Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame: Bob Dixon, an Olympian in Sound Design
Though not particularly passionate about sports, Bob Dixon changed the way the world hears them on television.
Part of the first network group dedicated to Olympics production and having worked on Olympics broadcasts since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Dixon has guided the evolution of Olympics broadcast sound from mono to stereo (1988 Seoul) to discrete 5.1 surround (2008 Beijing). He has been part of the Games’ on-air sonic fabric for more than 30 years, and, even though he retired from NBC after the 2012 London Summer Games, his contributions in the form of innovative techniques and thoughtful leadership continue to enhance the sound of competition of all kinds on television.
“The great thing throughout my career has been that everyone I’ve worked for has let me try new things,” he says of the various networks he has guided audio for. “I was allowed to experiment, to try out new ideas. The people I’ve worked with over the years have been very supportive of that.”
Dixon’s path through the often uncertain terrain of broadcast audio began when the Waterbury, CT, native attended Graham Junior College in Boston, which happened to have one of the best broadcast curriculums available at a U.S. community college. Even there, audio took what seemed like a secondary role in broadcast production, and he learned the basics of video and film editing, lighting, and camera work.
Graduating in 1969, he took the first job in broadcast he could find, in the mailroom at Hartford’s public television station. Within 10 days, he was running a camera, but the station had a huge music agenda, ranging from classical to jazz to folk, and Dixon soon found himself working on shows, shooting and recording sets by Thad Jones, Thelonious Monk, and other jazz greats.
“When they offered me a job in audio, I told them that was the thing we covered least in school,” he remembers. “But they said, don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”
He did, and then some. After stints designing and installing sound systems in corporate environments and returning to college to get a B.A. — in philosophy, which he says perfectly balanced out the technical side of his education in school and on the job — Dixon went back to broadcast in 1979, just as ESPN was launching.
His first sports show was a bowling tournament in Waterbury. That led to years of constant remote work for ESPN, ABC, HBO, CBS, Fox, and Canadian networks CBC and TSN, mixing and designing audio for football, baseball, hockey, tennis, and boxing.
The Olympics connection came in 1984 when ABC hired NEP as the remote truck for the rowing and canoeing events at the Los Angeles Games. The experience went well, and Dixon was brought back in 1988 for the Seoul Summer Games, which became the first Olympics broadcast in stereo and where Dixon began pushing the boundaries of what audio for sports could be.
“It was incredible,” he says of the transition to stereo. “Everywhere we would usually put one microphone, I put two, set up in an X-Y pattern,” he recalls, noting, “They were mostly Sennheiser 416 shotguns.”
Sound design began to emerge as a valid aspect of sports on television as more microphones were used to cover ever larger Olympics campuses.
Chip Adams, VP, venue engineering, NBC Olympics, says that’s typical of Dixon, who was known for bringing new microphones into the field when they worked together in public television in Connecticut and Massachusetts: “He’d be climbing onto roofs looking for new and interesting ways to set up microphones.”
In 1996, NBC secured its first long-term contract to broadcast the Olympics, which prompted the creation of NBC Olympics, established under David Mazza. In 1998, Dixon ended his long freelance career, taking on the full-time position of manager of sound design for the group.
“When we set out to form the multi-Games Olympic group, there was no doubt we needed Bob to be part of it,” says Mazza, now SVP/CTO of NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics. “His vast experience in sound design, remotes, and live productions was a perfect fit.”
Dixon began making history immediately, although few may have known it at the time. The first use of matrixed 5.1 surround sound was for the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, carefully planned for but unannounced until after the fact, as was the case with discrete 5.1, first tried at the 2006 Torino Winter Games.
“Bob was always pushing to give the viewer the ‘best seat in the house,’” says Mazza. “This involved a constant push to get more and better microphones strategically placed where they could capture the most realistic effects. Even though Bob worked tirelessly to get the best possible effects sounds, he understood the big picture and always kept the announcers front and center.”
Dixon continued to tweak the nascent 5.1 surround format, culminating in the first deployment of discrete 5.1 audio throughout all event venues at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“We had been building towards that for a long time, but it still wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “The truck environments were very hostile to surround sound, in terms of monitoring and acoustical treatments. I’d monitor the mixes from the different venues and call the A1s to tell them what I was hearing. But, by the time we were in Vancouver , the technology and the techniques were getting settled.”
By the time of the 2012 London Games, Dixon had established dedicated 5.1 mixing environments in separate trailers with proper acoustical treatment and monitoring, and his A1s were using consoles that Calrec had adapted to Dixon’s specifications, all with the goal of freeing the A1s to focus on the mix.
He then turned his attention to other issues, such as accurate loudness measurement and monitoring, helping create the technical and best-practices foundations for the CALM Act.
But the Olympics remained his primary focus, and Dixon continually refined the quality of the Games’ sound: for example, bringing in his own microphones to supplement the host-broadcast surround-sound feed. He adopted cinematic practices, such as recording blank ambient sound at venues so that dialog edits done later sounded seamless.
What listeners hear in Olympics broadcasts is the sum of what Dixon has done. “I wished we could make it sound like a movie,” he says of broadcast-sports audio.
Yet he doesn’t measure his legacy that way. Instead he says, “It was the very close friendships that will last a lifetime I’ve made in the course of that work, the people that have told me I’ve helped them in some way. Those are my treasures. It was always about the people.”
That’s how colleagues know him. Karl Malone, director of sound design, NBC Sports, and Dixon’s direct successor, says, “One of the things I noticed about Bob is that, when you’d ask a technical question, he’d respond by saying, Oh, you need to speak to this person or that person, and not tell which microphones to get. He’s as interested in people as he is in sound design.”
Retirement does not mean rest for Dixon. He continues to consult, most recently on a project for DTS, and remains active in the AES and the DTV Audio Group. However, he will get to spend more time on his beloved Harley. And he was married again, last year, to Carolyn Cox.
“I never met anyone in our business that was as passionate about both the show and the people involved,” says Mazza. “Bob cares dearly about both.”