Audio Monitoring, Part 2: Mixers, Truck Builders Work To Improve Onboard Environment

The audio monitoring environment in mobile broadcast has historically been a challenging one. Technology, such as self-calibrating speaker systems, is helping change that. So is input from mixers themselves as well as from network managers and the truck builders.

There have been significant improvements in mobile–audio-monitoring environments in recent years, with some of that coming from the entertainment side of the industry. The archetype for that is NEP’s Denali Summit truck, which regularly toggles between music-event shows like the Grammy Awards and sports events like X Games. Denali Summit’s larger audio room and acoustical treatments have created, if not an industry standard, then at least an aspirational one, says Hugh Healy, an NEP audio engineer instrumental in Denali Summit’s audio-component design.

“A lot of what we’ve done with Summit, like adding more acoustical treatment to dampen early reflections, is spilling over into sports,” he says, noting the removal of racked intercom and router hardware from the audio room, significantly lowering ambient-noise levels that he says have been measured as high as 85 dB. “That’s obscene,” he says, adding, “It wasn’t uncommon.”

Thanks to a shift to integrated digital routing of all signals aboard new trucks, reducing the signal-path infrastructure and lessening the need for noisy fans to cool it, the latest NEP trucks have reduced the background-noise level to as little as 20 dB.

The design of Denali Summit and other NEP entertainment trucks also includes larger soffits to allow monitor speakers to be changed out if mix engineers have personal preferences. Virtually all of them do, Healy says, noting that, on the sports trucks, there’s little ability to accommodate them. That benefit may not make it to dedicated sports trucks anytime soon, but the shift to digital has shortened the cycle time of the truck sector, with replacement vehicles — and thus the opportunity to update design — coming around in as little as four years.

Kevin Cleary, senior technical audio producer for ESPN Event Operations, says that, although the cycle time between trucks has indeed been shortened, a bump-up in construction beginning about a decade ago during a rush to create an HD-capable fleet ironically cemented in place some older design approaches to mobile audio rooms. That’s changing with the most recently commissioned trucks, such as Game Creek Victory, first used by ESPN for college football last season.

“Paul [Bonar, VP of engineering for Game Creek] and I sat for hours going over rack placement, in an effort to make the audio room as quiet and efficient as possible,” Cleary recalls, adding that much of his input is based on his discussions with his freelance-A1 community.

That kind of accelerated collaboration — among broadcast clients, truck builders, and mixers — will eventually bring about substantial and positive changes in mobile monitoring environments, he believes. “We’ve already come a long way in the last five years. It’s far from perfect, but we’re a lot closer now than we’ve ever been.”

Listening to Mixers
Healy cautions sports A1s not to expect drastic changes in the near future, but he notes that several trends will help continue progress toward improved monitoring environments. First, viewers have come to expect a certain level of sound quality, and the networks commissioning the trucks are becoming more aware that they have to support that demand with budgets for better audio environments. Second, within the small community of sports mixers, certain leading names can make specific requests for technical changes in trucks and expect to be listened to.

Fred Aldous, audio consultant and senior mixer for Fox Sports, is one of those, although he says his influence is limited. When Fox Sports commissioned four FX trucks from Game Creek Video several years ago, the network’s exclusive use of them for NFL, NASCAR and MLB, much of which Aldous mixes himself, allowed him to specify his personal preference of Tannoy monitors in the A unit’s audio room. Without that leverage, he doubts that he’d be able to replicate that experience on a regular basis.

“We understand that there are constraints on how much flexibility you can have in an audio room, such as real-estate issues for how much room there is, say, between video monitors and center-channel speakers,” he says. “But I do think we are seeing more influence by top mixers as to what goes into the trucks.”

Overall, progress, albeit slow, is occurring, most of it within the top tier of trucks. It will take time for these advances, such as improved acoustical treatment, to filter down to the large pool of second-level trucks covering regional and many collegiate games. What can’t change is the physical demands of monitoring: the amount of space needed to establish proper imaging for 5.1 audio. Then again, we just saw our first Higgs boson. What electronics can’t fix, perhaps physics someday might.

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