Surround Microphones Still a Market in Progress

Surround audio has become entrenched as a standard format in sports broadcasting. But the tools of the trade are far from standardized. In creating 5.1 soundscapes, A1s seem to use multiple mono or stereo microphones as often as dedicated multichannel microphones.

Phil Adler, mixer for the NFL on CBS, opts for the former. “My preference is to use multiple mics for several reasons,” he explains. “One is coverage. Let’s use an NFL stadium for an example. With a single surround microphone, you’re capturing ambience from one location. Multiple mics capture samples from all over the large stadium for different crowd reactions, different PA slapback, and so on. If one fan near a mic is whistling, blowing a horn, I can dump it and favor another. Same for equipment failure. A single [microphone] location locks you in. For my shows, multiple mic placement and type — a combination of wide cardioid, shotgun, and stereo X/Y most of the time — make for a more flexible and interesting ambient mix.”

Jonathan Freed, who mixes NFL and NBA for ESPN, follows a somewhat different philosophy. “I am a dedicated proponent of single-point [multichannel] arrays as the anchoring element of an ambient surround-sound field,” he says. “I feel that this technique provides the most realistic image in space to achieve the sonic illusion of being in a virtual location in the venue: for example, ‘in the stands on the near side,’ which is usually the virtual visual location in sports.”

To achieve that, Freed uses an X-shaped array: four Sennheiser MKH 8060 shotgun mics as one surround array, and a surround microphone (either the Holophone H2Pro that he owns or a Soundfield DSF-2), mounted on 10-ft. poles located at the border between the near-side stands and the playing field and planted about 12 ft. apart; and a pair of Neumann digital cardioids up high outside the announce booth.

“I blend the high cardioids carefully [to create a sense of size of the venue] and the two field-level 5.1 arrays for positional space” to create a “virtual seat” for the listener, Freed explains. “Positional space means that you get the sonic illusion of being somewhere real, at a fixed location, which you cannot get with mics distributed all around the field, which to me sounds like a big crowd with no positional information, just lots of crowd randomly all over the surround field.”

(His ambience mix is actually a 4.0 configuration: left and right front, left and right rear; the center is left clear for the announcers, and the .1 LFE is separately generated and controlled.)

In a very real sense, surround microphones share a place along the cultural divide between U.S. and European broadcasters. Pieter Schillebeeckx, head of R&D for UK-based Soundfield, which makes the DFS2 and DFS3 multichannel microphones, points out that American A1s like to focus on closeup, individual sounds, while their European counterparts prefer more generalized, less specific ambience in the rear channels.

“It’s a cultural difference, a style difference,” he says. “But it’s something that you can notice between the two.”

Michael Descoteau, VP of North American sales for Wohler, which took over sales and marketing of Soundfield’s line on this side of the Atlantic over the summer, says the nature of the U.S. broadcast market, which is heavily dependent on freelance mixers, makes devising a sales strategy complicated, particularly with surround microphones being considerably more expensive than almost any other type of transducer used in broadcasting. The Soundfield DFS3 and its attendant processing and other gear costs about $14,000 at retail.

“We’re seeding the market now,” lending surround microphones to some key A1s to experiment with, Descoteau says. The hope is that the tactic generates enough demand that networks and rental houses sense a need and a market for them. In addition, he hopes that sales to other entertainment broadcast venues can build some economies of scale and reduce unit prices over time.

Schillebeeckx notes that that has already happened in the UK, where he says several OB van builders, rental companies and networks, including the BBC and Sky Sports, have purchased Soundfield’s 5.1 microphones.

At Holophone, the 5.1-microphone manufacturer with the largest broadcast-market share in North America, Technical and Creative Director Ryan Fitzgibbon says the use of a dedicated multichannel microphone does not have to exclude the use of single-point arrays as well.

“Our microphones are not intended to replace discrete elements but to add ambience to them,” he says. “[The multichannel microphone] becomes the blueprint for the surround field. You use it to get what the venue sounds like and mix individual discrete sound elements on top of that.” He cites Toronto-based Dome Productions’ use of the Holophone H2Pro 5.1 for Canadian Hockey League broadcasts.

Fitzgibbon adds that smaller venues can benefit from a single multichannel microphone because it can replace multiple single-point mics and, in the process, reduce setup time, helping create return on what is a significant investment compared with most microphones. Holophone’s H2Pro 5.1 model is priced at $4,995.

“In terms of return on investment,” he says, “you have to look at it as getting [six or more] microphones in a single package.”

Retailers and rental houses do stock surround microphones but say that demand is fairly low. However, as 5.1 surround audio moves deeper into broadcast sports, into second-tier professional and college leagues, demand for a single-source surround solution could expand, particularly if use of multichannel microphones continues to increase in other applications, such as live event broadcasts, eventually helping make their unit prices more affordable.

That goal could also be helped by the imminent implementation of AES-X189, which establishes a standard for the connector type and contact assignment for microphones having four or more balanced analog output channels, which would encourage their use on a wider array of cameras. Because as Holophone’s relatively new H2Pro 7.1 microphone suggests, the future of broadcast will have more channels, not fewer, to contend with.

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