Networked Audio Prepares University of Miami for COVID-Safe Production

Existing Dante network serves as backbone of remote workflow

Major-league sports’ workflows were significantly disrupted last year by the coronavirus pandemic. An extra square foot became valued in control rooms and other shared production spaces, and personnel increasingly found themselves working from isolation space, including their own homes.

The same pressures affected college sports productions. That is true at the University of Miami, although an early commitment to networked audio made the situation less disruptive.

UM’s production-services department produces linear and streaming broadcasts on ESPN2, the ACC Network, and other outlets for women’s volleyball, basketball, baseball, soccer, and track and field. (The lone sport at the University of Miami that the production team doesn’t produce is football; the Hurricanes’ production is done from nearby Hard Rock Stadium via broadcasters’ remote-production trucks.)

“Right now, remote broadcasts have proven to be a reliable way of continuing the production,” says Anthony Lestochi, director, production services, University of Miami.

With multiple events going on, University of Miami’s on-campus control room handles around 100 Dante signals.

Fortunately, UM’s production department had already started down the road to remote production, putting all of the department’s audio and its control onto an Audinate Dante network.

“We don’t have a single XLR patch anywhere in our workflow,” notes Lestochi. “Moving to [networked audio] was clearly the better way to operate. It made building out our production really easy and effective. And, when COVID happened, it made it easy to quickly adapt.”

When COVID canceled live sports production there on March 13 last year, the staff initially thought the shutdown would last a matter of weeks. But it wasn’t until August that they were able to restart operations. By then, the department had designed and implemented its own health and safety protocols, including testing and socially distancing personnel in production spaces. It collaborated on that with the ACC Network and others in what Lestochi characterized as “a conference-wide conversation.”

Production functions — EVS replay, the live slow-motion controller — were moved into separate rooms, and Unity Intercom internet-based communications were implemented. The latter also allowed the UM production crew to interface with broadcasters, such as ESPN2, which had also moved to IP-based intercom platforms. Ethernet and fiber cabling was installed.

“We totally rearranged the space and put up new physical barriers to allow for effective social distancing in the new control room,” says Lestochi, who had to isolate himself and work remotely at one point when a roommate appeared to test positive for the virus. “Before this, ESPN would send a director, producer, and an AD and AP here for shows; now they’re all working from Bristol.”

The existing Dante network, installed in late 2018, proved to be the backbone for this process. A pair of Yamaha CL5 consoles and a Behringer X32 desk provide audio-mixing capabilities for the slew of networked-audio signals. Field and announcer microphones located onsite were made Dante-native using Shure ANI4IN audio network interfaces. Multiple Studio Technologies 45DR Dante–to–2-channel partyline intercom interfaces are used to allow two-way communication, and a Bella 4 confidence monitoring rack provides up to four monitoring points per endpoint. In total, Lestochi says, roughly 60 Dante devices are in use in the production, and, on any given day, multiple productions can take place, with around 100 Dante signals running across the local network.

“Because it was a Dante-backed system,” he says, “we could run all of our new positions for equipment onto the network and know it would work quickly.”

Staffers, Talent Work From Home

As men’s and women’s winter-season basketball starts up, the school’s networked audio is being further extended remotely, including into staffers’ homes. Glensound Inferno commentator’s boxes, which are Dante-native kits built specifically for live announcer commentary, have been sent to announcers for home use. The system interfaces with the user’s Mac computer using Dante Virtual Soundcard and Unity Connect software, which facilitates sending a Dante signal over public internet.

“That setup allows for bidirectional channels and two-way communication,” Lestochi says. “The talent can talk to each other as they watch the game, and the director and producer can also talk with the talent. Without that setup, it would be nearly impossible for us to do this. It enables the talent to work the games from their home without much difference in the quality of the broadcast.”

Located on the University of Miami campus, the control room brings in the audio signal and provides mixing and audio-to-video embedding, using an Evertz Scorpion-4 media-processing platform, and sends out the final product via direct line to the university’s production partner for the event.

“We’ve practiced this quite a few times,” Lestochi says. “I think what we’re feeling right now is confidence.”

Networked audio helped prepare UM’s production department for the unforeseen calamity that was COVID, and it was an investment that he says paid off in more ways than one. He notes, for example, that he can log in to a university system remotely from his house and quickly make a change on Dante Controller software to ensure that the system is working effectively.

“It would definitely be a lot more expensive and require a lot more hardware and cabling,” he says. “And the management of the system, and some of the technical aspects to the audio signals, would be very, very tricky if we were doing this with copper. It would likely be far too complex to feasibly do.”

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