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New dimensions to hitting the road

The outside broadcast market is at the forefront of new technologies and techniques for broadcasting. HD and now 3D are the buzz words but, as Kevin Hilton reports, audio is not being left behind.

SIS LIVE buying the assets and contracts of rival outside broadcast business O21 Television in a “multi-million pound deal” during January illustrates the high-powered nature of the outside broadcast market today. Fifteen to 20 years ago it was a necessary but slightly down-at-heel part of broadcasting, with OB trucks that looked more like removal lorries than something to do with television.

Nowadays there are massive articulated vehicles with expanding sides housing the latest audio and vision equipment. BSkyB, ORF, Premiere (Sky Deutschland) and other European broadcasters have used HD and 5.1 to take location broadcasting to new levels. The next stage is 3D TV; Sky intends to launch a stereoscopic service this year and UK OB provider Telegenic is currently building Europe’s first truck designed specifically to work with the technology.

This sounds like a mighty revolution but in many ways it is a logical progression, driven by the fast development of audio and video acquisition and processing technology, coupled with an increased demand for live, location-based programming. The O21 acquisition is part of this, a continuation of the commercial consolidation that has been going on in Europe over the past 10 years.

Phil Aspden, commercial director of SIS LIVE, observes that mergers within the OB sector were inevitable as companies looked to expand quickly and build a presence in the market. “This is a competitive business that is all about increasing efficiencies and taking advantage of capital investment,” he says. “In the UK there has been consolidation on a small scale, with NEP Visions buying Roll to Record and a couple of other smaller acquisitions. SIS LIVE buying O21 is the same, just on a bigger scale.”

In mainland Europe there is TDF, which includes the AMP Visual, and Euro Media Group, formed by in 2007 by the merger of Euro Media Télévision and UBF Media Group, with subsidiaries including Cinevideogroup, CTV OBs, Euro Media Télévision, nobeo, SFP, Tatou, United Broadcast Facilities, VCF and VideoHouse.

A major reason behind SIS LIVE buying O21 was to build up its HD fleet. Aspden says moving to HD takes time because only so many trucks can be built in a year. Adding O21’s three HD trucks to the SIS LIVE portfolio has made expansion possible much faster than through building vehicles from scratch.

Malcolm Robinson, senior manager of the OB unit within Sony Professional Solutions, sees the market as “very responsive to change”. Last year Sony won the contract to supply four HD trucks to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which will work on the 2010 Football World Cup.

“The technology is stable and established now,” comments Robinson. “Although we’ve seen a lot of activity in recent years operators are not committing at the moment. The World Cup and Olympic Games don’t have a massive impact – companies don’t invest for one big event. SABC hasn’t built its new trucks for the World Cup but to service their general needs.”

German operator nobeo went HD in October 2008, initially concentrating on music and general entertainment, such as Green Day, Chris de Burgh, the closing concert of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the live finale of Germany’s Next Top Model and stand-up shows including Kaya Yanar’s Live & Uncensored!. The truck, nobeo 1, made its sports debut at Champions League qualifying stage play-offs during August 2009.

The head of nobeo’s production and sales department, Frank Dawert, says that although more TV stations are switching to HD there are still a “huge number” of SD productions in Germany, somewhere in the region of 50%. “But it is absolutely necessary to have an HD OB truck and other future-proof equipment,” he explains, “otherwise clients might think of you as being old fashioned and you won’t play a role on the market at a certain level.”

Audio Pro, RAS and Kozoom Productions responded to the demand for live concerts in HD from specialist broadcasters in France by building Le Kar, described as a HD OB truck combining a 21sqm video editing suite and a 20sqm recording studio. Its audio section features a Midas PRO6 live audio system running with a Klark Teknik DN9696 recorder.

“We’ve naturally been in charge of the installation of the entire audio section but we were also involved in the video studio, for which we’ve designed the patching,” says Fabrice Vella, Audio Pro’s managing director. “This partnership between the three companies was not only motivated by a financial aspect but foremost by our joint vision of the project, an ‘all-in-one’ system without any compromise on functionality or technology.”

The OB mixing console market is dominated by a handful of manufacturers. Mainland Europe is largely divided up among Stagetec, Studer and Lawo, while in the UK most OB vehicles are equipped with Calrec Audio desks. In the past few years advanced DSP designs have been key to the production of smaller consoles that have a large number of inputs and channels.

Lawo spokesman Wolfgang Huber says the company’s mc2 range was designed with the different demands of OB work in mind: “The mc2 90 was designed for large trucks and the 66 aimed at mid-sized vehicles, so the 56 was introduced to fit in smaller vans that still needed the facilities, DSP and routing capacity of our other consoles.”
Integrated routers have been a key selling point for Lawo, Stagetec and Studer in the past couple of years. Such systems have allowed operators to reduce the number of racks in the audio area, although often this free space is given to the video sections. Calrec is now offering integral routing on its new range of mixers, headed by the Apollo.

While this is a major consideration, Henry Goodman, Calrec’s business development manager, says more fundamental, even old-fashioned concerns remain. “There’s still a big requirement in the US for physical faders,” he comments. “By using layered systems and DSP a smaller surface could be used to control the mix but we’re not seeing that. Operators still like to grab a fader and know something is going to happen.”

