Inside NBC Sports’ all-encompassing audio production for Sunday Night Football
The sound of National Football League broadcasts has become the sonic gold standard for broadcast sports.
The league, which operates one of the world’s leading media outfits, NFL Films, was one of the first to sanction on-player microphone placement, and NFL gridirons are surrounded by more listening devices than the American embassy in Moscow. Not surprisingly, the networks that cover the NFL’s games put a lot of emphasis on those broadcasts.
“I’m mostly listening to the dynamics of the crowd sound,” says Wendel Stevens, who has been NBC’s A1 for NFL games since the Peacock’s signature Sunday Night Football show began 13 seasons ago. “Ryan [Outcalt, the show’s submixer] sends me the game at field level, from the parabolic and goal-post microphones, I’m getting audio from the camera mics, and the league provides the enhanced player mics. Then I mix that with the announcers and the crowd, which I feather in and out as the game progresses. I try to make it all transparent. I don’t want people to hear the mix — I want them to hear the game.”
Stevens uses relatively little compression or equalisation. The former comes into play mainly following a big play; instead, he’ll ride the crowd mics the way a music mixer will work a song mix, with an emphasis on dynamics.
“A viewer can get fatigued listening if the level is too even throughout the game,” he explains. “I’ll keep the [compressor] threshold set pretty high for most of the game, letting it really kick in at the end when it gets very loud.”
And like a good song mix, Stevens keeps the vocals — in this case, the announcers — in the centre channel and about 6 dB above the rest of the mix. “They’ll drop as much as six to 10 dB against the crowd level on big plays, but that’s also kind of natural.”
Adjusting for venue PA systems types and volumes
The game environment will have an effect on the broadcast’s sound quality; sound travels faster on a crisp day in Green Bay, where NBC opened its new SNF season, than it does on a typically humid one in Miami, for instance, Stevens points out. And it also affects the sonic quality of games, since it’s the teams that determine where the player mics are worn each week, and it’s the league that controls that feed to the broadcast.
How that plays out each week also impacts other sound sources from the field. Outcalt points out that when the player microphones are placed on defensive guards rather than the offensive centre, sound can be a bit muffled.
“When that happens, the parabs can be an even better choice for [scrimmage] audio,” he says, adding that that type of sound collector has its own timbre, with the shape naturally filtering out both very low and very high frequencies, which makes it ideal for capturing midrange-heavy speech. “[Parabs] don’t pick up a lot of frequencies, though we might have to roll off some of the high end at times. For the most part, they EQ themselves.”
Another way that the stadium environment influences the broadcast sound is the fact that venue PA system types vary widely, as do their volumes. Point-source PA designs may show up louder in the mix than, for instance line arrays, which tend to be more horizontally focused.
“I’d say eighty-five percent of the time the crowd mics are in the same places every time, but the PA can show up in those or in the effects mics unexpectedly at times,” Outcalt says. “Overall, PAs are getting louder, and you have to adjust for that in the [broadcast] mix. Fighting with the PA has become the single biggest challenge more often now.”
NFL games are headed for an immersive future
Returning to music metaphors, Stevens says that less is more when it comes to building a solid broadcast mix. “If I have three microphones open, then two of them might be bringing in noise that I don’t need,” he says. In fact, adds Outcalt, he directs the A2s carrying the parabs to keep them focused on the field rather than the play, which would bring what could become an overwhelming array of microphones pointed in a single direction.
Greater use of music being played in the bowl is being mirrored by more music on the air. Karl Malone, director of sound design for NBC Sports and NBC Olympics, says that the music bumpers that the network plays going into and out of breaks are getting increasingly noticed by viewers.
“The music is playing a more important part on Sunday Night Football,” he says. “Many of the comments we hear from listeners don’t mention the effects or the picture, but they love the music.”
Like the rest of broadcast sports, televised NFL games are headed for an immersive future. Malone says the experience gleaned from NBC Sports’ work with Dolby’s Atmos system, which enables a 5.1+4 array including four overhead channels, will help when sports sound transitions to next-generation audio.
“We have a much better idea now of what works and what’s more like a gimmick,” he says of broadcast audio’s new frontier. In the meantime, though, Malone is proud of how Stevens, Outcalt, and the rest of the NBC Sports audio crew have made football sound on television now.
“I like to think that our games are easy on the ear, with no constant white noise from the crowd to make listening a chore,” he says. “Our mixers work as a team, and the result is a great-sounding game.”