5.1 Becoming De Facto Standard in HD Sports
BRISTOL, CONN.—ESPN is currently in
the process of upgrading all of its live
sports broadcasts from stereo to 5.1 surround
sound. This means that every one of
the next year’s 2,700 ESPN remote sports
broadcasts will be captured in true 5.1 audio,
and then passed through in
5.1 directly to viewers via cable
or satellite TV.
A sound technician for ESPN captures audio during a regular 2012 season game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
In previous years, the sports
network’s 5.1 feeds were combined
into an encoded stream
at the remote site before transmission.
They were then decoded
at the receiving production
center before being passed
onto carriers and ultimately
consumers. For the record,
ESPN has been working with
5.1 surround sound since the
turn of the century
“Moving to discrete 5.1 for
all of our events is truly daunting,”
said Kevin Cleary, ESPN’s
senior audio producer. “But the
payoff is in giving our viewers
much more pristine 5.1 in their
living rooms. And make no mistake: There
are a lot of people watching with 5.1 surround
A NECESSARY ADVANCE
For ESPN, broadcasting live sports in 5.1
is as important as shooting it in high definition.
“With its 5.1 channels of audio, surround
sound adds 3D depth to the flat 2D
world offered by stereo,” Cleary explained.
“That’s why offering 5.1 is so necessary today.
It puts the viewer right in the action.”
Cleary characterizes the superiority of
5.1 to stereo as being akin to “the difference
between 3DTV and analog TV.” That’s
a view shared by Fred Aldous, senior mixer
and audio consultant for Fox Sports.
Watching in 5.1 is one thing; mixing in
a 5.1 audio control room—with speakers
front, center and back—is quite another.
“When you add a producer telling you
something on one speaker; another on a
second speaker, and an associate producer
on a third, mixing in 5.1 live can be quite
overwhelming,” Aldous said. “But the overall
result is worth the effort. It’s that good.”
5.1 MIX: WHAT’S CHANGED
The basic 5.1 mix hasn’t changed much
since the early days; the main feed is captured
by a main 5.1 microphone—
with separate microphone
pickups for each
as the stand-in for the
“The goal is to place
the main 5.1 microphone
as if it were a
fan sitting in the ideal
location to hear the
game, the crowd noise,
and everything else
from all around him,”
said David Missall, a
National Market Development
Corporation. “We then
use single channel parabolic
mics—known as ‘big ears’—to pick
up the grunts and collisions on the field.”
What has changed, as far as the main 5.1
microphone is concerned, is how the pickups
are spaced and configured. “You can
tweak the system to improve the separation
and depth,” Missall said. “There’s lots
of room for manipulation, to get the sound
A second change: “There is now general
agreement that, whatever else you do with
the audio, the dialogue must always be
on the center channel,” said Ken Hunold,
broadcast engineer at Dolby Laboratories.
“This keeps the viewer’s orientation to the
game consistent and clear.”
WHAT’S BEEN LEARNED
Having worked in 5.1 for over a decade,
ESPN knows this technology quite well.
Over that time, the network has learned
how to harness 5.1’s depth to tell an audio
story to the viewer that is just as compelling
as the video they’re seeing onscreen.
“The goal is to not only put the viewer
into the game in 3D audio, but also to use
the audio to add to the story,” said Cleary.
“The crack of helmets hitting; the voices
of the referees, even a stray crowd noise.
Anything that conveys the feeling of the
game helps tell the story; especially if it’s
a fan yelling behind the viewer’s left ear, or
a quarterback making calls in front of his
5.1 wisdom has also been gained at
Fox Sports. “What I have learned is a good
surround gives the viewer that first hand
experience,” said Aldous. “We have also
learned that our 5.1 mix has to be a compromise.
It must sound good in stereo as
well as 5.1—because most of our viewing
audience is still hearing us in stereo.”
As for lessons learned on site? “On the
shows that I mix—NFL and NASCAR for
Fox—I like to use multiple point stereo
and mono microphones for my crowd,”
Aldous advised. “By placing the mics
around the venue, I get a ‘bigger’, more
varied sound for my 5.1 mix.”
There is no doubt that 5.1 is becoming
the de facto broadcast standard. “It’s not
just for sports,” noted Dolby Labs’ Ken Hunold.
“5.1 is turning up in prime-time and
special events network programming.”
Cleary and Aldous are big believers in
the overall power of 5.1 surround sound.
“5.1’s 3D depth really puts you in the
event, in a way that stereo just can’t,” Aldous
said. “5.1 is an absolute necessity in
today’s HD world,” Cleary added. “Nothing
less will do.”