NBA Audio Boosts Player Sound This Season

By Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group

NBA watchers are in for an earful this season, which began on Oct. 28 on TNT. Viewers will hear more player audio than last season.

“Player audio is going to be a bigger focus for us,” says Tom Sahara, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports, noting that signals from player microphones are still controlled by the league and are used only on replays now, short of the gold standard set by the NFL and its real-time scrimmage-line sound.

However, he adds, “we’re working closely with the league and hoping we’ll find a way to incorporate real-time audio at some point. But, this year, we’re getting a lot more access to the players and more buy-in from the players themselves.”

The collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association calls for up to two players per game to be wired for sound; for regionally broadcast games, it’s usually one player for the entire game.

Although many players have been reluctant to wear a microphone during nationally televised games, Sahara says, they are warming to the idea as it becomes clear that it deepens fan engagement with individual players and takes the connection beyond the telecast, with more of the audio now used for Website postings by the league, by teams, and by individual players.

Pioneering Audio
Basketball led major-league sports in wiring players for sound. The first microphone made specifically to be used on an athlete’s body was Quantum5X’s PlayerMic, developed in 2007 for use by the NBA.

This year, Q5X has a new model, the QT5100, ready for the new NBA season. Prototypes were tested last year in selected games and in the offseason. As with previous models of the microphone, the transmitters are sewn into pockets made for that purpose inside the jerseys that Adidas manufactures for NBA players, under an agreement with the league. A wire runs from the transmitter up to the collar of the jersey, where a Countryman B6 lavalier microphone is clipped.

The QT5100 is one-third the size of the original PlayerMic — a form factor that Quantum5X CEO Paul Johnson says the NBA specifically asked for — and, like its immediate predecessor, is covered in soft plastic; both features are designed to maximize player safety in the event of a fall or collision and to make it virtually invisible onscreen.

In addition, the new model operates in the 500 MHz RF band, anticipating the loss of the widely used 600 MHz UHF band that will be auctioned off by the FCC in 2016. The use of a lower-frequency band compelled the use of a longer antenna, and, unlike the one used for 600 MHz, which could be incorporated into the bodypack itself, the QT5100 has an external antenna, which Johnson says presented some manufacturing and ergonomic challenges. However, the company still managed to expand the transmitter’s functionality: this one is remotely controllable like the one it’s replacing but adds the capability for remote change of output level; earlier versions had output level fixed at the factory.

Johnson says he has seen the NBA come to embrace the idea of wiring players for sound. In fact, this year, for the first time, the league is purchasing its own PlayerMic kits and renting them to the teams through RF-services company Bexel, instead of the league’s renting them from Q5X.

The protocol for which players will wear a microphone during a nationally televised game can vary. In some cases, Turner Sports and ESPN will ask for particularly engaging players, or the league will present player suggestions to the broadcasters.

Player reactions to wearing microphone vary. “Different players are superstitious about it,” Johnson says. “Sometimes they’ll ask to take it off during halftime — unless they had a great first half. Then they say, ‘Leave it on!’”

Broadcast and Venue Sound Collaborate
Viewers may also notice how a change in arena ambience this year. In a unique collaboration, Sahara says, the network is working with the league and the venues’ live-sound-system operators to improve both the fan experience and the effects audio for the broadcast. Noting that many of the NBA arenas have had new, highly steerable sound systems installed in recent years, he says Turner’s audio staff is working in an “advisory capacity,” consulting on such aspects as system tuning, equalization, frequency response, pattern coverage, and sound-pressure levels (SPL) in an effort to optimize the sound in the arena and, by extension, the audio on television — for instance, by reducing acoustical reflections that reduce the intelligibility of announcements.

He points out that, while the home viewer gets an excellent experience in terms of sound effects from the court — sneaker squeaks, dribble effects — the quality of those sounds in the arena depends on seat location. “In the arena, you only hear what’s around you, especially in the higher seats,” he says. “Using things like PA systems that can be aimed much more precisely, we can help improve the sound of the game in the arena without affecting the quality of the sound of the broadcast.”

The NBA on Turner continues to be broadcast in 5.1 surround, as it has been since 2004, the sound captured by a combination of mono and stereo microphones. Turner continues to evaluate dedicated surround-microphone systems, but none have met expectations yet, says Sahara. “We’re continuing to experiment.”

He also notes that personnel cuts announced in early October across Time Warner — Turner Broadcasting plans to shed 1,475 jobs, or 10% of its workforce — will not affect the output of the sports division.

“All the divisions experienced some impact [from the cuts], including us,” he says. “But it will not affect our on-air product. All of our productions will continue to be done at the highest level possible. We feel secure in delivering that.”

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