Amid Teams’ Concerns, NFL Speaks — Quietly — About On-Field Audio

NFL on-field audio took a hit last season when the umpire was moved from the defensive side to the offensive backfield, 12-15 yards behind and to the left of the quarterback. The move, made to improve umpire safety — the 2009 season saw more than 100 collisions involving umpires, three of which caused concussions, according to the New York Times — took out what had become a critical ambient microphone worn by the umpire and used to catch cadences and other sound effects that viewers had come to enjoy.

This season, the NFL’s on-field–audio program, with up to two players from each team wired for sound that the league makes available from huddle breaks until the center’s snap, is intended to replace that crucial audio, although the project has been a virtually classified proposition by the league. The program, which has no formal name but was known as the Enhanced Audio Project last season, was voluntary but became mandatory this season as part of the league-player association collective-bargaining agreement. It causes understandable concern for security of strategic and tactical information: teams might be able to detect, for example, opponents’ verbal cues, snap cadences, and in-line adjustments by isolating them later from recordings of games.

In an article on ESPN’s Website earlier this year, Dallas Cowboys center Phil Costa asserted that opposing Washington Redskins players were shouting out simulated snap counts similar to QB Tony Romo’s normal cadence, causing errant snaps. As a result, according to the ESPN article, the NFL as of mid October no longer required the centers to be wired for sound. The NFL’s memo stated, “Clubs will have the option of having the microphone placed in the pads of the starting center OR in the pads of both starting guards. If the club chooses the option of wiring both starting guards, the microphone will be opened on the pads of only one of the guards at any time.”

Sensitivity to such issues has kept the league from commenting on the technical particulars of the program. However, the NFL, on background, did respond to some specific questions from SVG.

The league confirmed that the digital bodypack transmitter fitted on players is a Zaxcom TRX900LA, a new version of the TRX900LTS used for this purpose last season. Enhancements include longer battery life —  eight operational hours versus four for the previous model — and 125 mW of power versus 50 mW, according to Zaxcom. The transmitter encrypts the audio signal and can be turned on and off remotely, features intended to allay some of the teams’ concerns. The more powerful signal strength is to prevent dropouts across the length of the field.

The quality of the on-field audio this season has been inconsistent, ranging from astoundingly clear and intelligible to muffled and barely comprehensible, possibly due to the depth of the guards’ padding; constant collisions can push the microphone capsules deeper into it. NFL technical sources declined to discuss where the microphone is placed on each player but acknowledged that the same microphone capsules are being used throughout the league and that their placement is similar. They attribute differences in audio quality mainly to environmental conditions, such as weather and whether stadiums are enclosed or open.

The on-field audio signal is routed to an NFL Films mixer working in “an elevated location within the stadium,” say the NFL sources, and mixing on a Mackie portable mixer. The on-field microphones are opened when a team breaks huddle and closed a beat after the initial contact when ball is snapped. In a no-huddle offense, the microphone opens as the quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage and is closed a beat after initial contact when the ball is snapped. That signal is routed via wire to the remote truck mixing the game for broadcast, where, according to other sources, the A1 has the NFL’s on-field audio on a separate console fader. The NFL sources stress that on-field microphones are never opened in the huddle, on the sidelines, or in the locker room.

It’s expected that the on-field–audio project will be continued through postseason play, including the Super Bowl. Beyond that, the NFL source says, on-field audio will be looked at on a season-by-season basis.

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