NBC Olympics Audio Guru Malone Hits Perfect Note in First Year at the Helm

By Jason Dachman, Managing Editor, and Dan Daley, Audio Editor

Last month’s Sochi Olympics marked Karl Malone’s first as the audio stalwart in the NBC Listening Room at the International Broadcast Center (IBC). NBC’s new director of sound design for the Olympics knows he has some big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of Bob Dixon, a veteran of 12 Games as the architect of NBC Olympics’ signature sound. Although Dixon’s legacy could be heard throughout NBC’s sounds of the Games, Malone also brought his own share of sophistication and philosophical twists to the coverage. 

Director of Sound Design Karl Malone inside NBC’s primary studio in Sochi

Director of Sound Design Karl Malone inside NBC’s primary studio in Sochi

“I had a few weeks before Sochi with Bob and basically sat down and said, ‘Bob, tell me everything,’” Malone said during the Games in Sochi. “I haven’t heard from him, and I don’t know if no news is good news, but, definitely, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I hope Bob likes this.’”

The 6-6 Rule
Much of the audio consistency that viewers of NBC’s Olympics coverage heard over the two weeks of the Games came down to a simple equation that Malone lives by: the “6-6 rule.” That’s how Malone describes the audio-level relationship between the front and rear speaker arrays in a 5.1-surround configuration, which mandates a 6-dB level differential between event announcers in the center channel and the front left and right stereo array and another 6 dB between the front and the rear arrays. This, he said, ensures spoken-word intelligibility above the effects and ambient sounds in the front and rear speaker arrays, as well as a predictable fold-down to stereo, the format most listeners were using at home.

“We’ve … come up with a balance between commentary front effects and rear effects to try and keep … this 6-6 rule where it’s 6 dB between the announcers and the front left and right and then 6 dB between the fronts and the rears,” Malone explained. “Depending if there’s a lot of crowd going, depending what sort of frequency there is, we’ll try to at least have the announcers cut through that. But, generally, it’s really about the level. It’s about the 6-dB difference. There’s intelligibility for 5.1. There’s intelligibility for the majority of the world, which is stereo, and making sure we fold that down correctly and having at least 6 dB and then 6 dB difference between the fronts and the rears gives us that.”

However, he added, like most rules, the 6-6 equation has to allow some flexibility. He considers it a “guide” because audio levels at various events change dynamically and rapidly: “You can’t just stick to the number. [But] you’ve got to be generally within the number.”

From the Snow to the ice: A Wide Range of Sounds
Of course, the Olympics present a unique challenge in that there are more than two dozen widely different competitions, each requiring its own unique audio-capture technique. Although Olympic Broadcasting Services is responsible for the bulk of the mic deployment and base audio product, it is up to Malone and his team to cultivate this canvas of sound into a product meeting the quality that viewers have come to expect from the Peacock network.

Malone singled out the alpine skiing events as one of his favorites when it comes to audio.

“Alpine was always one of those events where you just get the isolation at the top of the mountain, and it’s so great when you actually hear the skier breathe. Then they take off, you hear in surround as they take off, and then just catching every ski. You know how much edge or force the skier’s putting into a particular turn based on the sound; you’re really with them.

“Then, of course, the crowd comes up,” he continued. “You don’t introduce the crowd at the beginning; you introduce them as they’re 2 km down the mountain. You start to ease it in a quarter-way down, so you build up once again the emotion of the event.”

Contrasted with the isolation at the top of the mountain for alpine-skiing events was figure skating at the Iceberg Skating Palace in the Coastal Cluster. With a stadium filled with loud fans and PA announcers, it can often be difficult to capture the sounds coming from the ice, forcing Malone and his A1 at the venue to think on their feet.

“Figure skating was really difficult at times,” he said. “The PA is quite loud in the figure-skating arena, and we’re trying to get the sound of the skates, the music, the announcer, and the crowd all at once. With this particular stadium, it’s very difficult to get all very well.

“As a mixer, you’re always going for the field of play to get as many effects as possible, but then, I started thinking about how my mother’s going to be watching this. What does my mother want, sitting on the couch? It’s really the music and the emotion of the event. So we put a little bit more direct music, a little bit more surround, make sure we get the crowd, and it changed it. It was completely different. To me, it was more of an emotional event, more exactly what people would want to see at home.”

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