee mic, for example, needs to be handled differently from audio for video clips, which may be submitted by different departments or clients and have different recording levels.
“You need to meld that all together for a cohesive experience,” said Beaudoin. “Operationally, people don’t always pay attention to the audio production like they do the video.”
Jeremy Wecker, manager, A/V technology and engineering, Denver Broncos, opined that there also need to be standard procedures for handling things like audio beds that an announcer will be speaking over, ensuring separation in loudness to allow the announcer to be heard properly.
He also cited another challenge: wireless spectrum.
“We have been burned too many times [when using wireless mics],” he reported. “Even if we are in the right frequency, a wireless cameraman can walk by and blow the audio away. There is nothing worse than when an anthem mic fails.”
Bost concurred, adding that wireless opens up audio to too many variables that are out of the production team’s control. He recommends using wired mics for anthems.
Criss Niemann, senior market development specialist, Shure, said that coordination of wireless frequencies can go a long way toward preventing a wireless nightmare. He pointed to Shure’s Axient tool as a way to help solve those headaches.
Before the show, for example, Wireless Workbench 6 uses saved scan files to provide detail about the RF environment from offsite and also includes a database of TV channels based on location to help with the planning process. When connected to the Axient Spectrum Manager, Wireless Workbench performs live RF scans and analysis, with detailed graphic overlays and device markers on a high-resolution frequency plot.
Comprehensive frequency coordination uses the scan data, TV-channel database, and advanced compatibility algorithms to create and assign a list of clean, viable frequencies for any number of channels in a system, plus backup-frequency management. And during the show, Wireless Workbench 6 enables live remote adjustments to networked hardware for instant changes to frequency, gain, RF output power, and more.
Even with all the elements sounding good in the control room, there is the difficult reality that every game or event is going to need different approaches and also that different areas within the venue — club level, internal concourse, external concourse — need to have audio properly balanced for the specific area.
“Audio gets very complicated in this environment,” said Wecker.
Unfortunately for the industry, creating a standard set of guidelines is impossible. The differences between venues are not only physical but cultural as well: a game-day experience in San Francisco is not the same as it is in Philadelphia or Dallas, even if the sport is the same.
In addition, an audio system needs constant attention, said Beaudoin. “You can’t install it and not expect to work on it again: there are no flux capacitors that self-heal,” he explained, comparing an audio system to a plane, which needs to be regularly maintained and checked up on.
“Two or three times a year,” he advised, “give them a health check and check all the maps and that the speakers are all working because, if you have failures, it ruins the experience.”
The good news for fans is that they respond and, when they hear good audio in one venue in town, the other venues quickly follow suit.
“You see it in market after market,” said Beaudoin. “One [venue] upgrades, and then they all upgrade as the first one lets the others hear the difference and good audio becomes important.”
One unique issue for audio is the needs of the athletes vs. those of the fans. Wecker noted that Denver Broncos players want contemporary music while they are on the field during warm-ups and they want it to be very loud.
“We put in a field system that has four 18-in. subwoofers in each cabinet, and it just crushes it,” he said. “They love it.”
Although the way music sounds and is mixed may be much changed since the early days of audio, Beaudoin pointed out that the horn technology at the core of any venue’s PA systems has been around since the early days of Bell Laboratories early last century.
“We are slowly refining the capabilities and making incremental progress,” he said. “There are a lot more mono sound systems in venues today, but there are also more and more stereo and multichannel systems.”
One technology he said to keep an eye on is Hyper Sound. “It allows the use of ultra-high frequencies to muddle the atmosphere in your eardrum, and it is used by the Navy. That is a technology that, in the next 20 years, will change how we view sound and how it works.”