Fast & Furious: Balancing Audio Effects, Music, PA at NBA Playoffs

If you watched the NBA Playoffs and the first games of the Finals last week, you would have heard one of the toughest calls in sports broadcasting. No, not a controversial foul call but rather the balancing act of keeping coherent what has become perhaps the most cacophonous sport on television.

“We’ve been fighting PA issues in the arenas for some time,” explains Tom Sahara, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports, and new chairman of the Sports Video Group Advisory Board. He says the combination of music, sound effects, and announcements playing through the PA systems at NBA games vary in density and volume from venue to venue, and some, including the Miami Heat’s home at American Airlines Arena, are particularly challenging, especially during the passion of postseason. “Each venue has its own philosophy of how to entertain its audience, and we’re in constant discussions with the venues and with the NBA about the PA and when and how it’s used.”

NBA arenas have become progressively more boisterous in recent years. League Commissioner David Stern famously ranted about noise and pyrotechnics in 2008. Sahara says NBA arena PA systems haven’t necessarily become that much louder but the amount they are used and the density of their content — often booming out music, sound effects, and cheerleading exhortations simultaneously — has increased, creating a challenge to building a coherent broadcast mix.

This becomes especially acute during postseason play. In response, Turner adds a separate audio-effects mixer for postseason broadcasts. For the recently completed NBA Playoffs, A1 Dave Grundvig’s production mix was augmented with Pat Thornton’s effects mixing.

Looking for the Sweet Spot
Sahara notes that broadcast mixers have to constantly react to the changing output of the PA system. “You’re always looking for the sweet spot, but, as the PA systems get louder, you don’t have any real choice other than to pull the effects mix back a bit. You have to keep the announcers out in front and keep it an enjoyable experience for the viewer.”

Laughs Pat Thornton, “Every arena wants to be a concert.” He adds that, as at concerts, the noise ebbs and flows around moments within the larger event, requiring the effects mixers to be as nimble as the players themselves. Thornton’s strategy — he mixed the effects in Indiana and Miami on a DiGiCo SD10B console — is based on deploying more microphones around the court, opening each fader as action takes place nearby and closing it and moving to the next one as the action moves around the court.

“There’s only so much level I can send to Dave [Grundvig], so I’m big on isolation — keeping open only the mics near where the ball is at any one time and using highly directional cardioid microphones,” he explains. “There are mixers who group microphones in order to cover a wider area, but they’ll also have to pull more of the overall effects sound back when the PA and the crowd suddenly get louder.”

The Sennheiser MKH 816 shotgun microphone mounted on a handheld camera offers excellent pickup for such effects as sneakers and ball bounces. However, Thornton points out, the director will have the cameras in constant motion as the play moves around the court, forcing more reliance on court-side microphones. Unfortunately, that’s where the volume spikes can be the greatest. One item he has been using that he says helps with that is the relatively inexpensive Russian-made Oktava MK-102, a microphone that is intended for studio use but compares favorably with the more expensive Neumann KM 184. “Their pickup pattern is great,” he says. “I can put them against the signs at the far side of the court, and they’ll give me great coverage but can also withstand the high noise level.”

But NBA shows are also still heavily anchored to music that emphasizes the low end, and, when the arena PA cranks that up, Thornton says, he’ll often have to engage a roll-off filter that cuts off below 120 Hz. “Too much at the frequency range just kills the mids.”

Turner Sports’ NBA Playoffs broadcasts have also become more complex. Now all in 5.1 surround, the shows make increasing use of the microphones worn by team coaches. That audio has to be reviewed by the league before it can be aired, but the speed of the game often means that the process is zipped through in a matter of a couple of minutes, with the sound bites ready to be played back by the return from a network break or even after action resumes after a referee’s play-stopping call. The camera-mounted Sennheiser 816 and 416 shotgun mics also are used to pick up dialog on the court, and Sahara says the A1 has to be careful about what is allowed on-air in real time, to avoid giving away strategy.

It’s a lot of information — game sound effects, a PA teeming with sound, on-air announcers and on-court dialog — all at once, fast and furious.

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