ESPN Gears Up for College Basketball in Discrete 5.1 Surround

ESPN has done it for NFL, for baseball, IndyCar, golf, extreme sports, and college football. On Nov. 9, the all-sports network will extend its capability for discrete-5.1-surround audio to college basketball with a 24-hour marathon across most of its channels.

ESPN has been broadcasting collegiate b-ball since around the turn of the century in encoded/matrixed surround over two channels. The technology to take the surround format fully discrete has been in place for some time, but the network has made it a practice to roll the discrete versions out sport by sport, season by season. That, says Kevin Cleary, senor technical audio producer, event operations, for ESPN, is based on largely operational considerations: specifically, on staff training.

“We’ve added another eight channels, so channels 9 through 16 are 5.1 discrete,” Cleary explains, adding that the rest of the remote truck infrastructure also has to be put in place, including 16-channel routers and dual-path embedders that would match the transmission infrastructure that the ESPN plant has in Bristol, CT. “So the rest is really about getting our guys who haven’t worked on discrete 5.1 trained for it. The number of people we can call on is finite, but the good news is that we have a lot of crossover: some of the A1s who work on college basketball also work on other sports that are already done in discrete 5.1 surround.”

Cleary says he has been visiting various arenas with several of his top mixers and documentation on the 16-channel router configuration, outlining ESPN’s 5.1-discrete production procedures, a methodology necessitated by the fact that virtually all A1s are independent contractors. But, he adds, this kind of extension of audio skills will likely continue beyond discrete 5.1.

“Shows that these guys are working on won’t become any less complex five years from now, so this is part of an ongoing process,” he says. “In addition to the discrete 5.1, we’re already doing a domestic re-air, an international and a commercial stereo show, as well as adding another stereo pair for streaming. Each one impacts the workflow, so we have to adjust.”

According to Dan “Buddha” Bernstein, who has been mixing Big East basketball shows for five years, there won’t be much of a procedural change for A1s who have until now been doing the show Lt-Rt, but there will be more emphasis on the rear channels now that the surround mix is discrete.

“Every arena is different,” he points out, “but they’re all pretty tightly enclosed spaces, and some of them are small, so the challenge and the goal is to make even the smallest arenas sound big.”

Bernstein expects the trucks from NEP and other suppliers to have certain key pieces of gear aboard, such as a fiber-based booth kit. According to DaySequerra President David Day, each ESPN Big East broadcast uses seven DaySequerra-DTS boxes to make the discrete 5.1 and stereo feeds uplinked from the game remote to Bristol — including the iLM8-Live, a dual DSP 5.1 loudness meter to simultaneously measure the discrete surround 4.0 bed and 5.1 stems, so that the mixer can make sure that the announcer isn’t buried by sneaker squeak and crowd effects.

“ESPN uses two DaySequerra Mono2Stereo units each with a proprietary DTS four-channel synthesizer algorithm to produce an artifact-free, stereo-effects soundstage from multiple mono shotgun mics,” he explains. “This is fed to a DaySequerra-DTS UpMix to complete the 4.0 surround bed. The [center-]announce track is then dropped in on the bed at the board to complete the 5.0 mix. Two stereo feeds are transmitted along with the 5.1 discrete feeds back to ESPN in Bristol: one with broadcast-rights–managed music and a second with rights-free music for re-air. Each feed is made in the remote truck; the 5.1 stems from the board are input to a DaySequerra-DTS DownMix to make each stereo feed.”

Cleary says that most of the adjustments for basketball in discrete 5.1 are on the transmission end; the number of microphones, their type, and their placement will remain largely the same as before. The shows’ levels will also remain compliant with the -24 LKFS standard, as per the CALM Act, whose requirement that commercials have the same average volume as the programs they accompany goes into full effect on Dec. 13, about a month after the college season begins.

This brings all the key college sports — football, baseball, and now basketball —into the discrete-5.1-surround age. Could lacrosse be next?

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