Surround Microphones Move Into the Foreground

With 5.1 surround sound the de facto standard for sports broadcasting, single-point surround microphones — once considered specialty microphones — are becoming ubiquitous.

“We’re seeing more use of surround microphones, but it also depends on the sport,” says Bruce Meyers, president of DPA Microphones U.S. The company’s 5100 Mobile Surround microphone has been used in auto-racing and football broadcasts, among other applications.

For sports in which the camera must follow the action more closely than in other wider-field sports, the surround field can generally support only ambient crowd noise and some effects, he says. “The camera’s point of view always has to be kept in mind.” He points out that, for instance, a surround microphone placed in the middle of a scrimmage (the way some lavalier mics are being deployed on the center on NFL teams) could produce some disturbing results, such as specific players seeming to be behind the viewer.

The dedicated surround microphone is increasingly integrated with the arrays of shotguns and other mono microphones that make up the surround channels’ input, says Martin Ucik, GM of Plus 24, which represents Sanken microphones in the Americas. “They’re great at adding more ambience to the surround channels.”

Other sports do benefit from the use of a single, dedicated surround microphone. That works well on cross-country skiing and other Olympic-type events, as well as motocross and outdoor activities, Meyers says. In places where only a single handheld camera can be used, it gives the shot a surround depth that would be otherwise unattainable. He offers the example of hunting: “As you see the dogs returning from retrieving [a kill], you also hear them get louder as they approach and hear them from behind [the shot] if they run around the camera. It feels very natural because the viewer also has the visual cues that make the sound locations make sense.”

Jonathan Godfrey, CEO of Toronto-based Holophone, says that significant cost saving is associated with using a single-source-point surround microphone versus deploying an array of omni and shotgun microphones to create a surround field. “It’s a simpler way to set up for surround,” he says, noting that some broadcasters have used the Holophone to create the Left-Center-Right as well.

However, he believes that use of single-source-point surround microphones is more common by broadcasters outside the U.S. He cites significantly wider usage of his product by CTV and CBC than by any of the U.S. networks. However, he also believes that might change as more extreme-sports events become common on broadcast. “They’re changing the way sound is done for broadcast, and extreme snowmobiling and motocross sound fantastic that way.”

Pieter Schillebeeckx, head of R&D for UK-based Soundfield, concurs that there is a difference in technique between U.S. and other sports-broadcast live-sound mixers when it comes to surround microphones. He speculates that U.S. techniques evolved from stereo miking, and mixing techniques simply extended them to the additional channels, while Europe took a more organic approach to developing surround techniques, including regular integration of a surround microphone into the mix.

A typical U.S. football game’s surround field comprises the input of many omni and shotgun microphones deployed around the field and the stands, Schillebeeckx says. A European soccer match focuses most of its shotguns on the pitch, and some of those and other microphones used on the game find their way into the surround channels, but the basis of the surround comes from a single dedicated surround microphone suspended above the field of play, which he says reduced the potential for phase problems on fold down.

“That’s the anchor of the surround channels,” Schillebeeckx says. “That’s the glue that holds the surround all together.”

How they go about assembling surround audio elements isn’t the only difference between the U.S. and the EU. But, going forward, a combination of cost factors and the need to keep the surround experience consistent for viewers even when the event goes far beyond the boundaries of the gridiron, pitch, or diamond will likely also see greater use of single-point surround microphones everywhere.

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