USFL Mixers for Fox, NBC Find Their Rhythm on a Profusion of Audio Sources
Players, coaches, coordinators, and officials are miked
To some, the USFL is a peek into an alternate future reality for the NFL. If it is, an extra pair of hands or three might be useful.
The audio sources for each game, held at Protective Stadium, the recently christened 45,000-seat home of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, include 32 player microphones per game — 16 per team — plus mics on coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators (captured through their intercom partylines), and a separate channel to listen in on officials’ debates about on-field rulings. Another channel on the PLs can be switched to for interviews with coaches during the game.
A1 Joe Carpenter, sound designer for Fox Sports’ airing of the initial couple of USFL games, says the league’s first weekend pretty much filled up the entire 192-channel digital matrix on the Calrec Artemis console aboard Game Creek’s Gridiron truck. “We were literally getting crafty about getting so many [sources] into and out of the console.”
For starters, two completely distinct and discrete 5.1 mixes go to the two networks; besides to Fox Sports, Carpenter sends a parallel 5.1 feed to NBC Sports’ facility in Stamford, CT, for a simulcast. The networks play different music for transitions. In addition, the Fox Sports broadcasts use Chyron Paint telestrator, whose processing latency adds just six frames to the feed. That’s not much, but, on a rolling basis, it adds to the audio-heavy workflow’s timeline.
“Just leaving the truck,” says Carpenter, “I had to send all of my transmission to the [engineer in charge] on the truck, who sent it back to me as AES signals to get delayed and then go to air so that I had control over the delays.
“There’s also managing the delays of the helmet-cam effects,” he continues. “If we’re at first and 10, I’ve got seven delays going live and then another 10 in the background that are delayed to takes — so that we’re in synch with various helmet cams, pylon cams, and the rest — then getting all that audio out to [Fox’s] Pico [facility] and Stamford. It’s a challenge, for sure, but it’s one we’ve done before, and we have that process pretty dialed up. But it’s about making sure everybody’s on the same page and lining it up nicely. Here, it’s all about scale.”
Out to the Networks
Carpenter mixed the first two games onsite and remains the overall audio supervisor. The broadcast mixes have since been done by A1s Michael Del Tufo for Fox Sports and Mike DiCrescenzo and Rick Bernier for NBC Sports, supported onsite in Birmingham by submixers Greg Briggs and Steve Goldfein.
(Having both A1s named “Mike” and with the same letter for their last names creates its own workflow-management challenges; Del Tufo became “DJ Mike,” his handle for another career. “And they both have Italian last names,” jokes Carpenter. “You can imagine what troubleshooting is like between the stadium and Pico and Stamford.”)
He describes the overall effect of the mixes as “controlled chaos.” The sheer volume of audio sources seemed at first to be driving the car, but the submixers and Fox Sports producer Chuck McDonald and director Mitch Riggin got it under control. For instance, they developed a rhythm for following the picture as the action moved among the players, the coaches, and the officials — all of whom were wired for sound. Plus, Carpenter had to make sure that commentator duo Curt Menefee and Joel Klat were clearly audible above the din, explaining action and rules in real time, even as he makes space for Fox Sports’ signature sound-effects solo moments.
“The big question mark was how much will all these audio sources dictate the flow of the game and the information that’s being relayed to the fans?” says Carpenter. “I think, at the beginning and especially almost all the way through the first quarter of the first game, it was too much information. But, between everyone, we found the pocket for the sound.”
The USFL on Fox Sports is using augmented crowd sound, provided by Sonofans, whose systems were also used by the network for NFL and other live sports coverage during the worst days of the pandemic, when fans weren’t allowed in venues. Carpenter stresses that the system is being used sparingly and strategically, not to provide cover for the low rates of attendance at the games (empty seats are clearly visible in many shots, so the visuals are brutally honest) but to add to the authenticity of the overall game audio.
Under Fox’s Home Run production model, Del Tufo mixes the crowd sounds from Pico, along with actual crowd sounds captured at the stadium from six pairs of crowd mics deployed in the stadium. Carpenter says the sense of normalcy is achieved but there is still plenty of room in the mix for the cornucopia of nat sound picked up by the many microphones on the field.
“You’re hearing stuff you’ve never heard before on a game,” says Carpenter. “We’re trying to offer something new and exciting and see what people like.”
A Test of Immersive Audio
NBC Sports isn’t using the augmented crowd sound for its broadcasts. However, the Peacock network is using the USFL as a test bed in other ways, deriving 5.1.4 mixes from the stems Carpenter sends to Stamford, although that format is not going to air.
“We are mixing in an immersive 5.1.4 format for a number of reasons but primarily to continue to push the creative side of immersive audio for the listener,” explains Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and Olympics. “NBC firmly believes in offering the most dynamic picture and audio quality to the viewer, and so we continue to push what we can do in all our sports even if, at this time, we are not broadcasting the USFL with the added height channels that 5.1.4 provides. We continue to learn what works and what doesn’t work by taking the opportunity to mix in a format that ultimately folds down cleanly to 5.1 and stereo. One of the things we are trying on USFL is EVS replays with the included height channels, so we can understand if there is a gain in doing so, albeit with added complexity and use of console resources.”
NBC Sports alternating A1s DiCrescenzo and Bernier use the additional stereo ambience microphone pairs they requested be added in the Birmingham venue (which are not sent to Fox/Pico) to form the height channels.
“We’re not using them all at once, just picking and choosing what feels right at the moment,” says DiCrescenzo. “We’ve been applying them to the replays, and it has been working out well, so you’re not hearing the .4 array disappear when you go to replay. It’s definitely taking some getting used to, but it’s also making it feel like 5.1.4 isn’t such a far-off thing.”
Adds Malone, “We know, through our successful 17 days of Olympic primetime production, that we can use a ‘single-stream audio production’ format of mixing in 5.1.4 and get vibrant and compatible 5.1 and stereo downmixes required for standard HD broadcasts.”