Surround Sound: In a Mostly 5.1 World, Mics Are Still Mostly 1.0

Discrete 5.1 surround audio is now the standard for sports on network television. The continued growth of home theater ensures that more viewers will want to listen in 5.1, which is helping drive both matrixed and discrete surround sound into regional-broadcast markets and even into high school markets: for instance, broadcaster COTV in Central Oregon this year began to broadcast all its regional high school games in full 720p and 5.1 surround.

Whenever new broadcast standards take hold, the pro-audio manufacturing base tends to follow up, creating an array of products that follow a familiar arc: more variety and choice results in progressively lower unit costs, which in turn helps cement the technical trend even further. However, that hasn’t happened with what might have been expected to become the iconic product category for broadcast-sports audio in 5.1: the dedicated surround microphone. Even as discrete surround sound drills deeper into the infrastructure of broadcast audio, the number of dedicated surround microphone options has remained relatively static.

Only four manufacturers — Soundfield, Holophone, Sanken, and DPA — have entered the sector to any significant extent, and prices on this constricted range of products remain high.

Market-leading brands Shure, Audio-Technica, and Sennheiser have thus far stayed aloof from this category. In part, that is because most surround-audio sound fields are still constructed by A1s and A2s using the mono and stereo microphones that manufacturers still sell plenty of: long and short shotguns, large-diaphragm condensers, and mid-side (M-S) stereo mics.

“There are techniques that offer alternatives to [dedicated] products like surround microphones and that still achieve the same desired results,” says Mike Edwards, VP of professional markets for Audio-Technica.

For manufacturers for which a dedicated surround microphone is just one product among many, it has sometimes come about more or less as a byproduct. Bryce Boynton, in technical sales at DPA in Denver, says his company’s 5100 mobile surround microphone uses the same miniature capsule as the company’s lavalieres and headsets, many of which are also used widely in sports broadcasting. “The 5100 is another way to leverage that,” says Boynton, adding that the 5100 tends to be “undermarketed” in the U.S.

Joe Prout, sales rep at Dale Pro Audio in New York, also sees many A1s’ continuing to create surround fields out of combinations of mono and stereo microphones. “Some of that has to do with the cost of acquiring these surround mics,” he explains, “and some of it has to do with placement being so key for a surround mic in terms of its use: the arenas, stadiums, and [other] facilities can’t always guarantee the surround mic can be placed in what the mixer or techs might see as the ideal position for them.”

The way Phil Adler, mixer for the NFL on CBS, uses various microphones to construct his surround sound fields underscores this. In a typical NFL stadium, he says, “with a single surround microphone, you’re capturing ambience from one location. Multiple mics capture samples from all over the large stadium for different crowd reactions, different PA slapback, and so on. If one fan near a mic is whistling [or] blowing a horn, I can dump it and favor another. Same for equipment failure. For my shows, multiple mic placement and type — a combination of wide cardioid, shotgun, and stereo X/Y most of the time — make for a more flexible and interesting ambient mix. A single microphone location locks you in.”

A sizable slice of whatever sales are taking place in the U.S. are coming from freelance A1s’ investing in these kinds of microphones, which can cost as much as $14,000 including control hardware and software, and then renting them out as part of their kit to the networks that hire their owners on a per-project basis, a phenomenon that SVG reported on last year.

Cultural Divide
Even the manufacturers of dedicated surround microphones are a bit stymied by the lack of growth in this market sector, at least in the U.S. According to Jonathan Godfrey, CEO of Toronto-based Holophone, one of two companies, along with Soundfield, whose product lines are largely based on multicapsule microphones, the difference between the employee-based broadcast-industry culture in Europe and elsewhere and the freelance-heavy business model here accounts for at least some of the difference between Europe and Canada, where he says sales are robust, and the U.S., where he says they have “plateaued.”

“In Europe, broadcast-network employees have more say in what equipment is on their trucks,” says Godfrey. “And budgets in the U.S. likely also have something to do with this.”

Nonetheless, the market may see more development activity in the future. Major manufacturers seemingly never say never when it comes to having a surround mic on the drawing board. “It’s not a high priority for us,” says A-T’s Edwards, “but let’s say it’s also not off the table.”

He adds that “the struggle is really having to figure out what types of products would work best for broadcasters,” suggesting that network purchases on a larger scale than currently seen by entrepreneurial A1s making small investments in rentals may be a key to making this a more economically viable category.

The great diversity of U.S. sports may also work against greater uptake of dedicated surround microphones. Unlike in soccer-saturated Europe, where the soccer stadiums are relatively uniform, many new stadiums and arenas in the U.S. are so architecturally distinct from each other that placement of these kinds of microphones, which is critical to their optimization, requires more experimentation in each venue than hard-pressed A1s have time for.

At some point, Moore’s Law will need to kick in to jump-start this product sector. What exactly will ignite that process remains to be seen.

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