The Sponsors Perspective: Production Automation For Immersive Audio

Lawo’s Christian Struck looks at the potential for production automation in immersive sports broadcasting, and how it can help move towards a personalized, object-based experience.

This article was first published as part of Essential Guide: Immersive Audio Pt 4 - Options And Tools For Production Of Live Immersive Content

Although they hardly ever say so, most A1s consider themselves artists. And art, it has been argued for centuries, is a matter of contrast. In the case of immersive, next-generation (NGA), audio, contrast results from the enveloping ambience with the odd “sonic movement” and the stability of a point of reference. In live sports productions, this sonic anchor is usually provided by the ”point of interest” sounds: ball kicks, referees, player discussions, coach instructions, etc.

I Get A KICK Out Of You

The more an A1 is expected to deliver in a fast-paced production environment, the more they need all the help they can get.

In sports productions, one important step in this direction has been the introduction of Lawo’s KICK software for tracking-based automated close-ball miking.

The Lawo Kick GUI showing microphone positions around the field of play.

The Lawo Kick GUI showing microphone positions around the field of play.

The fear that this would allow broadcasters to save on manpower was quickly dispelled: the A1 is still firmly in place, taking care of the same core tasks and new aspects brought about by new technological developments and ever-higher expectations.

Perfectly integrated into Lawo’s mc²-series mixing consoles while also available for mixers by other manufacturers, KICK is automated audio mixing technology for live sports events where a ball is used. Interfaced to camera- or transponder-based player/ball tracking systems, it guarantees a consistent, fully automated, high-quality, close-ball audio mix, and more.

KICK is a timeless mix assistant that delivers in any production scenario one throws at it. It takes care of the basic work: following the ball and all-important events on and off the pitch, leaving operators more room to attend to other aspects: intercom communication, monitoring various NGA presentations, refining the sound, and so on.

KICK’s close-ball mixing algorithm produces more precise crossfades than a human operator ever could: no level jumps, no audible fades among microphone channels, and so on. It’s main fortes for object-based production scenarios are the precision and flawless channel balancing that create a pro-grade experience even when listened to in isolation.

When KICK was released in 2015, next-generation audio was still a long way off. Its underlying principles, however, are still fresh and relevant today.

More To The Point

What does the above have to do with immersive or next-generation audio? After all, most A1s subscribe to the point of view that sound effects (ball kicks, referee whistle-blowing, tackles, arguments on and off the field, etc.) benefit from a stationary (phantom) center placement in an immersive audio mix to avoid confusion and listening fatigue.

For NGA, the close-ball/close-action signal constitutes a separate sound object of choice whose level will be adjustable by listeners in search of a personalized experience. This sounds like one of the most important features of next-generation audio productions.

Since viewers are (or will soon be) able to also adjust the commentary level, this may lead to situations where one essential element providing sonic anchoring in an immersive ambience context is no longer there. This makes it all the more important to leave the sound effects object at the center.

The Importance Of Being Perfect

As it can be assumed that consumers will be free to adjust sound FX objects to taste, the sound quality of these objects becomes critical. Even slight phasing problems, level jumps, and minor flaws become annoying when the sound effects are turned up and when no other signal (commentary, say) is there to partially mask such imperfections.

In the absence of a software like KICK, it is very likely that certain field-of-play microphones are unintentionally left open. Viewers/listeners are bound to notice spill from the crowd noises—which should be confined to an immersive object—and the resulting sonic imbalance. Even the best manual crossfades tend to produce level jumps that adversely affect the NGA experience.

Lastly, given the likely possibility of listening to the sound FX object in isolation, its sound needs to be continuous and, above all, organic.

Proponents of other solutions argue that the NGA experience would be even more satisfying if close-ball miking, referee whistling and other sonic action close-ups were divided into separate audio objects. It remains to be seen whether this indeed provides added value for viewers at home, or just makes personalization unnecessarily complex.

Without going into too much detail, the difference between a live-sound approach like KICK and a solution based on snippets and samples is that the live-sound solution is continuous and coherent in itself.

While personalization has not yet been fully embraced by the industry, the KICK software is already available and fully functional in personalized NGA scenarios.

Kick brings together camera, microphones, and console in a single live production workflow.

Kick brings together camera, microphones, and console in a single live production workflow.

Right On Track

Based to the information provided by ChyronHego’s camera-based TRACAB camera tracking system, KICK knows what happens, and where it happens, and where the microphones used to capture such events are located. The software computes the angle of relevant microphones with respect to an event.

A recent development has been to use KICK in combination with Sennheiser’s AMBEO Ultimate Kick microphone array prototype for object-based mixing.

Based on the information coming from KICK, the microphones in the AMBEO array can be software-controlled to form capture beams (where several microphones of the array work together) that result in even better directivity than can be obtained with shotgun microphones on rotating, motorized stands.

The processors used to control the AMBEO array microphones require specific information for generating the right kind of beam in the relevant direction. This information is provided by Lawo’s KICK system.

Based on the tests performed by Sennheiser and Lawo, it is safe to say that close-ball miking is about to make another significant leap forward, which is good news for sports broadcasters. Stay tuned for more news in this respect. Its relevance for next-generation should be obvious by now.

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