Enhancing the Sound of Sports

Audio mixers deal with increasing challenges brought on by digital
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Randy Flick

NEW YORK —The bats, balls, pucks and dimensions of the fields have changed little, but the job of the sound engineers who help bring professional sports into the homes of fans around the world has changed drastically over the last several decades. More than ever, audio mixers must adapt to the fast moving world of television sports and enhance the tools they use to maximize their workflow.

“The biggest problem A1s [audio mixers] face is the fact there is no standard for the equipment that the trucks we work in supply,” says Philadelphia-based freelance mixer Joe McSorley, who has been in the business since 1988. “If you’re a technical director you have to be familiar with three different video switchers. In the audio industry there are probably 12 consoles you need to know inside out. Just last week I worked four events: One truck had an SSL board, another a Yamaha PM5B, and two different Calrecs were set up in the other two trucks. We have to know them all, and how each truck handles its signal routing.”

When it comes to mixing sound for sports, audio isn’t just audio anymore, according to McSorley. “The audio guy programs intercoms, phones, routers, effects that come into the console, and also wires the stadium to the board. The last thing we do is mix!”

The fact that trucks are designed to minimize footprint and maximize convenience adds to the job’s difficulty as well. Never acoustically pure environments, trucks often have fans to cool equipment directly in line with engineers like McSorley, and monitors that are less than ideally placed.

REAL-TIME DEMANDS
Not many freelancers in any field can count on a steady stream of work but Randy Flick is one of them. Although he picks up his mail in Pittsburgh, he’s on the road more than 200 days a year working audio for his two major clients, World Wrestling Entertainment and HBO Boxing.

Home theater systems have changed the audio mixer’s job; will 5.1 remain the standard, or will the industry move to an even larger speaker system, say 9.1, anytime soon?

“I don’t think to a larger speaker system,” said Flick. “It’s taken almost 20 years to make 5.1 happen. To move on to a larger speaker array would take time. Time is money, and there isn’t a producer on the face of the earth who wants to spend money if they’re not going to see a genuine return on the other end.

“In the entertainment world—a DVD release for example—9.1 mixes can yield an amazing sound, but mixing in post is very different from the live work that we do in sports broadcast,” Flick continued. “We’re working in real time, and we have to downmix to stereo and mono at the same time.”

Most televised sports events exist in real time, and as snippets in highlight reels. Major events, like the Super Bowl, World Series, and top-tier

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For WWE events, audio mixer Randy Flick says he usually mixes the show as if it was live all the time. WWE shows like Wrestlemania, are prepared for later DVD release. Does this affect Flick’s work process?

“For the WWE in general we mix the show as if it was live all the time,” he said. “Over half of our shows are seen live somewhere; that could be on USA Network, the Syfy Network, or the WWE’s own network which includes pay-for-view broadcasts. We have the ability to archive up to 30 stereo tracks that we create; announcers, camera mics, effects feeds, international tracks RF mics that are iso’d. Audio post engineers can then rebuild shows for international distribution. We track to SR machines that have 12 audio tracks, and also to EVS machines that are four channels wide. In the future they’ll be 16 channels wide.”

NO COMPARISON
Steve Dove holds a rather unique title: Minister of Algorithms at Wheatstone, based in New Bern, N.C. Dove, who has been an important figure in the audio industry for a number of years, says that while live events—which include sports broadcasts—are fraught with perils for the audio engineer, they also offer an upside over other mixing assignments.

“There’s a huge advantage,” Dove says, referring to live audio. “If the audio sounds OK, you’re alright! You’re not being compared to anything, because it’s live. If a weather girl is on a beach pointing to a hurricane coming in, no one’s going to be bothered by scratchy audio; it can even add to the power of a scene.”

Mixing a marching band performance during halftime can be really difficult to get right, according to Dove, who recommends simplicity in that case. “Stick with a handful of omni microphones rather than individual mics. The people are moving, after all,” he said. “Again, the television audience accepts

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Joe McSorley the situation for what it is. If the mixer has done a good job of capturing the basic sound of the ensemble, the viewer will not be bothered if the mix doesn’t compete with a CD.”

McSorley says that equalization—one of the oldest tools in the audio engineer’s tool box—is vitally important to the work he does mixing live sports events. “I personally find EQ very important,” he said. “In trying to glean specific sounds out of sports, the ‘boing’ of a tennis ball, or the skate sound in hockey, I EQ to find that spot without boosting the crowd. We’re always fighting the crowd and the PA.”

McSorley adds that in an empty arena, effects sound great, but the mix can pick up conversations between fans. “In a crowded arena you won’t pick up conversations but you’re fighting to hear the bat crack,” he said. “When a place is empty they crank the hell out of the PA, thinking it’s going to excite the few people who are present. I have constant deflection on my meters at about –30 db, and that’s simply the level that passes through the announcer headsets when they’re not talking. The average noise floor of the arenas/stadiums is between 96 and 100 db.”

McSorley said that, according to a colleague of his, the two loudest football stadiums in the country are Seattle and Kansas City, which have been registered at 105 db. “That is ear splitting loud,” he said.

IS BIGGER BETTER?
Over the last decade or so, a new generation of sports arenas has been born. Do these venues present issues that differ from older ones? “Big new venues have been built with big new money and big new trucks to service them,” said Dove. “A lot of wiring is pre-installed that used to have to be hauled in each week. That’s a big advantage that the design of these new venues offer.”

However, there is no architectural concern for avoiding reflective surfaces, according to Dove.

“The trend has been towards making enclosed glass boxes, where rich people can sip their champagne and look down at the masses,” he said. “These reflective surfaces are quite problematic.”

There have been moves to help mitigate things, Dove added. “The newer generation of PA systems owe more to rock ’n roll than to sports arenas,” he said. “They’re far more highly evolved. Acoustical problems in both the indoor arena and outdoor stadium have been fixed to a degree by these new PA systems. They have become quite directional and can be pointed to avoid the reflections of pillars, balconies, and glass boxes.”

There’s a general consensus that the job of the audio engineer who works live sports events has become increasingly complex. “Over the past couple of decades the job of the sports audio engineer has grown in complexity from what used to be an all-analog show on 25 faders in mono or maybe stereo to what is now a basic show of 50 or 60 faders [or more] with RF intercom and RF microphone components, all in a mixture of analog and digital formats and very possibly in surround,” McSorley said. “Because of this complexity it’s becoming increasingly harder to break into the business. Even though you might be just starting in the biz you’re expected to have the knowledge of a 10- or 15-year veteran.”

So the next time you kick back to take in a game, give a silent shout out to the sound mixers. They’re working hard to put you in the action!