Live From PyeongChang: Karl Malone, NBC’s Director of Sound Design, on the 2018 Games
The goal is to bring the viewer into the middle of the action
If you listen to this year’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics, odds are you will hear a change from past years’ effort. OBS has taken steps on the production side to transition viewers from feeling like they are in the best seat in the house to feeling like they are right on the field of play. Microphones buried in the ice for figure skating and short-track speed skating are just one example of new positions that make it easier than ever for rightsholders like NBC Olympics to deliver a richer audio experience for everyone.
“Picking up the sounds from the field of play gives the viewer a lot more, and they are hearing things they have never heard before,” says Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. “The audio in the bobsled is like the audio you have from the POV in the cars at a NASCAR race, and it’s better than the best seat in the house: you’re an athlete.”
PyeongChang 2018 is Malone’s second Winter Olympics, so it is the first time he has had a chance to improve the experience from what he heard during the 2014 Sochi Games.
“Figure skating is sounding better. It was [a] problem child for us in 2014 as it was difficult to get the skate sounds and separation between the skate sounds, the crowd, and the music,” he explains. “Now new mic placement around the boards and under the ice provides the separation we need between the field of play and the other elements.”
The sliding events — bobsled, luge, and skeleton — have also seen some improvements since Sochi. The goal is to deliver an audio experience that conveys the speed.
“It’s a little bit more like NASCAR: you can hear what it sounds like when they go by you at 100 kmph,” he says. “We are always looking to re-create the excitement of being there and hearing the change in sound pressure when the four-man bobsled goes by.”
And then there is the flip side, an event like alpine and the experience of being at the top of the course in the start house with the skiers and their trainers. There is a quiet tension, and, with luck, the microphones pick up the breathing of the skier preparing to tackle the mountain.
“That’s the beauty of it,” says Malone. “There is the quietness at the top of the hill, the coach talking to them. The camera zooms in, and you hear them breathing. Then they are off down the hill, and the crowd starts to pick up as they get to the bottom.”
The NBC audio team does a lot of its own mixing and takes the audio stems from OBS and builds a mix using those stems, OBS submixes, and the audio from NBC’s unilateral camera mics.”
The alpine events this year take place on two hills, with one team handling the speed events and the other the tech events. The core NBC alpine production is working in Game Creek’s Justice production truck at the speed hill, and that truck is connected to a flypack at the tech hill.
“Technically, it is a challenge, but it seems to be working pretty well,” says Malone, adding, “We are sending audio splits and commentary over AT&T Media Links.”
One huge help in the process of getting the audio side of things up and running in PyeongChang was the pre-Games work of building the audio rooms at NBC Sports’ facility in Stamford, CT, so that all of the equipment could be integrated and tested.
“When we came here,” says Malone, “it was more or less plug-and-play audio over IP. If there were any issues, everybody could focus on solving it.”
The NBC Olympics audio team is also experimenting with Dolby Atmos, delivering it to homes as part of a 4K HDR feed available on a one-day delay. The feed is a downconvert and downmix of NHK’s 8K HDR production, which also has 22.2 surround-sound channels.
“We have a choice of NHK’s 5.1 downmix, or we can take the OBS 5.1 downmix,” says Malone. “We send that to Stamford with an audio split of four height mics as well as a split of the PA system in the venue and the announcers. Once there, it is mixed by John Steigerwald, our A1 who is working in the Mobile TV Group 39 Flex truck [which is where the 4K HDR show is produced]. It’s pretty straightforward: from there: the 10 audio channels are sent to Englewood Cliffs[, NJ,] for encoding into Dolby Atmos for delivery to viewers.”
Malone sees a future for a 9.1 audio experience because it is more immersive than a 5.1 mix.
“Dolby AC-4 [in the next-generation ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard] opens up a lot more creativity for the mixer,” he adds. “The mixes are really fantastic, and we are learning a lot about how much to put in the height speakers and how it impacts the downmix.”
The heart of the audio-production efforts in PyeongChang are two Calrec audio consoles and a Calrec Summa used as a backup. A Calrec Brio compact audio desk is out at the Coastal Cluster along with a Calrec RP1.
The Calrec RP1 remote-broadcast unit offers a new way of doing things, being controlled by the A1 in Stamford. The RP1 allows the remote operator to control mic gains, mix levels, and even fader levels.
“Instead of the operator in Stamford having to use a GUI or tablet for controlling the mix-minus, they can adjust it directly from the console,” Malone explains. “If the talent or guest needs a little more audio, the A1 can adjust it, and, because the RP1 is local and at the studio, there is no delay.”
Also new are Lawo LCU commentary units that allow commentary for ski jumping and curling to be sent over IP from the venues. Curling is ultimately produced in Stamford, while the ski-jumping events are produced from Control Room X in the IBC.
“It’s been a big change,” says Malone. “There have been some challenges with audio over IP, but we have an audio-specific broadcast-network team that will help us, as the challenge is helping audio engineers understand IP-based network switches.”
The audio-control rooms now have JBL 7 Series active studio monitors, providing a wider sweet spot for listening, something that is important in a big control room. “It’s also a great-sounding speaker,” says Malone, “and doesn’t tire over a long period of time.”
Also new in the production-control rooms are Soundweb Contrio volume-control units from BSS Networked Audio Systems.
“We are using the Waves audio processor,” he adds. “It’s normally used in postproduction for audio sweetening, but we are using it here to create profiles for our talent. Mics are getting smaller, so it allows us to sweeten the audio and make them sound better.”
Viewers at home looking for audio differences this year should keep an ear out for where the athlete’s equipment touches the snow and ice.
“The Winter Olympics is all about blades on snow and ice,” says Malone. “If you’re a skier, listen to the skis, and you will be able to tell if they are on snow or ice. That is one of those things that a skier can feel, and, if the listener is able to hear that, they will have a better sense of how the skier is feeling.”