The March 7 spring-training telecast of the Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks game on the MLB Network will mark a milestone in broadcast audio: the first time live audio content will be aired by MLB. Up to six players per team will be wired for sound, as will several coaches and umpires. Field sound effects are also going to be significantly enhanced, with extra microphones placed along the base lines and the outfield.
Coming on the heels of the NFL’s own complex broadcast-sound initiatives that brought more field and play-action audio to the home set during the past two seasons, this will be MLB’s most ambitious effort yet to use audio to heighten viewer engagement.
Susan Stone, SVP of operations and engineering for MLB Network, leads the network team, which also includes Director of Remote Operations Tom Guidice and Director of Engineering Brad Cheney.
“We’ve been working on this for two years,” says Stone, noting a spring-training game last year that served as an internal test bed for the concept, although it was not actually broadcast. “A lot of broadcasters, including Fox Sports and Turner, have wired segments on tape, but [live field audio] is a new concept for the [MLB] players. TV sports is about storytelling, and this is a great way to enhance the story.” Stone adds that the MLB Players Association is enthusiastic about the idea.
Under the plan, most players, coaches, and umpires will wear Quantum 5X QT-256 mini transmitters. On fielders, hitters, and umps, the transmitters will be fitted with Sennheiser MKE-2 microphones; catchers and the home-plate umpire will have a Sennheiser SK-5212 transmitter paired with the MKE-2 element. Their additional padding allowed the use of a larger transmitter with dynamic range. “And home plate is exactly where we want to have more of that,” says Cheney.
Players will wear the transmitters on the back of their belts, with microphones wired up through their jerseys.
Guidice says the experience gained from the non-broadcast test-bed game last season indicates that this arrangement will survive slides and dives.
The one position not wired is the pitcher. As with the NFL, there is some concern about security of strategy signals. “There is some sensitivity about that,” says Guidice. “Quite honestly, we’re getting so much audio from [other] position players that we have plenty of resources.”
Any league concerns about foul language will be allayed by a total of 14 seconds of delays: seven seconds from the field and another seven seconds at the main control room in Secaucus, NJ, where a bilingual monitor will be at the kill switch to fend off FCC concerns in English and Spanish.
Eight Crown PCC160 phase-coherent cardioid boundary microphones will be lined up along the first- and third-base lines, and eight more of them will be atop the outfield wall. In addition, eight parabolas loaded with DPA 461B microphones will cover the field. This is in addition to the usual array of cameras fitted with Sennheiser 816 shotgun microphones. Cheney estimates that there will be at least 60 mics for the broadcast.
That large number of inputs is being managed by a pair of submix consoles: aboard the NEP SS22 truck being used for the broadcast, a Stagetec Crescendo console will be used to mix field-sound sources, including camera mics, and a Stagetec AURUS console will mix the player microphones. These submixes will be fed via Stagetec NEXUS router to the Calrec Apollo console handing the main mix. In addition, all the audio is embedded, and each camera has a separate feed to the EVS server, allowing the audio to be remixed on the fly during replays.
The game and its complex audio will be mixed in 5.1 surround, but the main feed will be downmixed using the DaySequerra DownMix to encode LtRt to be transmitted back to MLB Network in Secaucus for what Cheney calls enhanced stereo for the main feed: a Dolby Pro Logic-encoded signal will make a 5.1 soundscape available to viewers with the appropriate set-top decoder. A DaySequerra four-channel Mono2Stereo will create the surround-effects bed, and multiple DaySequerra UpMix units will decode the LtRt to 5.1 in Secaucus for broadcast.
“To do it in 5.1 means that we’d have to lock down the point of view, and we don’t want to do that,” says Stone, noting how audio will be constantly coming from various perspectives on and along the field.
She adds that this much field audio also changes the structure of the broadcast’s audio. “We have to figure out when you leave all the microphones open and when and which ones to close down,” she explains. “It also affects how the game is called by the announcers: there will be times when the field audio becomes the color commentary and play by play. It takes some getting used to. We’re still figuring out the workflow.”
Stone says that MLB will be listening, considering the expanded audio for regular-season games. “It’s certainly a positive experience for everyone: the viewers, the league, and the broadcast partners.”