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A Sound Choice

Rigging a sporting event for live broadcast requires teamwork, a plan and a little bit of luck, as Will Strauss finds out.

“THE LIST of things that can go wrong on a live sport OB is almost endless,” says freelance sound guarantee engineer Mark ‘Gadget’ Reed, fresh from a stint working on coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Fortunately, as his job title

suggests, there are members of the production crew employed specifically to help prevent them happening and ensure that sound travels smoothly from pitch side to truck, to broadcaster, and beyond. On an outside broadcast Reed oversees the engineering of all of the required audio and communications. Tasks include making sure that the correct microphone, music, and replay signals appear on the sound desk and checking that any audio leaving the OB – and going back to the broadcaster – is properly aligned, timed, and in the correct order. The sound guarantee engineer is also responsible for

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the talkback on site, including programming the talkback panels used in the truck, radio talkback, the talkback to the broadcaster, and all feeds to presenter and commentator earpieces and headphones. It is a crucial role, one that

dovetails neatly with the sound supervisor on one side and the unit manager on the other. Between them, and the rest of the sound team, they do their utmost to avoid the worst possible OB outcome: falling off air. “It is routine on an OB to put in spare microphones, spare presenter or reporter earpieces, and other backup systems,” explains Reed when discussing what you might term risk management. “Often there will be a main and spare line going back to the broadcaster and these will be fed from different bits of equipment within the truck to isolate as much as possible any kind of failure. The aim is always to stay on

the air with as little disruption to the programme or the production team as possible.” While problems do occur, the main thrust of the job is to rig and then de-rig the audio systems and ensure that everything runs smoothly in the meantime. “Usually I will arrive on site six to 12 hours before the transmission time,” details Reed. “After a quick briefing with the other engineers – and a cup of tea – the rig starts in earnest, working towards the Fax Check [Facilities Check] set by the unit manager. By that time all the main audio facilities, including all the talkback, need to be working. As a guarantee engineer this is where being able to work as a team, and having the ability to think on your feet and prioritise, is very important.” Once kick-off time comes

around Reed then moves into vigilance mode. “During the actual event I

will be closely monitoring the outgoing signals and tweaking the talkback configuration,” he says. “Hopefully, the show then comes off air on time, any recordings for later broadcast are done–and-dusted, and the de-rig can begin.” With an extensive CV that

includes not just Premier League and Champions League football and the London 2012 Olympics but also Children in Need, The Royal Variety Performance, and Glastonbury, Reed has been through this process on a number of occasions, and on a wide genre of events. Sport, he says, has its own unique qualities: “From a sound perspective, most sports OBs are broadly the same. There is usually some commentary, some effects microphones for the sound of the actual sport and the crowd, and some post- event interview position. The biggest and most challenging differences can be how and where the effects microphones are placed and how the sound that is picked up from them gets back to the truck and the mixing desk. This can be simply down a long piece of cable, a complex optic fibre link, or via an RF system. Or a mixture of all three.”

multicore cable back to the truck. At the same time four Sennhesier MKH816s – plugged to battery-powered radio transmitters – were used as ball effect mics, directed at the pitch and ‘run’ by either a sound assistant or volunteer. These mics were received by a radio mic rack that was then plugged down a fibre optic Optocore system along with the main commentary mics and the talkback circuits to (and from) the gantry back to the truck. Once the audio arrived at the truck, the Optocore system turned the optic fibre signal to a MADI stream which was then plugged into the mixing console. “Using a fibre system this

way saves hundreds of meters of copper cable, which in turn saves rigging time, fault finding, and is now a proven technology,” explains Reed. The audio rig didn’t end

there though. An effects mic was piggy-backed to the Steadicam, the signal from which was transmitted back to the truck within the video signal and then taken from the radio camera base station to the sound desk as an analogue feed. For pre- and post-match

interviews, as with other similar sports, copper multicore cable was used for the main interview mic – usually a standard dynamic such as a beyer M58 or EV RE50 – plus the foldback speaker and reporter earpiece. “The foldback speaker

“The list of things that can go wrong on a live sport OB is almost endless.” Mark Reed

In order to provide an example, Reed cites coverage of a recent rugby union match. For what is a fast-moving

sport played on a big pitch, two Sennheiser MKH 416s and a DPA 5100 surround mic were used as crowd effect mics. Both were pumped down copper

allows the interviewee to hear replays of the match while the reporter earpiece permits the producer to talk to the reporter and give him or her further instructions about the interview,” adds Reed. A spare microphone was then plugged into one of the camera mic inputs so – should the worst happen – it has a separate path back to the truck. All told it is a complex but

intuitive set-up, one that is enhanced by modern technology and aided by the experience and know-how of the people that run it. What is required to make it

work successfully? “Team work, planning, and a bit of luck,” concludes Reed.

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