SVG Sit-Down: Audio Legend Fred Aldous Discusses His ‘Repurposing,’ the COVID Effect on Sports Sound
Helping replace all the A1s set to retire is on his agenda
Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Fred Aldous, who in February announced that he’s stepping down as senior mixer at Fox Sports, helped us hear sports differently. Over a career spanning four decades, he brought his sonic magic to the NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR, and NCAA basketball, as well as the Olympics in the 1990s. And he did so for CBS Sports, NBC Sports, ABC Sports/ESPN, Turner Sports, Showtime, HBO, and, most recently, Fox Sports, for which he’ll remain a consultant. Aldous sat down with SVG to look back on his career and to discuss some of the critical issues facing sports sound.Fred, what’s happening?
I tell people I’m repurposing, not retiring. But, at 62 years old, I’ve been on the road for almost 40 years, and this last year with COVID really beat me up. It made me realize it’s time to move on and be available as a dad, a husband, and a granddad.
What are your plans now that you’re taking yourself off the road and away from mixing games?
Hopefully, consulting with Fox on all of their sports. I’ve been the audio consultant across the board with the network since 1998, and, as of now, [Fox Sports SVP, Technical and Field Operations] Mike Davies and I have come to an agreement that I’ll stay on for a while.
Other than that, I plan on being involved with CRAS [the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Science, a Phoenix-area media-arts school whose broadcast-audio program Aldous helped establish] a bit more once the COVID restriction lifts. When we get back to some normalcy, I’ll be over there more as an advisor. And I have a music-publishing company and write music with a couple of partners. I’m probably going to delve into that a little bit deeper.
We’re talking the day after MLB Opening Day. What are your thoughts on where baseball audio is now, especially considering how much player audio we heard during Spring Training?
That’s a good question. I think that, until we start getting back to 100% capacity with crowds, we will still do some crowd[-sound] enhancement to help give shows that big baseball feel. I think we’ve gotten used to hearing more from the field and from the players on the field of play and we’re gonna miss some of that once the crowds get back in and we contaminate the field stuff with [real] crowd reactions. Then again, I think the crowd reactions are extremely important because they give the flavor of the game.
Do you think there’s a way to find a middle road on that? Once the crowds are back, do you think there’s a way to keep some of those natural field sounds in the mix?
I think it all depends on the capacity of crowds that are back, but we most definitely will lose a lot of that [field audio]. We’ll go back to what we were used to before, because, during the crowd-enhancement period, you didn’t have anything contaminating the microphones on the field of play, even though some of the stadiums had crowd noise pumped into the stadium itself. It still wasn’t like having 48,000 fans there, where those same effects mics would pick up the crowd as well as the sounds of the field. Once we get back to full fans, those field-effect microphones are going to pick even up more of the crowd than we did [last season], when there was nothing there to pick up but the sounds of the field.
Any way around that, technologically speaking: more microphones, more-precisely aimed microphones, more mics on players?
I don’t know if more is better, to be honest with you. Sometimes less is better; that also works for music. It’s all perspective. Do you want to feel the excitement of the event with a crowd mixed into that, you know, big and heavy? Or do you want it to be more of a cinematic sound, where you’re getting more of just the field sound and able to pinpoint, isolate that stuff? It all depends on the perspective that you’re looking for.
People may miss the detailed sound we’ve had for the past year.
I think, from a broadcast-fan perspective, absolutely they’re going to miss that. Players are not going to miss it at all because we’re hearing things out on the field of play that we’ve never heard before, and that has caused some reluctance on the part of athletes to express themselves once they figured out that we were picking up conversations and things.
But the leagues themselves still have some restrictions as to what we can air. A lot of times, they’ll come to us and say, Hey, we’d really prefer you guys not pick this particular conversation up, say in a dugout or between the first-base coach and the runner — something we’re able to do without any crowd out there. I hope that we can still put more of the field of play into the mix than we’ve done before.
Once we get back to 100% of audience capacity, will you personally miss the kind of detailed audio that we’ve been getting for the past year?
I think there was a great opportunity to change how we listen and view an event. And yes, I think we will miss some of that, but I will also be very happy to have actual crowd back in my mix vs. “canned crowd.” As much as I think all the networks have done a great job of crowd replacement, there is still nothing greater than a live crowd to react to a play or any situation on the field.
Your semi-retirement comes at a time when several of your A1 colleagues are also hanging up their headphones. That brings up the elephant in the room: who is going to replace you and your generation of A1s?
When we put the curriculum together at CRAS seven years ago, we had all of the networks pretty much tell us, Hey, we’ll take as many interns as you can give us. But, once we started sending out interns, it was like, Well, we’re going to take from this school closer to us instead. And then, [they said] the union’s not going to allow us to have an intern on board unless they’re paid interns. I am not sure [the networks] pay interns. So it has been a real challenge to get people in.
I would love to have had an intern come out with me on the road and learn the work. The problem is that there are expenses that are involved with that and there’s no allocation for travel expenses for an intern. And there are union issues: all internships have to be paid. So you’re running into labor costs, travel costs, housing costs. Within the next seven to 10 years, you’re going to have two-thirds of the live-sports mixers ready to [retire], and there aren’t a lot of people coming up behind us. We tried to figure out a way to help bridge that transition by creating a curriculum like we did [at CRAS]. I know that some universities are doing the same thing. But I do think, one day, they are going to wake up and realize we don’t have people to fill these positions.
Might that compel broadcasters to look at more-automated solutions to address that? Also, look at what has been done with at-home–production techniques over the past few years and especially during COVID, which have reduced personnel requirements.
The pandemic forced us into more at-home/REMI-style productions, which I think is a good thing. But the other side of that is, as you still need mixers at a base location, you still need bodies to come in and mix those shows. You still need bodies onsite to set up the hardware. That stuff doesn’t get automated. It’s hard to automate sports [because] you don’t have a script. You don’t know how it’s going to unfold. You have to have to be able to follow the action.
Is the pool of A2s a possible source of next-generation A1s?
Not everyone wants the pressure of sitting in that chair. They see the stress that we go through as mixers and the pressure that’s put on us, listening to a producer, a director, and associate director all at the same time while troubleshooting and, of course, mixing— and never making a mistake. I don’t think many of them really want to be put in that position.
What other technical or workflow issues are facing this sector in the near future?
With everything moving to an IT-based format, I think it is essential that every audio person, from mixers to A2s, learn IT protocols.
What do you consider your most satisfying accomplishments when it comes to broadcast-sports audio?
Looking back on a career where I was able to be involved with some very talented people and how we changed the way the world listened to sports audio with miking/mixing techniques, equipment, and moving from stereo into a surround world, from our early matrix shows to discrete surround.
What will you miss most? (Not airports, I’m sure.)
The people and the friendships I have made over the years. Road crews become our second families and, sometimes, our first families. You spend not only the workday with them but meals and entertainment as well. You become very close. And, no, I will not miss airports, rental-car facilities, or hotels.