Football Sound: Improvements Are Incremental Now Rather Than Monumental

The broadcast sound for NFL games has reached a kind of plateau. Networks and their A1s have taken the combination of 5.1 surround and unprecedented access to on-field audio — in the form of player microphones, improved parabolic dishes, and more shotgun mics — and brought an on-field experience into the home. Expect that to continue, with perhaps some incremental improvements that you might have to lean in to hear.

Fox Sports audio consultant Fred Aldous

Fox Sports audio consultant Fred Aldous

“This season, our basic philosophy is to continue doing what we’ve been doing, which is bring the game to the viewer,” said Fred Aldous, Fox Sports audio consultant and senior mixer, a few days before he was to mix the network’s first preseason A game in New Orleans along with submixer Larry Myhre. “What we’re doing going forward is fine-tuning.”

Preseason games offer broadcast-production teams the same opportunities they provide the sports teams: the chance to test some new ideas. Fox experimented with some new effects-mic placements during the run-up to the season start, said Aldous, who will be inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December. He wouldn’t let on much more than that, but it was the same procedure by which Fox Sports tested out the then-new Klover parabolic dishes during 2012 preseason NFL and MLB games. They’ve become regular tools for the network’s audio teams.

This year’s Monday Night Football kicked off with a doubleheader last night. ESPN’s regular NFL production truck, NEP EN1, handled the Atlanta Falcons-Philadelphia Eagles game; the newly available NEP SS21, the San Francisco 49ers-Minnesota Vikings game. SS21, which had been ESPN’s NASCAR truck since 2006, includes a radio-mix position in addition to the usual A1 and submix positions. For the opener, that console sent a mix to ESPN Deportes. A1s Jonathan Freed and Scott Pray mixed and submixed, respectively, the early game; A1s Dan Bernstein and Eddie Berstrate did the same for the later game.

At ESPN, according to Remote Operations Specialist Kevin Cleary, this season’s NFL audio will be mostly business as usual, reflecting both the other networks’ stance and the fact that sound for football has become a highly refined proposition, with capture points all across the field and the venue. What will make a difference this season, he believes, is that the sound-capture infrastructure is well-positioned to pick up more player talk on the field.

“We’re seeing this in the preseason shows,” he said. “There’s a new level of player communication [on the field] now. There’s a paradigm shift in the way that players interact with coaches and players talk to players. In the past, you’d hear very little besides the coach and the quarterback; now teams are communicating on the field more actively, and we’re able to hear it. The players are becoming more vocal, and we have the facilities in place to capture that. That audio has become the key to telling the story for the viewer.”

Cleary said the network noticed a similar phenomenon during its broadcasts of the British Open in July. “In different sports, at the pro level and even in college, athletes are becoming more communicative with each other,” he noted, “and we’re hearing that.”

The NFL is considered by many to have been the tip of the spear when it comes to television sound, “a highly visible property with a lot at stake financially and technically for the networks,” said Aldous, with diplomatic understatement. What we’re hearing this year, apparently, is a 5.1-surround spear that’s about as sonically sharp as it can get, with a whetstone applied periodically to keep its edge. Next stop: object-based audio.

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