Having previously worked at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, Doug McClement of Toronto-based LiveWire Remote Recorders headed to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. He was one of the audio production quality control engineers for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the organization that provides the audio and video crews for the games. Professional Sound caught up with him to learn about the experience and what it entailed. Part one of this interview appeared in the December 2016 issue of Professional Sound.
PS: Is it a pretty uniform audio mix that was sent to each of the hundreds of broadcasters?
DM: The mandate for OBS is to send out what is happening on the field of play, which is the sound of the sport itself as well as the sound of the ambience of the arena, so you’re picking up the audience, or if it’s sailing, you’re not going to hear much audience but they want to hear the waves or whatever sound is surrounding the athletes. So you try and capture that and that goes out in 5.0, basically, because on the centre channel we only send out a bit of ambience at about -20dB. The idea being, that signal is sent back to the various rights holders and then they add in their English or French or German or Japanese commentary on that centre channel. So we don’t want to have anything too spikey or interruptive on that centre channel; it should be just ambience, not the sound of a basketball hitting the rim or anything too dynamic so that there’s not absolute silence if the announcer mutes his or her mic to cough.
I guess that might be one of the weird adjustments for the A1s mixing these sports if they’ve done 10,000 soccer games or volleyball games back in their home country is that at the Olympics, they’re mixing without any commentary, which is not what they usually do. It took some of them a couple of days to get used to that, because somebody scores a goal and they’re used to pulling the audience mics down a bit because the commentator is going to say something. You can’t do that at the Olympics because you don’t know how long that commentator is going to talk. If he’s speaking English, it might be 10 seconds; if he’s speaking German it might be 20. So you have to leave that up to the host broadcasters at the International Broadcast Centre to adjust the mix for their own commentary. That was an interesting learning curve for some of the new guys, though the majority of the A1s have worked on several Olympic games over the past two decades, so they know what is expected of them. They know that it’s a generic audio and video feed for the whole world, not just one national audience.
We were there for three weeks listening to all these sports and never heard a commentator. It was strange but interesting, since OBS’s job is to deliver the field of play and the ambience in addition to any music that is playing that is related to the event. For example, in synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, and some of the equestrian events, music is a big part of the sport, so that needs to be there. For something like beach volleyball or basketball, the music is kind of between the plays and it’s incidental and not that critical. But some of the sports the music is very critical and has to be just at the right level for the aficionados of the sport.
PS: Looking back, are there one or two major challenges that stand out to you?
DM: On the really busy days when you had 30 events and everything happening simultaneously, that was tricky. Like, what do you listen to? Of course, we had a server recording all the sports all the time. So if something did happen at a venue that we weren’t watching at that particular time, and one of the producers came in and said, just for example, “Hey, they lost all the audience mics at bicycling” or something and we were watching sailing, you could go back and look. They’d give us a timecode number and we’d go back and look at it and try to figure out what went wrong and phone the [A1] up. It’s impossible to watch everything all the time, so that was a bit complex.
It kind of levels out towards the end as people get used to it, but there are a couple sports, like the marathon, decathlon, and the pentathlon, that only happen once. They happen in one day and there’s no lead in – there’s a practice round, I guess – but they don’t have five or six days to hone the sound on those events. So that is really challenging and I think some of those guys did an amazing job. Some of the sports are much more difficult from an audio standpoint than others. Some of the equestrian sports where they’re jumping over hurdles and going around the field, there are literally 100 mics on the field and the guy is moving all the time. Then you’ve got something like weightlifting where it’s pretty straight ahead; there are only so many things that happen. Some of those guys had very, very demanding sports.
Water sports are really tricky, too, and I really tip my hat to some of those guys. They’re moving a fader every five seconds for three hours, basically, whereas somebody doing the high jump, there’s not a lot going on.