Broadcast Audio Workflow: Part 1 - News, Sports & Chat Shows

We continue our series on Broadcast Audio Systems with a discussion about workflow with multi-award winner Robert Edwards. We look at general purpose workflows, and some considerations for different types of production across news, sports and chat shows. As the degree of complexity and stress ramps up as soon as a live audience is introduced, part two will look at more expansive light entertainment shows which have audiences, multiple presenters, bands and egos.

We watch television for all kinds of reasons.

We watch it to relax, to learn, and to be entertained. We watch it to find out what is going on in our local area and who we should be voting for, how our favorite team did at the weekend and when we should be planting tomatoes. Sometimes we watch it just to tune out the noise of everyday life for 30 minutes.

The massive scope and variety of live television programming all make different demands on content providers, who must be respectful of what result they are trying to achieve.

When it comes to audio design everything is in play – things like the venue, the location, the format, and the outrageous demands of the talent all have a bearing on how audio workflows are set up and designed.

Fundamentally, the audio design must be sympathetic to what type of broadcast it is, whether it’s news, sports, or a complex light entertainment extravaganza. Technology enables a lot of this, with IP and distributed working just two ways in which broadcasters have managed to extend the range of content we enjoy.

But the first and most fundamental steps are refreshingly simple and old-fashioned.

Robert Edwards.

Robert Edwards.

Robert Edwards FIPS has mixed everything from local news to the Eurovision Song Contest. A double BAFTA winner, Edwards is a Fellow of the Institute of Professional Sound and has worked in broadcast sound for almost 50 years, starting his career in sound in 1974 as a sound assistant at Southern Television in the UK.

He’s done the lot and he is very clear about where audio system design starts; it starts in the same place irrespective of the programme format.

It starts with a conversation.

“Every studio design starts with knowing exactly what output is required, and then using your knowledge to best facilitate that result,” says Edwards.

Taking The Mic

“Something very straightforward like mic-ing up guests on a talk show still warrants an early discussion with Production; what might be acceptable for a comedy chat show would be different from a political debate.

“If it’s going to be live, do you need a backup microphone? And if you decide not to go with two microphones, can you put a condenser mic on the desk? Can we even get physically close enough to mic guests up? In a very high noise environment, a personal microphone isn't always the best one to use, and it might need a headset to get the microphone closer. Is that allowed on the talent’s rider?”

There are visual considerations to make too. A reliable microphone on a boom is still a tool which is used in specific environments, but a sound engineer has to know if it’s sympathetic to the presentation and it needs to be considered visually as well as from an audio point of view.

Foldback

Most productions will need some kind of foldback. Foldback mixes provide talent with audible cues and are fed by the audio console – some people, like singers, may want to hear themselves, some will just need to hear things like opening titles, VTR inserts and EVS inserts as cues. Again, the requirements will differ depending on the job. The IEM (In-Ear monitor) is just a personal foldback, and maybe is mixed to include some gallery talkback, and a remote source.

“You might not be expected to provide any loudspeaker foldback from microphones if the guests are sat close to each other because they will be able to audibly hear each other,” says Edwards. “But if the guests are spaced apart – like we had to during Covid - or in separate locations you may have to think about doing some cross foldbacks so that the host can be heard by the guest and vice versa, either by speakers or IEM’s.

“There are foldback discussions to be had up front, there are some microphone choices to be made and both before you even get near a console. The ability to determine what is expected from the production is vital before you even get into that environment.”

Let’s take a closer look at these environments.

News

News is a great training ground; every region has got a regional newsroom with live reporting spread across 24 hours which means a complete turnaround of people every single day. If it’s a 24-hour news station, then even more people need to get in and out of the system on a regular basis so it’s vital that news workflows are simple and instinctive.

“When you build a news studio you need to get it right the first time; if you've missed something fundamental it's never going to work to everybody's satisfaction,” says Edwards.

“In news there are multiple demands on the sound engineer; you've got to be able to cope with last- minute changes in the running order, and you've got to know where your key elements are on the sound console because you have to cope with any changes on the fly while on air. With rolling 24-hour news there is literally no place to hide.”

One of the most critical things for news workflows to function is the ability to generate lots of mix-minus busses. A mix-minus is a broadcast term which is a full mix sent to multiple listeners, but minus their own input. Mix-minus is an efficient way for people in different locations to hear cues, and because it removes their own voice from the mix there is less perception of latency due to distance.

