NFL Season: On-Field Audio Rises to a New Level

The 2012-13 NFL season might be remembered for a number of things, but one of those should be its audio. Two years after losing the foundational on-field microphone position, when the league moved the umpire from the defensive side to the offensive backfield to improve umpire safety, on-field audio has never been better.

Cadences and collisions have been clearer or louder, after two years of experimentation with miking players to replace the missing official’s microphone. Up to two players from each team are wired for sound that is fed to the networks broadcasting the games. Under the control of the league, the on-field audio signal is first routed to an NFL Films mixer working in an elevated location within the stadium and mixing on a Mackie portable mixer.

The on-field mics — a Zaxcom TRX900LA digital bodypack transmitter with various microphone elements — are opened when a team breaks huddle and closed a beat after initial contact when the ball is snapped. For a no-huddle offense, the microphone opens as the quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage. The signal is routed via wire to the remote truck mixing the game for broadcast, where the A1 has the NFL’s on-field audio on a separate console fader. On-field microphones are never opened in the huddle, on the sidelines, or in the locker room.

Although the NFL was opaque about its on-field audio experiments during most of the past two years, it was apparent this year that the league has become more confident and forthcoming with the crucial on-field sound, leaving the channel open a second or two longer in some games, adding a dimension to the scrimmage sound.

However, consistency could vary from game to game, depending on where the microphones were placed. When the new audio program began, in 2010, the NFL mandated that the center of each team would wear a microphone. But quarterbacks and centers complained that their cadences were being picked up by the opponents, who then shouted out similar cadences, causing errant snaps from the center. This prompted the league to drop the requirement and instead offer clubs the option of placing a mic in the pads of the starting center or both starting guards; if the club chooses the option of wiring the guards, the microphone would be opened on only one of the guards at any time.

Feeling Centered
A1s seem to prefer that microphone on the center. “Centers are dramatically better,” says Phil Adler, who mixes the NFL for CBS. “Those are the mics that get the quarterback calls like you’re standing next to him.”

Since the teams get to choose which players wear on-field mics, preferences have evolved, and mixers often know what to expect based on which teams are paired for a game. For instance, Wendel Stevens, who mixes Sunday Night Football for NBC and mixed last year’s Super Bowl, the first one in which players were miked, says that both the NY Giants and the New England Patriots were “center” teams. At this year’s Super Bowl, mixed by Ed Soltis on CBS, both San Francisco and Baltimore were “guard” teams. Stevens says that, when defensive guards are miked, he at least knows what the relative differences in level and crowd noise will be and can compensate ahead of time.

He understands the sensitivity that teams felt toward the new on-field audio arrangement, which was mandated as part of the collective-bargaining agreement signed in 2011. “When we had the umpire mic, we had a neutral source of audio on the field,” he says. “Now we have teams that are actively gathering sound on the field, and there are politics around that.” Precautions that the league implemented to allay concerns include limiting on-field audio to on-air use; it cannot be recorded or used in highlight reels or other repurposes.

Clearly, the new on-field audio provided by the NFL is once again the anchor for play sound, but the new approach has also created the occasional anomaly. “Once the ball is snapped, we transition to our normal field effects that we have had in place for years,” notes Fred Aldous, audio consultant and senior mixer, Fox Sports. “But we occasionally get caught in the transition with the unnatural sound of the plastic pads taking the hits from the player.”

Stevens says he’ll transition back to his own effects mics before the end of the two- to three-second fade-out of field audio that the league’s mixer provides: “I get off that player mic pretty quickly after the snap count, because the [initial hit] sound is pretty big and doesn’t match the picture that well, and it’s distracting for the announcers.”

Other Improvements
The networks have been working on their own football-sound enhancements. Last season, Fox Sports introduced a “true” parabolic-dish design for sideline audio. Fabricated by Klover Products, the mic is intended to more intensely focus the audio at the target it’s aimed at and exclude extraneous sound. “It makes the field come to life,” says Aldous. “We hear things that were all but impossible to get before.”

He adds, though, that the new design compelled some experimentation with the microphones loaded inside the parabolic reflectors. “We had to go back to the drawing board and start experimenting with different mics again. I know some of our mixers are more comfortable with different mics. I try not to dictate which mic our mixers use; I think that takes away their creativity. If a particular mic sounds really bad, then I will step in and ask them to try something different.”

Other networks are adopting the Klover parab. According to Adler, CBS is integrating it into its productions, loaded with a Sennheiser MKE 2 microphone.

Stevens notes that the last six weeks of the season were plagued by bad weather, from snow to “sideways rain,” so, after some experimentation with microphones for the Big Ears parabs NBC uses, including lavalieres and short shotguns, he has settled on the AKG Perception 170 small-diaphragm condenser mic, which sells for $99. “When you’re exposed to that kind of weather, ,” he explains, “you’re going to lose some microphones, so better to lose a $100 mic than a $900 shotgun.”

ESPN continued to refine the Stagetec Nexus router and Aurus console combination it first implemented last year. According to Monday Night Football effects submixer Jonathan Freed, the new audio infrastructure worked well, particularly the Nexus’s microphone interface, which he says significantly improved the quality of the broadcast sound from the field.

Aldous points out that the Cablecam also made a huge difference in Fox’s mix. “Having a mic over the action, especially when the break of the huddle occurs, is incredible,” he says. “When we had to do without it one weekend, it left a huge gap in [the] field effects.”

He adds that 5.1 surround mixing has hit its stride. “I also think that, as we get more comfortable with 5.1, the mixes have gotten better. There is nothing like experience. We have learned what makes a good 5.1 mix as well as a good 2.0 downmix. There are compromises with both formats when you are doing one mix for both.”

After the shake-up of on-field audio two years ago, the new configuration for sound-gathering at the player level is apparently becoming the norm. “The local mixers [hired by the league] are becoming more comfortable with us and the teams, and the teams are more comfortable with the idea,” says Stevens. “It might take another five or six years to really have it all settled, but it’s one step at a time.”

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