NBC Sports Audio Team Puts Focus on Solid Surround Sound Experience

The 2010 Winter Olympics are giving fans of Surround Sound a reason to fire up their Surround Sound system as it makes the first ever Winter Games to be produced and broadcast with 5.1-channel audio. And for Bob Dixon, NBC Olympics, director of sound design, it’s a memorable one.

“This Olympics sounds the best of the 12 I’ve worked on,” says Dixon. “My favorite before was the Summer Games in Korea but this one is so rich. There is a lot more with Surround Sound, and Dennis Baxter at OBS did a nice plot of mics to pick up the sounds while having products like the Linear Acoustic AeroQC at every venue makes a difference.”

The Vancouver Games are the result of years of planning as Dixon and his team have worked closely with Olympic Broadcast Services to develop a Surround Sound strategy that would envelope U.S. viewers in the icy sounds of events like alpine skiing, skating, hockey, and sliding events.

“From the beginning we spoke with [OBS Sound Designer] Baxter about doing Surround Sound in starting houses [of skiing and sliding events] so that viewers feel like they are in the house,” says Dixon. “And that has worked out very well, as has capturing the atmosphere at the end of the runs.”

One big change for NBC Olympics was the move to Calrec Omega consoles for all of its venue operations. Previously flypacks used for “C” level events (in Vancouver that is the curling and sliding events) have had different audio consoles than those used in production trucks.

“It made a big difference because the mechanics of the console are not an issue anymore,” says Dixon. “On the other consoles 5.1 faders and groups didn’t exist and the mixers were having trouble figuring out how to get things done as they were doing the show. So now the guys are freed up and can concentrate on what it’s sounding like as opposed to how to get things to happen. Of course having a team of mixing professionals who have been getting a lot more experience with mixing in 5.1 is a very big part of this.”

Spot-On Surround

Products like the Linear Acoustic Aero.qc have also played an important role in making sure that Surround Sound experience is spot on for viewers. Twenty four of the units are used throughout NBC’s facilities at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) and also in production trucks, where it has proved especially useful.

“It can give pink noise for real time analysis of a room so we can see if the audio mixing room and the speakers are getting along,” says Dixon.

For example, in one truck it was believed that there was too much bass in the mixing room but, upon further review via Aero.qc, it was discovered that the opposite was true and there was too little bass.

“We switched the speakers and made the audio monitoring much more level,” says Dixon.

Aero.qc is also handy for overcoming one of the more vexing issues facing the TV network community: proper loudness level. “We have everyone mixing to -24 dB, 30 Rock is at -24 dB, and all commercials roll at -24 dB so nobody is jumping for the remote and people all over the U.S. can have a smooth, nice audio experience.”

Aero.qc is also helping with upmixing as recording devices often can’t record more than four channels. The system records the stereo mix to channels one and two and then the three effects channels to be mixed to channels three and four.

“It’s the next best thing to recording all six channels discretely,” says Dixon. “It’s much more free of artifacts and it allows recordings to be down mixed to stereo very faithfully. It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had available.”

NBC Olympics brings in its own microphones to supplement the host broadcast Surround Sound feed. The network gives its mixers and producers as many options as possible by taking audio from cameras that are used during athlete interviews and providing 5.1 sub mixes without audience and also a 5.1 mix with just hall ambience.

“That gives the mixer some control over the balance of things,” says Dixon.

That control is crucial during coverage of something like ice hockey where NBC Olympics has its own cameras that supplement the host cameras.

“If our director cuts to a low camera in the corner while the host is laying back on a wide shot we need the audio to follow the cut,” says Dixon. “We have production people who want to bring their own vision to the show with elements that are different than the host feed and we want to be right there with them.”

Listening Closely

During the games Dixon and his team are located in a listening room in the NBC area of the IBC, checking the quality of audio via SLS loudspeakers with ribbon tweeters. There they will compare incoming feeds from trucks and host broadcast feeds and also listen to network returns to make sure the quality is what they are hoping for.

Wohler’s Amp 2-16-3G is an important tool for helping staffers in the field and in the IBC zero in on problems. The system has a built-in speaker as well as a headphone jack and a line out to drive bigger speakers. The user can then select different pairs –from a display of the 16 possible embedded audio channels, for example, listen to the center channel with the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel or set up a rough mix by adding stereo effects to the announcer channel.

“It’s a really good tool for using on the pure world feeds,” says Dixon of a workflow that involves taking the host broadcaster’s Surround mix and simply laying in the announcers in the center channel.

“For me announcers should only be in the center channel because that is the point of focus no matter where the listener is sitting in the room,” he says. “If it’s in the center channel it’s always with the picture but if you put the announcers in the left and right speakers the sound will shift depending on where you’re sitting in the room.”

Dixon says he is enjoying all of the Surround Sound presentations, from bobsledding (“you can see the video of the sleds being tossed and turned and the sound is right with it”) to figure skating (“the crowds are different in each corner and you can hear a single voice cheering”) and speed skating (“there is very little field of play but you hear everyone cheering and can get close up on the athletes”).

“If you’re a sound engineer working in TV there is nothing better than this,” adds Dixon.

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