Professional Sound - Indepth

Talking Olympic Audio Quality Control with Doug McClement, pt. 1

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 broadcast audio and video crews for the games. Professional Sound caught up with him to learn about the experience and what it entailed.

PS: How did you find stepping into this new role monitoring each sporting event’s audio quality for OBS to be sent to hundreds of broadcasters?

DM: It’s a bit different than my usual role as a television music mixer. It’s closer to being a mastering engineer in that you are making qualitative judgements about the overall mix. [OBS] have a separate audio quality control team that looks at spectrum analyzers and dB meters and really monitoring the nuts and bolts of the technical side, whereas APQC (Audio Production Quality Control) is more looking at the aesthetic side of the overall sound of the mix. So like a mastering engineer, you train for it by being in audio for a long time. You’re listening to the output of all 53 OB trucks and trying to make it sound like one television show, basically.

PS: When it’s more subjective like that, is OBS giving you what they’re looking for and you’re trying to listen with their ears?

DM: Part of OBS’s mandate is that every sport has its own signature sound and that the listener at home wants to hear that sound. Whether it’s weightlifting, where they want to hear the weights hitting the floor, or in hockey, they’d want to hear the guy slamming into the boards. Every sport has those sounds that make it unique, and they wanted to make sure that got out. So that was part of the mandate, and part of it was just, as trite as it sounds, to put the listener at the venue – make the person sitting at home feel like they’re there watching that event from the best seat in the house and making a connection. We’re also trying to keep the audience levels consistent from venue to venue, so there aren’t drastic changes in loudness when the highlight reels are put together.

So, it’s a very broad mandate, and obviously there are a bunch of sports there that I wasn’t very familiar with, like archery and shooting, so I did some prep by looking at previous Olympics and some of the world championship footage on YouTube … to get a feel for the key sounds in each of those sports and what it is that makes those sports exciting from a sonic standpoint.

PS: What was the set-up in the audio production quality control room?

DM: It was a 5.1 room. We had digital Genelec 5.1 speakers and a surround sound audio/HD video router that allowed us to listen to any one of the 53 venues at the flick of a button. So we were basically sitting there listening to 90 seconds of each event all day long, from eight in the morning ‘til 2 a.m. some nights. We’re probably some of the few people who saw some of every event of every sport over the three weeks.

We were making notes and had a software program hooked up to a laptop that allowed us to text each A1 – the senior audio mixer in each truck – via their OBS cell phone, which was positioned on the console, if we felt there was an issue. Usually, if that engineer spoke English, we would see a reaction within 30 seconds. Like, ‘Hey, your left rear channel is 6dB too hot,’ and you could actually see it come down on the VU meters within 30 seconds. Now, if the person didn’t speak English, then we would have to phone the technical manager of that truck and then they would get a translator to relay the message to the A1. For example, the archery event, the whole broadcast team was Korean and their audio guys didn’t speak English, so we’d have to go through somebody else. So if we asked for a change, you’d see that adjustment maybe five minutes down the road. It took a little longer for them to react, but it worked really well. It’s really an Olympic team of sports sound mixers who are chosen by OBS to operate the consoles in each truck. For example, the crew doing tennis was the BBC Wimbledon crew. Golf was done by an American crew from NBC that does all the PGA events. The Brazilians did the soccer, Dutch did the cycling events, Japanese provided the crew for judo… Each A1 has done hundreds of shows back in their home country for whatever event they are mixing at the Olympics, so they are the best on the planet at what they do.

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Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician, Canadian Music Trade, Professional Sound, and Professional Lighting & Production magazines. He also hosts the Canadian Musician Podcast.
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