Surveying the field of play in the sports broadcast market

Sports broadcasters have always counted channel count and reliability among their priorities for audio consoles, but as IP-based workflows and immersive audio techniques emerge, they now have many other expectations that manufacturers must accommodate, as David Davies reports…

First there was the analogue-to-digital transition; then we began to saw the rise of IP-based workflows; and now we have the emergence of enhanced or ‘immersive’ audio environments. That’s a rather crude summation, but it arguably covers the three most important trends to have impacted upon broadcast console design over the past ten years.

If the shift to digital has been complete for some time now, the IP revolution is still very much underway. The ability for broadcasters to take feeds quickly, easily and cost-efficiently from multiple locations is among the factors fuelling the rise of IP – and with the advent of the AES67 interoperability standard, we have even started to consign the lengthy ‘protocol wars’ to the past. Meanwhile, the advent of immersive audio – whereby viewers will ultimately have far greater freedom in customising a mix that suits their tastes – is at a far earlier stage of adoption, but nonetheless heralds some exciting possibilities.

For manufacturers looking to maintain share in the sports market, the design expectations of new desks over the next few years are likely to be particularly extensive. At the same time, they must also maintain the rock-solid reliability and powerful feature sets that are essential for any broadcast desk.

“Although I think it will be a while yet before we see widespread roll-out of immersive or object-oriented audio in broadcast, it is clear that we have entered into an exciting period for production facility design,” says Fairlight CTO Tino Fibaek.

Sports Market Basics

Although individual companies’ approaches to the sports market are the subject of considerable variation, there is general agreement that it is a substantial – and in many areas, growing – one.

“Sports broadcast is very important to Calrec, and it makes up a significant part of our customer base,” says Calrec VP of sales Dave Letson, who pinpoints regional sports programming as a particular growth area. “Companies such as Pac-12 and TWC are covering more and more college-level sports while their customers are demanding the same quality of viewing experience as they do when watching top-flight events.”

For Lawo senior product manager audio production Christian Struck, “sports transmissions have become a dominant player in today’s private television entertainment, more than traditional family entertainment shows, etc. There is a clear tendency to create more and more content, and transmit more leagues and sports. Also, a lot of the sports broadcast transmissions have become part of pay television programmes. All of this makes sports broadcast an important and rising market for Lawo.”

Features and Functionality

The advent of OTT content and second screen applications has brought tremendous new opportunities for sports broadcasters to connect with fans – but also significant challenges for those working at the ‘sharp end’ of production. More outlets require more material, and with a greater number of services to feed, the number of events covered is also on the rise. For console vendors, then, much effort has inevitably focused on delivering time-saving automation features.

“The number of programmes and quantity of content is constantly growing, whereas the number of staff producing it remains the same – at best – and the time for preparation and setting up productions is declining,” says Struck, who points to Lawo system features such as Audio-follow-Video functionality for partial automation of mixes, and Automix for the automatic adjustment of active and inactive microphone levels while maintaining a constant ambient level.

Most recently, at IBC2015, the company introduced a software-only solution for its mc2 mixing consoles (or hardware-bundled software for other console brands), KICK, that enables fully-automated, close-ball audio mix for sports such as soccer, rugby and American football.

Calrec has also been active in this area – with developments including its Automixer for studio interview scenarios – but also highlights moves to enable fast and efficient audio capture across a site hosting a sports event. “In order to capture audio from the extremities of a golf course, for example, our customers need to have many mic boxes, but do not need many inputs in each location,” says Letson. “With this in mind we designed the H2Hub [switch point] which can extend a single router connection and provide a further four router connections. These can either be populated with any Hydra2 I/O box, an eight-input Fieldbox, or even another H2Hub to further extend the network. This way ad-hoc networks can be created very quickly, and the potential of the network isn’t limited by the number of router ports your console core has.”

Other features developed in response to customer needs “include a second compressor/limiter, which is widely used in sports programming as many engineers find they need to limit the signal as well as compress it,” comments Letson.

Channel Count and Connectivity

Capturing more crowd ‘atmosphere’ and additional, drama-enhancing audio has meant that the channel count for sports productions has only been heading in one direction for many years now. Factor in a greater number of 5.1 mixes and, latterly, immersive audio production and it is clear that the pressure on vendors to deliver high channel count while maintaining core features and reliability is only going to increase further.

“Sports productions increasingly use up more and more channels, especially when broadcasting in 5.1,” confirms Letson. “Designing a console with enough scope to ensure you don’t run out of channels without compromising dynamics or EQ was imperative. [Calrec FPGA-based processing engine] Bluefin2 gives the broadcaster the peace of mind that the console will fulfil any expanding requirements. It also streamlines the setup procedure as each channel always has full EQ and dual dynamics available on every channel all the time – unlike other systems that allocate these functions from a pool of resources.”

In terms of generating more immersive audio environments, “Fairlight has great form and continues to promote its 3D Audio Workspace (3DAW), which allows content creators to deliver 3D sound in formats such as Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos, DTS MDA and IMAX without having to replace existing 2D tools and workflows,” says Fibaek. “We are seeing sports broadcasters working a lot with 5.1 now, but I think immersive or 3D audio will be a really big thing within the next 6-12 months.”

As well as taking steps to optimise the capability of the console on its own terms, most vendors are also working on the ways in which their desks interact with broader production infrastructures. We are talking, of course, about IP-based workflows and their capacity to support techniques such as remote production.

“Instead of sending a truck to a stadium that can do only one match per day, a control room that connects to different remote production locations can be used a lot more efficiently,” says Struck. “The good news is that consoles are still needed. So IP-based workflows may revolutionise flexibility, connectivity and lower the amount of travel costs, but the central components remain the same. However, consoles that are capable of interfacing natively via IP including control will be in the lead when workflows start to change.”

With these developments in mind, Lawo recently introduced a Plug & Play Remote Production Kit for fully-integrated video, audio and intercom transport (via qualified IP WAN connections) for any third-party video and audio equipment. The kit connects up to four camera CCUs via SDI for video and TCP/IP for control, with audio mixers connected via MADI or Ravenna/AES67 – the AES67 interoperability standard being perhaps the most significant catalyst for the wider roll-out of IP-based audio workflows.

Letson also observes the rise of IP-based routing, noting that some larger OB trucks already have comms systems utilising Audinate’s Dante or other AoIP networks for transport. “Broadcasters now have to be able to move quickly between venues in order to set up and broadcast the next event. IP-based workflows will streamline this scenario and our customers are starting to address the need by looking to utilise IP-based solutions,” he says.

Fast and Flexible

With Salzbrenner Stagetec Mediagroup sales director for Germany/Austria/Switzerland Marco Kraft also highlighting the design impulses represented by remote production and “scalable systems with set-up for shared operating”, it is clear that the requirement for consoles to be fast, flexible and connectivity-friendly is now acute.

Clients no longer expect to be presented with a console whose capabilities are set in stone, and which is suited to only a handful of applications. Sports arguably encompasses a greater diversity of needs and working environments than any other area of broadcast, and it is vendors who are able to accommodate as many of these as possible who stand to enjoy the greatest success over the next few years.

Picture: The sound mix for the 2015 Tour de France was carried out on EUROMEDIA’s Lawo mc256 console.