Primetime Boxing Makes a Mute Point

Boxing came back to prime time on NBC last weekend, and it’s apparent that the “Sport of Gentlemen” has lost none of its rowdiness. The bout in which undefeated Keith “One Time” Thurman (24-0, 21 KO) defended his title against Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero topped the card at the MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Thurman is still undefeated, getting the decision after a bruising 12 rounds. But the broadcast censor, working the two-second-delayed profanity mute back at 30 Rock, might have had a bruise or two on his finger.

Some bloggers noted the audio gaps but not boxing’s unique vulnerability to the problem. In more-mainstream sports, microphones that may be in the line of scatological fire either are open for very short and predictable periods, as in football, or are in very specific places that can be monitored closely or used only in replays, such as player mics. Boxing, however, takes its audio in from everywhere all the time. Thus, when profanity occurs, the mute by necessity takes out the entire soundtrack.

“We weren’t expecting quite that much of it, but that’s the price you pay with boxing,” says Karl Malone, director of sound design and communications systems, NBC Sports. “We had a lot of audience in the mix, and there’s a lot of excitement in there, but you will get a few words that we have to cut.”

The show, which was produced in 5.1 surround and was the first of 20 Premier Boxing Champions fights that will be seen on NBC throughout the year, was heavily wired for sound. Malone, working with A1 Randy Pekich, laid out comprehensive coverage using Sennheiser 416 short shotguns in each corner, a pair of Audio-Technica AT815B gradient-condenser microphones strung nearly 8 ft. above the center of the ring, AT4027 stereo shotgun mics on the cameras, Sennheiser 816 long shotguns on fishpoles, and Sennheiser MKE2 lavaliere microphones on the referee and trainers in both corners. Additional 416s were used in the audience, along with a Shure VP88 for fill above the camera-one platform. The mix was done on the Calrec Alpha console aboard NEP’s SS21 truck.

A Busy Mix
Pekich, who has mixed boxing shows for more than a decade, including Top Rank shows on HBO channels, says this show reflects some changes taking place in how the sport is presented. Noting that NBC brought on Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer to score the show’s opening theme (using samples of gloves hitting punching bags and other boxers as percussion), Pekich adds that he also played the theme as walk-on music for the boxers and that the music was heard in the venue through the PA as well as on-air. That was the case, too, with the dialog between commentators Al Michaels and Ray Leonard.

“This was more of an entertainment show, and the crowd in the house heard more of what was also going to air,” he says. “I also spent more time than usual on the announcer mics, because, in addition to the [ringside] announcers, we had embedded reporters working with handhelds in the corners. There was a lot going on at that end of the console, and I had to really watch my levels. Fortunately, we had reporters with good microphone technique, which really helped.”

Still a Work in Progress
Malone describes the overall sound design as a work in progress. Aside from muting unwanted elements, he says that, in future fights, he will strive for better balances between the audience and the announcers, whose Sennheiser HD-25 headsets are hard up against the best — and sometimes noisiest — ringside seats in the house, making the announcers difficult to isolate. (A persistent and annoyingly loud whistler in the crowd penetrated the mix through those headsets, which, Malone and Pekich suspect, may lead to the use of headset boom mics with stricter off-axis rejection characteristics.) Those same headset transducers also pick up transients, such as the bell signaling the start and end of rounds. Some key audio, such as the referee, comes through both those and other close-in microphones and as ambient sound picked up through the PA system.

But, apparently, the audio crew and NBC are doing something very right: the March 7 premier show was the most-watched professional-boxing broadcast in 17 years, according to Nielsen’s Fast National Data.

“We’re planning for a more aggressive fight mix going forward,” Malone promises for the next card, scheduled for April 11. “The trick will be balancing the sound from the ring without losing any of the excitement you hear in the audience. It’s a very noisy place.”

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