Players, coaches, coordinators and officials are captured
For some, the USFL is a glimpse of an alternate future reality for the NFL. If so, an extra pair or three of hands might come in handy.
Audio sources for each game, which takes place at Protective Stadium, the newly christened 45,000-seat home of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, include 32 player microphones per game – 16 per team – plus microphones on the coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators (captured through their intercom party lines), and a separate channel to listen to the officials’ discussions of on-field decisions. Another channel on the PL can be switched for interviews with the coaches during the game.
A1 Joe Carpenter, sound designer for Fox Sports’ broadcast of the USFL’s first two games, says the league’s first weekend virtually filled the entire 192-channel digital matrix on the Calrec Artemis console aboard Game’s Gridiron truck. Creek. “We were literally getting tricky to get so many [sources] in and out of the console.
For starters, two completely separate and discrete 5.1 mixes go to both networks; in addition to Fox Sports, Carpenter sends a 5.1 parallel feed to the NBC Sports facilities in Stamford, CT, for simulcast. Networks play different music for transitions. Additionally, Fox Sports broadcasts use the Chyron Paint telestrator, whose processing latency only adds six frames to the stream. It’s not a lot, but, on an ongoing basis, it adds to the audio-heavy workflow timeline.
“Just leaving the truck,” Carpenter explains, “I had to send my entire transmission to the [engineer in charge] on the truck, which sent it back to me as AES signals to be delayed, then put on air so I had control over the delays.
“There is also the management of the delays of the helmet-cam effects, he continues. “If we’re at the start and 10, I have seven live delays and then another 10 in the background that’s delayed to take – so we’re in sync with various helmet cams, pylon cams and the like – then send all that sound to [Fox’s] peak [facility] and Stamford. It’s a challenge, sure, but it’s one we’ve done before, and we have this pretty complicated process. But it’s about making sure everyone is on the same page and aligning it well. It’s all about scale here.
Exit on the networks
Carpenter mixed the first two games on location and remains the overall audio supervisor. The broadcast mixes have since been produced by A1 Michel Del Tufo for Fox Sports and Mike Di Crescenzo and Eric Bernier for NBC Sports, supported on location in Birmingham by sub-mixers 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 nickname for another career. “And they both Italian surnames,” jokes Carpenter. “You can imagine what the breakdown between the stadium and Pico and Stamford is like.”)
He describes the overall effect of the mixtures as “controlled chaos”. The volume of the audio sources seemed to drive the car at first, but the Fox Sports submixers and producer chuck mcdonald and director Mitch Riggin got it under control. For example, they developed a rhythm to follow the image as the action moved among the players, coaches and officials – all of whom were wired for sound. Additionally, Carpenter needed to ensure that the commentating duo Curt Menefee and Joel Klat were clearly audible above the din, explaining the action and the rules in real time, even as it makes room for the solo moments of Fox Sports’ signature sound effects.
“The big question mark was how much will all of these audio sources dictate how the game plays and what information is delivered to fans?” said Charpentier. “I think at the beginning and especially almost throughout the first quarter of the first game, it was too much information. But, between everyone, we found the pocket for the sound.”
USFL on Fox Sports uses augmented crowd audio, provided by Sonofans, whose systems have also been used by the network for NFL and other live sports coverage during the worst days of the pandemic, when fans don’t were not allowed in the halls. Carpenter points out that the system is used sparingly and strategically, not to cover up low turnout in 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.
As part of Fox’s Home Run production model, Del Tufo mixes crowd sounds from Pico, as well as actual crowd sounds captured at the stadium from six pairs of crowd mics deployed around the stadium. Carpenter says the sense of normalcy has been achieved, but there’s still plenty of room in the mix for the cornucopia of nat sounds picked up by the many microphones in the field.
“You hear things you’ve never heard before on a game,” says Carpenter. “We try to offer something new and exciting and see what people like.”
An immersive audio test
NBC Sports does not use augmented crowd sound for its broadcasts. However, the Peacock Network uses the USFL as a testbed in other ways, deriving the 5.1.4 mixes from the stems Carpenter sends to Stamford, although this format is not aired.
“We mix in an immersive 5.1.4 format for a number of reasons, but primarily to continue pushing the creative side of immersive audio for the listener,” explains Karl Malone, Director, Sound Design, NBC Sports and Olympics. “NBC strongly believes in delivering the most dynamic picture and audio quality to the viewer, and so we continue to push what we can do in all of our sports even though, at this time, we are not broadcasting the USFL with the extra height channels that 5.1.4 provides. We continue to learn what works and what doesn’t by taking the opportunity to mix in a format that folds cleanly to 5.1 and stereo. One one of the things we’re trying on the USFL is EVS replays with the height channels included, so we can understand if there’s any gain in doing this, but with added complexity and console resource usage.
DiCrescenzo and Bernier, A1 alternates from NBC Sports, use the extra stereo surround mic pairs they asked to add in the Birmingham site (which aren’t being sent to Fox/Pico) to form the height channels .
“We don’t use them all at once, we just select what works for us at the time,” says DiCrescenzo. “We applied them to replays, and it worked well, so you don’t hear the .4 board disappear when you go to replay. It definitely takes some getting used to, but it also feels like 5.1.4 isn’t that far off.
Malone adds: “From our successful 17 days of Olympic primetime production, we know we can use a ‘single stream audio production’ format of 5.1.4 downmixing and achieve dynamic and compatible downmixes 5.1 and stereo required for standard HD broadcasts. .”