Enhanced All-Star Game Sound Points Toward the Future
The Midsummer Classic saw more complex sound than the sport has ever enjoyed
Last Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game may have been a bit of a ratings disappointment, but those who tuned into the game heard the next generation of baseball broadcast audio, with more-complex sound than the sport has ever enjoyed.
Having tested the concept during two Arizona Diamondbacks spring-training games in March, Fox Sports arrived at PetCo Field in San Diego last week with a much larger array of microphones and audio sources than ever before. Up to 16 new microphones were buried, in pairs to achieve a stereo image, in the outfield grass and at the outer perimeter of the infield near where the shortstop and second baseman typically play to capture infield and outfield plays close-up in a way that has never been attained using only distance microphones, such as shotguns and parabolic microphones. Additional parabolics and player microphones were also deployed.
Bob Qua, the Fox Sports effects submixer on the game, recalls that he faced a math challenge when he sat down at his Presonus 32 mixer squeezed into the stadium’s announcer booth. “I had to put 43 microphones into a 32-input console,” he says. “I never had that problem before on a baseball game.”
Qua’s quandary was one that all sports face, with enhanced audio seen as a way to keep broadcast sports engaging and immersive for viewers. With increased field and court audio for NFL and NBA games, baseball seems ready for its turn.
One Pleased Fox
Michael Davies, SVP, field and technical operations, Fox Sports, says that network is enthusiastic about the possibilities of enhanced audio for baseball. “We were pleased. The audience was treated to things that they’d never heard before: things like an outfielder yelling, ‘I got it! I got it!’ we only used to hear before if we got lucky.”
Fox Sports and MLB will collectively consider using these techniques for postseason play this year, Davies adds. Fox will broadcast the National League Division and Championship Series, and the World Series during postseason. He also notes that the same audio crew on the All-Star Game had worked Fox Sports’ broadcast of the U.S. Open golf tournament, where it deployed new microphone locations, such as in the hole cups. “This was the same team as we had for golf,” he says. “I like the path we’re headed down now.”
Audio All Over
For audio geeks, the All-Star Game was a candy store. “It would be hard to pick the most interesting microphone locations; we were hearing things all over that we’d never heard before,” Qua says. “But, if I had to pick one, it would be the microphone on the pitcher’s mound.”
That microphone, one of more than a dozen Quantum 5X QT-5100 AquaMic units, chosen for their resistance to moisture and remote–battery-management capability, was placed near the cleat scraper on the mound, a location arrived at after the spring-training experiments. It picked up the grunts that are part and parcel of throwing a ball at nearly 100 mph.
“It really showed off the athleticism of the game,” observes Joe Carpenter, the show’s A1, who, in addition to the regular array of audio sources he mixes during a game, took on eight more effects microphones in order to lighten Qua’s load. “For the first time, you could hear what it physically takes to throw a ball that hard.”
According to Quantum 5X Chairman/CEO Paul Johnson, the Canadian firm has received “positive” feedback from Fox Sports. “We hope to … eventually have this type of audio capture become a regular part of broadcasts,” he adds. “The people I have talked to have indicated that they … feel that it brings them closer to the game.”
The infield around the bases had the most intense sound coverage: wireless lavalier microphones were located in the base bags themselves, and several players wore wireless mics. Combining them with the in-ground sources created an entirely new audio picture for the broadcast.
“There were moments where we had the first baseman and the runner at first base miked, as well as the bag itself,” Qua recalls. “Then the runner heads to second, and you can hear the shortstop calling and the runner sliding. It was thrilling.”
Carpenter says he built his end of the effects mix starting from the microphone at the pitcher’s mound, one that got as much of a workout as the bullpens as a succession of pitchers let out growls and yelps as they threw fire from the hill. From there, he blended in the mics closest to the infield as needed.
“Ninety-five percent of it was the pitcher’s-mound mic,” he estimates. “That’s the one that really communicated the athleticism that you’d hear on the field.”
Some operational issues had to be worked out. For instance, the signal strength of the in-ground microphones in the outfield varied as a function of distance and other factors. During the tests in Arizona, wireless-systems provider CP Communications deployed helical antennas, which are highly directional; PetCo Field has passive Sennheiser 5000CP antennas, which can cover a broader field but not with a necessarily even intensity.
“As the mics got farther away,” Qua explains, “the reception became more difficult.”
It also took some experimentation to coordinate the groups of effects microphones that each mixer worked with. “We had to split them up,” he adds. “We just don’t have enough fingers otherwise, and the consoles had their own limitations.”
The six-second delay was under the network’s control, Carpenter notes. With so much more audio being broadcast in near real time, the engineer working the delay trigger had to stay attentive. However, one of the advantages to having the broadcast network controlling the delay was that he could build a mix that would avoid a dead-air hole in the event the audio had to be bleeped.
“I set it up so that only the [new] effects mics would go through the delay,” he explains. “The crowd sounds and regular effects like the bat cracks would be able to make up a sound bed, and you wouldn’t notice the loss of sound if they had use the delay. When you lose all of the audio completely for a second or two [if the delay is engaged], it’s very jarring. This way, it’s really seamless.”
Carpenter says the audio “kill” switch was used at most two or three times during the broadcast and listeners would not have noticed any dropouts. “It was very minor stuff anyway.”
Perhaps the evening’s biggest challenge was finding some of the buried outfield microphones after the game. At the end, Qua left the microphone channels’ faders up and had the A2s on the field play a terrestrial version of “Marco Polo” as he listened to them getting closer to each one.
Both Carpenter and Qua hope the experiment moves forward. “It’s was definitely exciting,” says Qua.
Adds Carpenter, “We accomplished what we set out to: we didn’t let it give away any strategy, there was nothing embarrassing, and you heard baseball like you never did before.”