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The ever-evolving progress of sports sound

As English Premier League football moves towards the end of another season, sound supervisor Ian Rosam surveys the important role audio has played in the presentation of sport on TV and muses on how technology has brought new challenges in getting the action to the viewer. Kevin Hilton takes notes.

In the 20 or so years since BSkyB fundamentally changed the way sport is covered on television, sound has played a large part in bringing the action to the viewer, writes Kevin Hilton. Ian Rosam has seen the innovations first hand. He began mixing Premier League football during the new division’s first season in 1992-93 and has been closely involved with Sky’s move from mono to matrixed surround to full, discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. “It wasn’t something I set out to do,” he wryly told the audience at the recent AES UK sound for pictures symposium, “but I became a world expert on surround sound for sport.” After starting his career in TV sound in 1973 at BBC Cardiff, Rosam worked for three leading UK commercial broadcasters of the time; Thames Television, Anglia and Television South (TVS). TVS lost its franchise in 1992, so Rosam teamed up with fellow sound supervisor Robert Edwards and formed Video Sound Services Limited (VSSL). Under this banner the two have worked as audio supervisors and consultants on a range of international TV sports events, including the FIFA World Cup competitions in 2002, 2006 and 2010, the 2008 UEFA Euro, Beijing Olympics 2008 and Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010. Back in the UK the majority of Rosam’s weekends during any year are spent mixing for Sky Sport’s Premier League coverage. He says there was no prescribed or set way to present surround sound for TV sports when Sky moved to multichannel audio in 1994. In fact, he comments, there were many ideas about how it might be done: “There’s an old saying that if you have 10 sound supervisors in a room discussing the way to do something, you’ll have 11 opinions about how to do it.” As Rosam points out, by 1994 the principles of surround sound mixing for cinema were well established but these did not automatically transfer well to TV sports broadcasting. “In the cinema Dolby had set standards for speech in the centre channel, the LFE (low frequency effects) channel, which you have to think carefully about how to use, and the surrounds themselves,” he comments. “Films don’t have continuous ambience in the rear loudspeakers but when Sky looked at surround, they wanted something in the surround channels continuously.” The aim, Rosam says, was to give the viewers the impression that they were in the stadium they were seeing their TV screens. “The attitude is that although sport is involved, what is really going on is entertainment,” he observes. “This is TV for the Playstation generation and the philosophy of sport as entertainment drives subscription television and brings in huge worldwide audiences for events like the World Cup and the Olympics.” Football is the obvious example but, as Rosam highlights, sound has brought a wide variety of sports alive for TV audiences. “There are the emphasised effects in darts and archery,” he says. “Even the area where gymnasts put the chalk on their hands has been miked up. Curling became very popular after we started putting mics on the competitors so everyone could hear what they were saying amongst themselves. The team radios in Formula 1 now have their own channel on the audio desks and that adds to the atmosphere. The only problem with this is the risk of picking up swearing, so FIFA, unlike the authorities in rugby and cricket, does not like microphones on referees or anywhere near the players.” The “Sky Whoosh”, the rushing noise that accompanies an on-screen transition or action replay, has now been taken up by just about every other sports broadcaster. Rosam says that the greater capacity of samplers and servers has made the sound supervisor’s life easier because more sounds can be stored, making a big leap on from the “primitive” gear of the early ’90s with barely two minutes of sampling time. The biggest recent audio shift has been 5.1. Rosam comments that everyone agreed 5.1 should be the standard for HD. Once again, how broadcasters got and mixed their surround sources has been up to them. Some favour arrays of individual mics; Sky and VSSL have gone with the Soundfield surround mic systems, with permanent installations at many of the big Premier League club grounds. Rosam says the biggest problem continues to be monitoring the 5.1 channels for mixing. “The new HD trucks are bigger than scanners of the past but the audio rooms are still crowded,” he comments. “Even with a fair sized room you can still bang your head on the rear loudspeakers.” Among the biggest changes Rosam has seen are in metadata and the part the viewers’ set top boxes play in a broadcast. “Half of the kit we’re working with is now in the viewer’s home,” he says. “The receivers take the encoded Dolby E and the metadata and the settings on the box – ambient, dance hall – can make everything sound very different to what I might be doing in the truck.” With consumer technology changing ever faster and sports broadcasting becoming even more competitive, chances are there will be yet more audio challenges to come for Ian Rosam and his colleagues.