NFL Kickoff 2019: Networks Beef Up Football Audio
Dolby Atmos testing is also on the table
Audio for football games has reached a pinnacle, at least technically. The ability to pull in sound from the gridiron — from microphones on players to parabolic receptors with sensitivity a CIA spook would respect — is just short of reality-show pervasiveness. The only brakes on collecting sound during games are legal ones, a combination of league dicta, collective-bargaining agreements, and collegiate regulations.
The incipient 2019-20 NFL and collegiate seasons reflect both boundaries and accomplishments but also demonstrate how other audio technologies are making themselves felt on the field.
Wendel Stevens, veteran A1 for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, notes that, although much of the production approach to the games’ sound remains at the high level it achieved last season, this year’s audio infrastructure has been getting significant updates. For instance, a migration to Dante-based signal transport that began last year is nearly complete for this season.
Moving to Dante
“Last year, we updated our Lance announce kits to Dante, we added a Dante card to the Calrec console, and we added an Omneo card to the RTS ADAM intercom,” Stevens explains. “We primarily handled our booth announcers, their IFBs, and some comms panels with Dante last season. This year, we added quite a bit of Dante gear, mostly from Studio Technologies.
“On Sunday Night Football,” he continues, “the booth intercom system has been replaced with 10 Studio Technologies 374 intercom beltpacks. A network switch in the booth takes the place of MADI/analog converters, RTS SAP intercom thumbwheels, and RTS power supplies. And all of the booth personnel now have four channels instead of the two they had with two-wire RTS beltpacks.
“We also deployed four Studio Technologies Model 5414s,” he adds. “Each gives us four mic/line paths and four sends from the truck: two of those live in the announce booth, [and] two will live in a new Football Night in America kit, which connects entirely using Dante this year.”
However, copper continues to be part of the transport mix, and Calrec’s Hydra network remains a widely used proprietary network solution, for NBC Sports and other broadcasters, because of the console maker’s ubiquity in remote trucks.
“Most of our stadium effects mics still travel on copper,” Stevens points out. “Stadiums [still] have plenty of analog I/O all over the place. It’s just easier to spread things out using those existing lines. And our wireless mics and IFBs are connected to the truck via console Hydra, so it’s a cornucopia of formats.”
However, he notes an inflection point in the transition to IP-based signal transport: how the role of the audio mixers is subtly but irrevocably changing.
“Ryan Outcalt has become not only our submixer but also our IT guy,” he points out. “He and comms engineer Matt Coppedge are doing a great job managing the network in Dante Controller and managing devices in the controller-type apps for the hardware.”
It’s a substantial shift and is taking place beneath the sound of the games. Thus, it is less noticeable but is no less game-changing.
“Making the move to Dante has taken some time, and no matter how careful we were when building the system, we found one or two unexpected ‘gotchas’ when the entire broadcast crew climbed into position at the Hall of Fame game,” says Stevens. “Everyone works together to smooth things out, and we will be all dialed in for the regular season.”
ESPN: More Investment, Smaller Footprint
At ESPN, similar infrastructure improvements have been implemented. Monday Night Football A1 Scott Pray says the crew has integrated wireless party-line communications from Studio Technologies 206 commentator boxes for both the booth and the field, with all comms integrated into a single system.
“We now have coverage across the entire field and into the locker rooms and out to the parking lot whenever [ESPN Monday Night] Countdown has an outdoor event,” says Pray, who works with submixer Jonathan Freed and booth A2 John Hooper on the show. “We’ve made a heavy investment in new infrastructure, and that has allowed us to shrink our overall footprint, especially in the booth.”
In that booth, MNF has a new voice, with officiating analyst John Perry joining the announce staff of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland upstairs and analyst Lisa Salters on the sidelines. Perry will have his own Dante-connected on/off switch for his microphone, which also comes up as a separate fader on Pray’s console.
On the immersive-audio front, NBC Sports will reprise its work with Dolby Atmos for Notre Dame home games. Those will begin next month, according to Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and NBC Olympics.
“We will build on the experience of our past Olympic and Notre Dame immersive coverage,” he says. “We are creating various three-dimensional landscapes in different sports and learning what sounds good. This will help define our sound as we approach Tokyo 2020. The immersive audio we are creating now will set the stage for the next stage of NGA [Next Generation Audio], where the options, such as personalization, will greatly add control to the listener.”
MNF may be joining other ESPN coverage of the NBA and US Open tennis in testing Dolby’s Atmos system. Pray says nothing has been scheduled but adds, “It’s a possibility, once we’re settled in for the season. It’s not that hard on the remote side; getting it through the plant to the viewers is the challenge.”