Sound steps

The new crop of digital audio boards for live broadcast maximize function in a small footprint.
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While the essential functions of broadcast boards are executed in 2007 much as they were in previous years, there are several significant differences in the way audio is handled in broadcast. The evolving needs of networks, the companies who serve them, and ultimately the mixer whose work is most critical to the success of a production, are forcing console manufacturers to rethink some of the assumptions they operated under even a year or two ago.

Digital speed

One of those assumptions was the move to digital (not withstanding the analog input, of course, coming from talent and location mics). However, many console manufacturers made the false assumption that mixers would prefer boards with a small footprint and would consider scrolling through multiple layers a reasonable trade-off for this benefit.

Limiting the size of a component is a plus for those charged with building mix rooms in trucks. But the message from engineers has been heard loud and clear: “Give me more knobs and faders, and fewer layers!” Working under the strain of real-time delivery, and often moving from company to company, truck to truck and board to board, engineers rejected the deep layering concept that was built into the first generation of many digital production consoles.

Today's boards more closely resemble their analog forebears. Smaller, yes, but one of the keys to gaining a foothold in console manufacturing today is the ability to strike a balance between a reduced footprint and easy access to all functions.

Room enough

While we're on the topic of size, it's clear that network executives are no longer shortchanging the mix environment of the trucks they work in. The move to HD may have taken longer than many predicted, but it's in full swing.

Affordable home surround sound systems have turned into a critically important part of the product that broadcasters deliver to their customers. That translates into larger mix spaces and more attention paid to the entire audio pathway.

For example, sports fans are spending lots of money on surround sound systems, allowing them to receive more information. Ron Scalise, an audio consultant for ESPN, says that everything leaving a remote site must be heard in the truck with total accuracy. It's essential to place a subwoofer in every truck that audio is mixed in.

Room treatment, speaker accuracy and the need for larger mix spaces are now critical factors. In the past, audio needs weren't considered in the expansion of trucks. Now, according to Scalise, an extra 8ft or 9ft is added specifically for audio.

In general, more focus is being put on audio. More time is spent working on bass management, Scalise said. For example, he makes sure the speakers are not placed under a bridge.

Near field monitoring is critical at this point. Consoles are crucial. Engineers have to be able to check mixes on multiple monitors, for example, in an instant. They also need to switch between mono, stereo and surround mixes quickly.

Jason Taubman, vice president of design and new technology for Game Creek Video, agrees that there is more of a demand for consoles that can handle monitoring effectively. While all of the companies have different configurations, they are all based on a few key client demands. Engineers have made it clear that ample faders top their list of wants.

Monitoring is also an important issue. Mixers require accurate environments on boards that can quickly switch between sound formats, Taubman said. At the same time, they also have to monitor in the various delivery formats, such as Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby E. Consoles have to be able to shift between these formats quickly.

On the fly

On-board processing is another rapidly developing advancement in console technology. As the computers that run consoles become more powerful and robust, the need for external compressors, limiters, delays and surround encoders is declining. Console manufacturers operating in today's market must also consider the number and quality of processing devices that they offer.

The HD world has, for example, exacerbated the problem of delay, because audio travels faster than the highly detailed images being offered to the viewer. In today's market, consoles need to offer delay on each channel and easy accessibility to it.

Tom Sahara, senior director of remote operations and IT for Turner Sports, recommends keeping on-board DSP in mind when looking for a new console. Improved DSP functions on the consoles allow the mixer to execute all dynamic processing onboard without having to use external equipment.

Metering

Metering, according to Sahara, is another critical concern because each manufacturer has its preferred metering scheme. This can make it difficult for a mixer to maintain consistent levels when working on two shows that use consoles from two different manufacturers.

BS1770, the standard established by the ITU, is a universal metering benchmark that could remedy this issue. The various manufacturers, however, will need to adhere to it if the problem is going to disappear in the near future.

Back in the days when a tinny 4in speaker was the primary playback device, mixers didn't have to worry much about centering dialog. But things have changed considerably. Today, an engineer has to take into consideration the needs of the director, who has to hear the announcers and communicate with them directly. The director rarely cares much about the sound effects or music bed. To the director, communicating with talent is paramount, and if he's sitting right next to the engineer, there's a chance the mixer will have to conduct his full mix on the fly, as the opportunity arises.

Adding to the difficulty of the task is the fact that much of the audio processing can take place back in command central. Developing a product that remains consistent from mixer to the network and downstream to the viewer is more critical today than ever. A tuned room and a flexible board are essential.

Bells and whistles

While designing your ultimate broadcast console, don't forget to include a well-integrated spill down feature. Mixers need to create a 5.1 mix and assign it to a single, centrally located fader. You'll probably want to give mixers multiple options in this regard, because a director may want a mix that includes no announcers but has all of the location sound and another that includes talent but no location dialog. Give a director an inch, and he'll probably ask for easy access to yet another combination of audio sources, routed to a single fader.

At the end of the day, of course, there's always the price factor to consider. It's quite possible to take a list of features and build a console that includes them all. The trick for manufacturers is to analyze what is essential and deliver all the desired features at a competitive price, which is no easy task! Without a doubt, all of the companies that serve the broadcast industry are taking in feedback and working as hard as possible to satisfy their existing clients and increase their market share.

Gary Eskow is a composer and journalist.