Audio for NBA All-Star Event Reflects COVID Effect

Enhanced crowd sound, virtual fans’ sound will be deployed

In all of major-league sports, the NBA arguably made the most radical changes to its season’s structure last year, when COVID compelled the league to confine all team play to a single multi-court venue in the Orlando area. Although this season’s play is almost back to normal, with teams playing in their own arenas and traveling to visit rivals, COVID is having its effect on the NBA All-Star Game.

The usual three-day series of events — the Skills Challenge and Three-Point Contest on Friday and Saturday, the All- Star Game itself on Sunday — will take place on a single day, March 7, at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Audio for the event, which will be broadcast on TNT Sports, is adapting.

Dave Grundtvig has mixed the All-Star Game’s audio as its A1 since 2003 and was instrumental in creating new sonic dimensions for the league’s broadcasts last year, developing and building an under-floor microphone array that created a crisp sonic picture of court sound effects, such as sneaker squeaks and ball bounces. This year, Grundtvig will serve as the NBA All-Star Game’s overall sound designer, and, although there won’t be a subfloor of microphones underfoot, a dozen or so of the custom transducers he built for it will be positioned around the perimeter of the court.

“The NBA All-Star Game is unlike any other major-sports all-star event,” he says. “Those are typically one day, while the NBA All-Star Game is a huge entertainment event encompassing three days. It’s massive, and now it has to be compressed into one day. You have the world feed, you have entertainment, you have the inner-arena experience and all these entities that share all resources, such as the comms. It’s a massive undertaking.”

Instead of the usual three remote-broadcast trucks, two mobile production units will be on hand. The All-Star Game itself will be handled by NEP Supershooter 4. Everything else — including the Skills and Three-Point events and pre/postgame studio shows, the submix, and some tape/replay operations — will go through NEP EN2, whose production room will be used for the studio show.

Grundtvig says the scale of the event within its newly compressed timeline means that he can’t also mix the game’s broadcast. That will be done this year by A1 Jamie McCombs.

‘The Studio Is Part of the Game, The Game Is Part of the Studio’

Infrastructure and signal-path distribution for audio will essentially be a sort of matrix, with splits between all key locations, including the arena live-sound mixer and the broadcast trucks. The main trunks are two 56-channel, three-way transformer-isolated splitters. Their outputs will go to two 48-channel Calrec Hydra boxes per truck.

“It’s challenging in that, in the past, it was more segmented: the studio is going to go here, we’re going to switch to the entertainment truck across this commercial, there’s going to be entertainment out of this break, and then it goes to the game,” Grundtvig enumerates. “Now the studio is part of the game, the game is part of the studio. It’s this big, cross-pollinated matrix where, before, everyone was their own entity. Now we’re all one.”

Besides surface-mounting his bespoke transducers on the court, Grundtvig will place RF wireless lavalier mics on rims and backboards for the game and on the various targets for the other competitions. The athletes and coaches will wear wireless Q5X Player transmitters, supplied to the league and managed by Bexel, at least during the game itself and possibly for some of the other events. All other RF operations, including frequency management, are being overseen by Firehouse Productions, which is also providing its crowd-sound system for the event.

(There will be no fans will be in attendance at this year’s All-Star Game, although each player participating in the game or any of the skills challenges will be allowed to bring up to four family members, close friends, or their agents, as well as a trainer for the duration of their stay in Atlanta.)

Crowd Sound Gets Its Own PA System

Firehouse Productions will provide the same enhanced-crowd-sound kit that it developed for last year’s NBA bubble and that the league has mandated teams use locally this season, including a Launchpad controller for the sampled crowd sounds stored on a laptop computer. These will be operated by the Hawks’ own audio mixers, who use the term sweeteners, a reference to the practice of augmenting sound effects for film and television.

The company will also provide the house PA systems for the All-Star Game: four line-array hangs comprising 10 L-Acoustics K1 speakers on top of six K2 speakers programmed to cover the socially distanced seating areas; a second system, aimed at the court, consisting of four hangs of six K2 speakers each, similar to the PA systems that Firehouse is also supplying to several NBA teams’ home arenas and intended to energize the players.

The actual sound samples to be used are still undergoing last-minute choices and tweaking, with the possibility of including some samples from previous All-Star Games, as well as samples from EA Sports’ NBA videogames and live recordings from Turner Sports’ archives. The mixes will also be approached with some significant nuance adaptations.

“The crowd at an All-Star game reacts differently than they do for a typical home or away game,” notes Firehouse Productions VP Mark Dittmar.

The company plans enhancement of the audio for the virtual crowd displayed in the venue, being managed by virtual-event–production firm The Famous Group.

“We want to make sure those fans are getting a good in-arena experience as well,” he says, adding that the virtual fans’ own sound will be tested to see if it can be included in either the broadcast audio or live sound in the arena.

The single largest audio-system deployment, however, is a massive Riedel intercom system, a combination of wired Artist and wireless Bolero units, which Dittmar says might total as many as 500 users, including production staffers working from home as part of the event’s COVID-safety protocols. Firehouse Productions has been the comms provider for the NBA All-Star Game for six years, when technical stakeholders decided to split responsibility for it between those working inside the venue and those in the broadcast compound, instead of a split between television and live production as it had been apportioned previously.

“This way is better for things like troubleshooting,” notes Dittmar. “It’s also better-suited for working under the quarantine conditions. It lets everyone focus on their respective areas of responsibility.”

Between enhanced crowd sound, multiple PA systems, and stringent pandemic protocols in a venue chosen only weeks ago — the game was relocated from its original Indianapolis destination — the 2021 NBA All-Star Game’s audio promises to be one for the books.

“It’s a very different model than we’ve used in the past for the All-Star Game,” says Grundtvig. “There are a lot of moving parts on this show.”

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