Live from London: Dixon, NBC Olympics audio expert, embraces last games

Bob Dixon’s listening room at the NBC Olympics IBC plant has been the place to be for those who love to give the Olympics a good listen.

The London Olympics will mark the end of an era as Bob Dixon, NBC Olympics, director of sound design and communications, will be in the NBC Olympics Listening Room for the last time. During his career Dixon has worked on 12 Olympic games, beginning in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics and spending six as a mixing engineer, working for NBC, ABC and CBS along the way.

“This is a nice way for me to do my last Olympics, to have it sounds as good as it does,” he says. “It’s not perfect, by any means, but it is way better than in the past.”

Dixon, reflecting on his career working on the Olympics, looks most fondly upon the 1988 Summer Games from South Korea and the 2008 Beijing games.

“In 1988 NBC asked me to design the sound effects and while the Winter Games were in mono we had a chance to do the Summer Games in stereo,” he says. “So I went to Bucky Guntz and Bob Levy and they were pysched about doing stereo. And the host was using Sennheiser 416 mics on everything so I went out and bought our own and put another mic where ever they had one. So we had XY pairs of 416s everywhere.  And at that time the analog consoles did not have stereo faders so each mic had to take up two faders.”

Beijing, the first time the Olympics were done in 5.1, also stands out for Dixon. “In Beijing the sound guys here at NBC created something that I was really proud of, for them and as a team,” he adds. “It was really pleasant and easy to listen to.”
The NBC Olympics family has relied heavily on Dixon’s ear, influence, and commitment.

“It’s going to be a big loss and it will be sad not having him helping us,” says Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics, SVP, Engineering, who first worked with Dixon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “A lot of things happened on his watch and things that had to be invented so that we could go through the huge growth in the amount of programming without adding hundreds of people.”

Mazza describes Dixon as a purist who believes that what comes out of the speakers matters most. “He grew up in both the music and truck world and is a purist who wants to give the viewer the best seat in the house from a sound standpoint. He was there when we were pioneering stereo, there in 1996 for Surround Sound Dolby matrix encoding, and the first games for full Surround was elegant and simple.”

And Dixon’s influence extends beyond NBC’s own product as Olympic Surround Sound production today begins with Dennis Baxter and the team at Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) as well as Dixon. Fortunately, Dixon and Baxter have a relationship of trust and a shared background of mixing. NBC Olympics and OBS discuss microphone locations during the planning of the games and then NBC Olympics will request separate feeds of microphones that their mixers may want to have more control over. For example, in basketball events there are two mics in the rubber on the backboard glass to pick up the noise of the ball passing through the net. By taking a split the NBC mixers can then make the effect a little louder than the host broadcast feed.

But their collaboration extends beyond microphone locations to things like sound design philosophy.

“Now [with microphones] we can get into the middle of what is happening,” adds Dixon. “For example, in skiing you see the starting gate camera and you see the skier all alone, stomping his feet in a little box. And outside his friends and trainer are cheering him on. So there is a dichotomy of someone trying to focus and be all alone and the crowd outside.”

OBS adjusted the production plan to create a still, quiet atmosphere when viewers were inside the the starting gate. “Then when you cut to the outside shot you open up [the crowd] encouraging the skier,” he says.

For Dixon the key to audio success is learning the tools at ones disposal and what can be done with them.

“It’s like a paintbrush,” he says. “You have to learn the tools but then have the imagination to hear things in your head and how you want to capture it. And the consoles are so good now they are no longer a limitation.”

This Olympics, Dixon says he has been impressed with the tennis, beach volleyball, and gymnastics coverage. “The gymnastics is so intricate and you hear the little details, even on the rings or balance beam,” he adds.

The Opening Ceremony was another highlight.

“The artistic group that was hired to produce the show really knew what they were doing, so we let them shine,” says Dixon. “But our own real artist mixer, Wendell Stevens, did such a good job of taking the crowd and fitting it in. He did a really nice job and it sounded gorgeous.”

One can only hope the Closing Ceremony on August 12 sounds just as gorgeous so that Dixon can bookend his final games the way every audio professional wants to: on a high note that is mixed just right.

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