Goodman adds that bigger desks will probably remain in favour with the move towards discrete surround sound instead of Dolby E encoded signals. “We’re now seeing six channels used for every 5.1 signal,” he says. “With the sound embedded and integrated with the video the need is for more audio channels.”

In the UK Sky pioneered 5.1 for live HD sports coverage, using a combination of embedded and Dolby E encoded audio. Nearly four years on and engineers have been exploring different ways of getting multiple channels of sound from a location to the broadcast centre. Tim Rowden, head of audio at Arena Television, says 5.1 is now a standard requirement in OB trucks and Dolby encoding is not seen as the only way to deal with surround.

“Many of the embedders that were available a few years ago had only eight channels, so Dolby E was a critical part of the process because it is very clever and allowed us to do the job,” Rowden says. “Discrete surround needs 16 channels and the embedders and processors on the market today can handle that.”

Tad Krzeminski, audio specialist with Sony Professional Solution’s OB division, views Dolby E as “pretty much standard now”. Guido Amann, head of engineering at nobeo, agrees to an extent: “In sports it’s mostly encoded in Dolby E because of the distribution to a lot of stations. From the OB truck to the broadcaster it sometimes will be recorded embedded or discrete to save both money and additional en-/re-coding.”

Fitting the mixing desk in a truck is not as big a problem these days. The real trick is finding room for all the loudspeakers necessary to monitor the 5.1. The leading European manufacturers, including ADAM, Focal Professional and Genelec, have addressed this problem but there can be differences of opinion. “Compact, compact, compact is the message from the integrators,” says Lars-Olof Janflod, Genelec’s international sales manager. “That’s understandable but when the engineers get their say it ends up with the same size as they have in their fixed control rooms.”

Any additional help in improving the listening environment is always welcome, which is why metering and monitoring developer Trinnov Audio has been successful with its Optimizer measuring and analysis software, now in version 3.0. “These areas are usually small rooms and there is limited choice for where to put the loudspeakers,” observes Felipe Avila-Reyes, director of marketing and business development. “When there was only stereo people could cope with the acoustic problems but in 5.1 those can become too much.”

Because sport is a primary activity for OB trucks, commentary equipment has to be part of the overall package. Glensound’s digital GDC-6432 system has been specified by a growing number of companies and broadcasters, including Swiss national service SRG SSR. It has bought 16 GDC-6432s, which will be used for a range of sport, including Alpine and Nordic skiing, cycling, football and tennis.

The fundamental core of OB trucks, how everything is connected and works together, has always been important but in recent years it has become even more critical. Riedel Communications developed its MediorNet system as a fibre
signal carrier for multichannel HD/SD video, audio and data, as well as intercom. Belgian OB company VideoHouse
bought the first systems to be sold in Europe for installation in two HD vehicles.

Swiss operator tv production center (tpc) is using Neutrik’s opticalCON fibre optic network for HD transmissions. “Technologies like HDTV call for increasing data transmission rates, which can hardly be realised with copper cables any more,” comments Bruno Keller, project supervisor engineer for tpc. “In this regard fibre optics can be classified as the perfect transmitting medium for new technologies.”

The facilities sector, including OB, is moving to 3Gb/s as the standard for core infrastructures and routing in particular. The growing demands of HD broadcasting, coupled with the knowledge that more complex formats will be implemented in the future, have outstripped the capability of HD-SDI systems. Consequently new installations are based on 3Gb/s technology; in reality it is 2.97Gb/s but regardless it still brings data rates in line with the advances in chip development.

The first European company to adopt 3Gb/s was Alfacam, which fitted Axon routers based on the technology into 11 of its vehicles in 2008. The latest adopter is NEP Visions in the UK, which is building two trucks based on 3Gb/s to replace three existing vehicles. The new scanners, both of which will have 5.1 desks, are due to go into operation in July and will be the biggest in Visions’ fleet. They have been built to work on Sky Sports’ Premier League and UEFA Champions League football coverage.

Keith Lane, operations manager at Sky Sports, comments: “We challenged Visions to provide us with a streamlined truck solution incorporating pioneering technology for our football coverage. These two new trucks will give huge efficiencies and the tools for our production teams to provide the best coverage.” Rob Newton, technical manager at Visions, adds: “By going 3Gb/s we’re future-proofing the trucks for 3D at a later date.”

Sky is set to launch a 3D channel this year, although a start date has not been announced yet. Technical and production crews are coming to terms with 3D, adapting traditional TV camera angles and cutting rates to work in the new format. What it means for audio is less certain. Sky’s senior manager of audio, Vaughan Rogers, says the answer to what audio goes with 3D might be nothing different but possibilities are being explored.

Tad Krzeminski at Sony doesn’t think sound will change much with the coming of 3D. Arena’s Tim Rowden is of the same opinion but points out that the different way of presenting the pictures in terms of cutting and pace could be a consideration for the audio departments.

There has been talk of the OB market being over-saturated for the past few years but new HD trucks keep appearing on the roads across Europe. There are still SD trucks to be replaced and 3D is a possibly niche but potentially lucrative emerging market. The general consensus is that the last year has been tough but with the taste for live, as-it-happens television, those expanding sided artics will keep on trucking.