Commentary is among the few areas of broadcast audio technology that has embraced digital and new media technologies while not fully letting go of its analogue past.
The two formats now exist in parallel to suit specific applications but IP and other recent networking and transport arrivals on the broadcast scene now have a much higher profile in what was once a relatively staid technological discipline.
The main reason for that is that while large commentary control systems are usually run by an engineer, the front end with the mic faders, headphone feeds and talkback is driven by the lead commentator, who is invariably a journalist.
Some journalists have an interest in or an aptitude for technology but for many others it is merely a means to an end, allowing them to report on what is happening. Which is why, even though new systems may be based on audio over IP (AoIP) and other emergent formats, the user interface is still designed to be as familiar to the commentator as possible.
This was a major consideration for Glensound Electronics when designing the GS-GC5 USB, which was launched at this year's IBC. A variation on the company's established commentator units, which continue the ethos of the BBC-derived COOBE (pronounced 'coobie', standing for commentator operated outside broadcast equipment), the GS-GC5 USB features IP as well as MP2, AAC, AAC-HE, G711 and G722.
While Glensound has embraced burgeoning tech in the form of the Luci Live IP codec, it has endeavoured, sales and marketing manager Marc Wilson says, to remain true to its core user base while at the same time responding to customer enquiries as to when its products would be come with IP. Wilson comments that the GS-GC5 USB, is now "coming off the presses", with one already sold to a "commentary control manager in Germany".
Glensound has now stepped further into the new tech domain, announcing at the BVE North show in Manchester on Tuesday 12 November that it was adopting Audinate Dante as the basis of networking for its "next generation of broadcast products". Wilson says this could include commentary systems, as well as snake connectors. He added that Glensound had been evaluating audio networks for nearly two years and selected Dante because of both its robustness and plug and play approach. Glensound's managing director, Gavin Davis, expects Dante compliant products to be launched at NAB 2014.
Dante's major rival in the interconnection AoIP stakes is Ravenna, conceived by Philipp Lawo and developed under the ALC NetworX banner. The technology has now been applied to the realm of the commentator by Lawo, which launched its LCU (Lawo Commentary Unit, pictured above) at IBC in September. This was developed in conjunction with Host Broadcast Services (HBS) and will be used during next year's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
In addition to general interconnection, Ravenna has been applied to change the traditional set-up of larger commentary systems, which typically feature the commentator panel at the venue and a central control processor either alongside or in an OB truck. Lawo director of marketing Andreas Hilmer explains that in the LCU the controller unit has been "erased" and replaced with software running on a computer with a touch screen, connected to the commentary desk in real-time using AoIP.
As with the new Glensound system, the operator interface of the LCU has been designed to be recognisable to commentators and easy to use. The control system is capable of handling up to 20 commentator feeds at the same time. Commenting on the LCU, HBS chief technical officer Jörg Sander said, "Good commentary plays a key role in the success of global events. The Lawo commentary solution was developed in the very best interest of the rights holding broadcasters of these events."
Among the other manufacturers in the Ravenna partner scheme is AEQ, which has, like Glensound, played a major role in the development of digital commentary systems. Its new offering in the field is the Olympia, the successor to the DCS-10, which has been part of the broadcast set-up for many recent Olympic Games. Keeping the tradition going, the Olympia was used at London 2012 and will be at next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi. The system is based on the TITAN-BC 2000D router and currently offers in excess of 5000x5000 audio channels.
Despite these high-tech makeovers, commentary still has very basic needs and some broadcasters prefer to keep things simple. Within the new BT Sport studio centre, with its eye-catching L-shaped studio and file-based production chain, are eight voice-over booths, each equipped with a Sonifex CM-CU21 commentary unit. This recently introduced system is analogue, with positions for two commentators and a guest pundit. In these days of digits and processing, it's reassuring that the art of the commentator has not completely moved away from its more straightforward, sheepskin-coat wearing past.