BROADCAST: CTVOB?s Bill Morris on diversity and growth in the OB market

With every passing year end it always occurs to me that there is very little correlation in life between how busy one has been and what one has actually achieved. It is certainly true to say that the television outside broadcast industry is as busy, if not busier, today as it ever has been in its relatively short history. The prolific output of broadcaster and producer alike continues year on year to grow and diversify, fuelling the seemingly ravenous appetite of the growing television audience.

This audience, of course, is not simply growing in numerical terms, but expanding laterally, embracing new opportunities on so many emerging platforms, to view and most importantly, to interact with our product. The days of the passive viewer are numbered as we now create our own entertainment criteria based on a multiple choice system.

Only two years ago the interactive element of a show was an occasional request and multiplatform live event transmission was the exception. These days it is unusual for a show not to incorporate a multiple platform delivery. We, as front line facilities providers, continue to push the envelope in terms of what can be achieved on location for a finite budget.

Despite the rapid advancement in technologies since our pioneering predecessors in the industry first started their engines at the BBC OB garage, atop the green hill of Alexandra Palace, some technical and production problems are perennial. Echo and reverb (of the unwanted variety), are just two examples. Just as Hera was angered by Zeus’ constant infidelity with the mountain nymph, Echo, and took her voice, so we constantly have to try and eliminate the undesirable acoustic facets of the many locations offered us.

The problem is never more acute than when recording multiple contributors as part of spoken-word shows.
These are invariably located on temporary studio sets constructed within venues not originally intended for such use. Industrial units with angled ceilings, hard brick walls and concrete floors are common.

We at CTV provide facilities for several long running shows where up to ten contributors are potentially speaking at once, in very ‘open’ acoustic environments. Traditionally these shows have often had small audiences and prop heavy sets, allowing the absorption and dispersal of much of the aggressive reverb.

Standing sets change, however, and the acoustic properties of the location with them. Quite recently our sound crew were faced with this exact dilemma.
Paul Barton, the sound supervisor, and our crew addressed what was quite a severe problem through a combination of measures. As with most acoustic location problems, it is best to try and address the underlying causes first.

The angled, 45-degree industrial ceilings of the venue were constructed of hard wood with a reflective, gloss painted surface. As a matter of priority we arranged for these surfaces to be covered with a layer of Echosorption Plus sound absorbing ceiling tiles, supplied by Sound Service in Oxford.

These 30mm thick, non-flammable tiles are usually applied to the ceilings of classrooms and stairwells in schools to cut down reverberated noise. They were very easy to fit and were installed within a day. For our application they were perfect, reducing the overall reverb by almost 50 per cent.

This done, we looked at the miking of our artists, ensuring that their Sennheiser personal mics were as close to their mouths as possible without visually impacting on the look of the show. (We had already, somewhat optimistically, explored the idea of ‘cheek’ mics with the producers, but understandably this was not adopted.)

Having adjusted the compression levels we then explored noise gates to cut off the remaining reverb tails. We occasionally use gating on sports shows to great effect, keeping the commentary clean of the surrounding high ambience. The aggressive clipping of these devices, however, was simply not applicable in this low ambient situation. We opted for one of our trusty Cedar DNS1500 noise suppressors. The Cedar is one of the most practical tools in our OB audio inventory. We use the device extensively in entertainment and sports applications to clean our programme signals from fixed frequency, venue ambience such as lighting fan and air conditioning noise. The DNS has very low latency; we can therefore use it in live programme environments.

As we embark upon the busy awards season of 2011, may I take this opportunity to wish you a belated healthy and prosperous New Year, remembering the famous words of the infamous HH ‘Breaker’ Morant: “Live every day as if it were your last and then some day you’ll be right.’’