“It’s vital that they integrate with the talkback system frame so that when you key to a remote source it’s going to associate with the right mix minus. There must be a structure built into newsrooms with a dedicated batch of mix minuses associated with the talkback frame.

“It’s a huge bit of integration; in the reverse direction, the incoming sources need to go through an assignment system which everybody knows will have an associated mix-minus, and this ensures that all the two-way audio is fed and received correctly.”

This degree of fixed infrastructure within news is different to other, more ad hoc environments like chat shows or talk shows. News has a very fixed set of parameters and so must be well defined.

Throwing A Curveball

Not so with sports. Sports broadcasting workflows are far more flexible with an emphasis on remote production and remote working which effects how audio operators deal with incoming signals from job to job.

From a control room perspective, there are three main types of sports presentation, and each has a different set of challenges.

  1. Remote production with signals from multiple onsite sources and the mix created in a centralized control room at a broadcast centre. During Covid, workflows like this accelerated and became very well established, with localized DSP employed on location to deal with mix-minus/IFB latency issues, and robust connectivity to provide low-latency control linking and to guarantee uptime.
  2. Receiving a full outside broadcast mix into a control room/studio for presentation. This is a more traditional model where events and commentary are mixed at the venue and a presentation mix is added at a studio for guest interviews or analysis.
  3. Presentations where all the elements are on site and the remote site is directly connected to the MCR/Continuity network for broadcast.

While each has a different set of issues, they are essentially a subset of the same news elements where you've got a lot of outside sources coming into one place. However, one key element of sport that is consistent is its unpredictability – it is inherent in sport.

In fact, that’s kind of the point.

This is where specific audio mechanisms can make a big difference.

“In sport, some form of Audio Follows Video (AFV) within your sound workflow is key,” says Edwards. “It’s still about getting sharing telemetry from various sources, but this is about being able to associate a camera with an audio cue and activating a fade when the shot is live to air.”

“A sport like F1 would be unlistenable if all you have is an audio bed of all the cars, so you've got to have something chasing. It’s so incredibly fast that a human would be unable to mix the right associated mics for each shot of associated video, which could be as short as 20 frames, so Audio Follows Video is a very sport-related feature.”

“Similarly, crowd reactions from these cameras can add drama to a sports broadcast. While it doesn't need to be the dominant element, if you can reflect that close up audio within a crowd mix it provides another subtle layer that you can use to add excitement. It’s always nice to have a tickle of crowd reaction from an individual camera!”

“And let’s not ignore the on-site talent, including commentators. They have very specific talkback and IFB requirements and keeping them happy by providing them with some individual level controls on a Commentator’s Box for instance, goes a long way in making the production run smoothly.”

You Talking To Me?

Another environment is the talk show, often a fixed infrastructure in an acoustically treated studio where the right mic choices and foldback mixes will pay dividends.

It certainly won’t be a tin shed which has no acoustic treatment. Although in reality it might actually be a tin shed.

“Political hustings are a good example of where you might have people talking in difficult environments, like a town hall. While the actual show itself is fairly straightforward, the acoustics are unlikely to be ideal.”

“Noise reduction is a concern, although most people have a preferred third-party box which they integrate into the signal flow. External equipment can cause problems too; although LED Lighting, rigs have become the norm, and have largely countered the problem of the noisy fans we used to suffer. However, video screens with multiple monitors, which now play a large part in set design, have compounded the acoustic noise-floor with their cooling fans, and can produce large amounts of spurious RF as a side-salad, which is out of our control.”

“With talk shows there are other assistive applications which can help an operator to navigate any issues which arise by automating some of the more mundane tasks. Dialogue auto-mixers are incredible tools for minimizing spill and maximizing intelligibility, especially in a chat show environment where you have multiple people in a room. The ability to easily manage those situations is very, very important.”

Automixers can do the heavy lifting by automatically controlling the gains of multiple microphones in real time to maintain a consistency across a group of people and allowing the operator to concentrate on crafting a mix.

“The Audience Is Another Ball Game”

In Part 2, Edwards talks us through the considerations for broadcasting a big light entertainment show with an audience.

The degree of difficulty ramps us as soon as you introduce an audience. There’s health and safety, the PA system to think about, noise spill, grams and the art of audience mixing, and how you manage all that so it’s not to the detriment of the broadcast mix. 

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