Olympic Surround Sound Design Hits All the Right Notes for Viewers

Dennis Baxter, sound designer for Olympic Broadcast Services, is knee deep in delivering the first-ever Winter Games to feature discrete 5.1 Surround Sound and stereo audio signals. For U.S. viewers that probably came home most crystal clear through during Sunday’s men’s ice hockey game between the U.S. and Canada.

“In hockey we’re trying to accurately reproduce the experience with ‘surround zones’ that fill the surround effects channels and the (LFE) Low Frequency Effects,” says Baxter. “We do that in the corners with shotgun mics on the camera and then have an LFE mic that is band passed to the LFE channel.”

Baxter’s guiding philosophy is to create depth, space and motion with audio something that a flat 2D 16:9 HD image cannot deliver, no matter how many pixels and how sharp the image.

One of Baxter’s favorite sports in Surround Sound is bobsledding. Wanting to bring a vision of grandness to a sport known for heavy sleds with burly men hurting down a track at upwards of 85 mph.

“I approached it similar to car racing, with handheld cameras and cranes with Audio-Technica mics,” he says. To create the motion from right to left he first laid out an approach mic that would be fed slightly on the phantom side, carry the sound of the bobsled passing with the pan mic on the camera, and then a trailing mic that would pick up the sound of the bobsled leaving the frame.

The bobsled Surround Sound experience begins in the starting gate with four Audio Technica lavalier mics placed as spaced pairs to pick up all of the action that takes place as the team pushes the sled out of the gate. The same approach is taken at the finish line with additional mics picking up the crowd. In fact, the goal for the Surround Sound audio on many of the racing events is to not deliver crowd noise until the competitor is near the finish line.

One of the innovations for bobsledding is the use of audio-follow-video. The Lawo console is tied to the cameras so when the director cuts to a new camera the audio from the camera is automatically activated. With 42 cameras on the track, and the potential for the director and producer to occasionally get lost the move minimizes the risk of the audio mixer also getting lost.

With more than 80 broadcasters receiving the host broadcast feed Baxter is attempting to keep as many of them happy, despite the wide range of subjectivity when it comes to judging great Surround Sound experiences.

Broadcasters can receive two signals: a discrete Surround Sound mix and a discrete stereo signal. “Our stereo and front channels of Surround Sound mixes are very similar and we do not inject any commentary into our signal,” says Baxter. “So it’s a little simpler than if a broadcaster was doing their own show.”

The center channel instead includes a ring tone to keep the center channel activated. That prevents changes in the signal when commentators hit the talk back button when they aren’t on air.

Which sport has benefitted most from advances in audio? Surprisingly, Baxter points to curling because all of the athletes are miced.

“The average joe wants to be an athlete and this puts them right next to them,” he says. “Once we began micing curlers it changed the entertainment value of the sport.”

The audio side of producing the 2010 Winter Olympics has not been without its challenges. The much maligned venue Cypress Mountain, home of the extreme sports like snowboarding and aerial skiing, has had difficulties all winter long with high temperatures and less than optimal snow conditions. And in a Winter Games that means water and mud. “It’s been a struggle because water problems kill audio because mics don’t like rain,” says Baxter. “Also fiber optics cabling doesn’t like to be thawed and frozen repeatedly.”

In terms of the microphone complement OBS is relying exclusively on Audio-Technica mono and stereo mics with a few array mics. “We aren’t using an fixed, closed mic arays,” says Baxter. “They are all tunable arrays to keep the sound spread out.”

A DTS mono-to-stereo upmixer is also part of the arsenal to fatten up mono sound and give it dimensionality. “We don’t subscribe to wholesale upmixing but if it is all you can do you need to keep elevating the audio experience,” says Baxter.

A stereo-to-Surround synthesizer is also being used during figure skating to get the music into the surround channels. “We back off the LFE channel but the mix keeps the audience interested and excited,” says Baxter.

Looking to the future Baxter has one simple request: no cowbell.

“A cowbell clanging next to a mic can hit 140 decibels and there is no way to control that,” he says. “We need to ban two things: thunder stick and cowbells. They sound hideous.”

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