Is ENG Ready for 5.1?

Biggest hurdles are ease of use, infrastructure
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Shure's VP88TK stereo ENG mic
LOS ANGELES—While a good proportion of programming and commercials now broadcast on network television with 5.1 audio, news coverage has yet to adopt surround sound. Just imagine, for example, how immersive TV coverage from the center of Cairo's Tahrir Square during the recent revolution might have been with a 5.1 soundfield.

"Just the sheer number of 5.1 systems in people's homes is begging for content to be delivered in that format," observed Chad Wiggins, Shure's category director for wired microphones. "Clearly we're seeing more and more content delivered in that format."

But as Wiggins noted, in run-and-gun ENG applications there is little time to do much besides making sure there are video and audio signals getting to the station. "Shots need to be set up so quickly; the content needs to be captured in real time. In order for [5.1 ENG] to become widely adopted, we need to solve that ease-of-use situation," he said.

ONE STEP AT A TIME

One hurdle to be overcome for those interested in transitioning to 5.1 news coverage is the ENG infrastructure. The cameras, cabling and trucks may simply not have the ability to carry the necessary mic channels or transmit them back to the station.

But as Michael Englehaupt, director of broadcast operations and engineering for San Francisco's KPIX/KBCW, detailed, there are ways to begin putting such an infrastructure into place, one step at a time. "It's much simpler than I think a lot of people give it credit," he commented.

Faced with the challenge of being able to bring only a single audio channel back from the field with the duopoly's previous all-analog truck infrastructure, Englehaupt set about converting the fleet to HD, beginning with the installation of a single unit for video conversion and frame syncing in each vehicle. "Not to say there's only one approach," he said. "But we decided on a one-stop shop methodology for us."

Key to the upgrade was the extension of the embedded audio plant out to the remote vans by adding the ability to embed audio at the camera and transmit that multiplexed signal back to the plant. "That allows us to add multiple channels should we choose to—and we haven't done this yet—fairly easily," he noted.

"If we want to add a stereo shotgun to the camera, we can, because it's no extra cabling and doesn't require anything to be done in the truck, and it comes back embedded in the signal to the station. We like that model," said Englehaupt. "It's one method that stations can consider when looking to upgrade their trucks from analog or SDI to HD-SDI."

Not that anyone is in a rush to throw the switch on 5.1 news audio, of course. "We're not advocating or suggesting that news at the local level is going to have six channels of audio associated with it any time soon with respect to studio content or field gathering," Englehaupt cautioned.

However, a decision to make news coverage 5.1-compatible several years ago is already providing KPIX/KBCW viewers with a listening experience that more seamlessly fits into an evening of network programming, he reported. "By compatible I mean that we put all the spoken voices in the center channel and everything else is left and right. We don't put anything in the sub or surrounds. It's a more pleasing and consistent soundfield as you go in and out of news to commercial, or to and from network."

Center channel vocal content is bled just a little bit into the left and right channels to provide a more pleasing sound, said Englehaupt. "We take anything that isn't dialog and pan it to left and right."

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Michael Englehaupt, director of broadcast operations and engineering for KPIX/KBCW He recalled, "When we were planning this we thought it was going to be really complicated, but it just came down to panning. You just set up your bussing and panning on the console—presuming you've got a 5.1 console—and it just takes care of itself." The beauty of that, he added: "It's automatically mono or stereo compatible."

Thus, by taking a series of small steps, "It's a fairly simple progression to get from strictly mono with stereo sources into the same content bussed differently on a 5.1 console. And you now have, I think, a more pleasing and consistent experience for the viewer," he concluded.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Michael Edwards, director of product management, Audio-Technica U.S., noted, "Working within the constraints of existing technology it's hard to get the momentum going. The use of stereo as an alternative is certainly a step in the right direction. When combined with the appropriate dialog microphones you can achieve a really good result."

Audio-Technica offers two suitable camera-mounting, XY pattern mics, the BP4025 and the AT8022. There are also mid-side configurations, such as the BP4027 and BP4029 mid-side stereo shotguns, Edwards offered.

"Those will either provide a left-right stereo signal, so you don't have to do any external processing, or you can switch them into a mid-side mode where you take the separate feeds so you can process them however you like."

Shure has one especially appropriate mic, said Wiggins. "We do have a stereo ENG product, a mid-side stereo microphone, the VP88. It's a front-facing cardioid and a side-firing bi-directional. That will output a stereo signal or an unencoded mid-side signal—if the user wants to create a mid-side matrix on his console he can. That product has been in the catalog for a couple of decades."

If any organization does adopt full-on 5.1 sound for ENG it will likely be an entity of the stature of the BBC or ORTF, believes Wiggins. "The leading newsgathering entities on the planet are on the vanguard of this stuff. They've demonstrated a willingness to push technology to its limits in order to do the things that they do. I wouldn't be surprised if they adopt this; if anybody does it will be them."