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Commentary – a dual format world

With the 6 Nations rugby union in full swing and the European football championships and London Olympics to come in the summer, sports broadcasting is to the fore again. Commentary is a major part of this and in some technological respects has changed very little but in others has changed a great deal. Kevin Hilton reports.

In TV and radio commentary analogue has not been pushed to the sidelines by digital, unlike other areas of broadcast audio, . The two formats have settled into a co-existence, giving operators the choice of what best suits their needs. This is true for the three sub-divisions of commentary system: ISDN, POTS/PSTN (plain old telephone service/public switched telephone network) or IP codecs for single reporter use, which is primarily in radio but also TV for solo commentaries; stand-alone units with more features but which are still run by the commentary team; and larger, more sophisticated systems controlled by an engineer. Codec mixers for sports commentary include the AEQ Phoenix Mobile, Glensound Electronics GS-GC units and the Mayah Communications range. Mobile codecs usually offer several options for connection, including WLAN and UMTS/3G as well as ISDN, POTS/PSTN and IP. Marc Wilson, sales and marketing manager at Glensound, acknowledges that IP is now “the most popular codec option” but says the company is “disillusioned” with the technology due to the lack of “robust, simple standards”. He adds, “Where ISDN is available it is still the reliable choice.” While not embracing IP, Glensound has adopted HD Voice, the wideband internet telephony standard, and offers a reporter’s mobile phone based on this. It has now produced the RECCE HD, a three-channel mobile phone and commentary unit that works on 3G HD Voice networks. At its most basic the stand-alone commentary system has inputs for two microphones and outputs for two headphones, one each for the commentator and the “pundit”. In recent years this configuration has been expanded to offer positions for two or three commentators and one guest. The Prospect CMU21 and Glensound CU001 are well established for this style of operation, which usually involves having outputs and inputs on standard XLRs connected to the truck on standard multiquad cable. Such systems continue to be used, explains SIS LIVE sound supervisor Andy James, because “they are familiar to most commentators and operators”. The other primary requirements for a commentary system, he says, are that it is dependable and easy to use. Sonifex has recently moved into the stand-alone commentary system market with its CM-CU21, an analogue desk with two commentator positions and one for a pundit, while CTP Systems offers the DC2012. CTP established itself in commentary with the DC99-II, which was succeeded by the two position DC2012, which is analogue but digitally controlled. CTP managing director Chris Thorpe observes that OB companies want something “that will work wherever”. In a strange quirk of the industry, Thorpe says there was some initial resistance to the DCS2012 because it has digital control and a LCD display: “People are happy with digital routers for OBs but they were more concerned about LCDs on a commentary unit.” An analogue single commentator/voice-over booth unit is set to appear from CTP this year. Fully digital commentary systems were greeted with suspicion then they first began to come on the market approximately 12 years ago. Spanish manufacturer AEQ led the field with the DCS-10, which became the preferred commentators’ system for the Olympic Games, and is planning a full launch for its new NCS digital system (pictured) during NAB. AEQ’s director of international sales, Gustavo Robles, comments that cost remains the deciding factor in whether a commentary system will be analogue or digital. “At larger events, the digital domain is becoming more and more important,” he says. “Complexity and what is demanded from the overall system solution is having greater importance than 10 years ago. This is where digital becomes advantageous.” Klotz entered this niche market in 2003 with the Voice but later withdrew it due to lack of demand. Glensound joined the fray in 2008 with its GDC-6432, which can run on coax, copper or fibre Ethernet. This system is now used widely and featured during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Big events such as the Olympic and Commonwealth Games are now more likely to feature digital commentary systems due to the need for central control and scalability. “Digital enables us to increase or decrease the number of commentary systems offered to the client broadcasters without re-designing the system,” explains Andy James at SIS LIVE. Riedel now produces the CCP-1116 commentary unit to work alongside its intercom systems, while Delec takes a similar approach with the oratis commentary and talkback range. Last year Finnish public broadcaster YLE started to move from ISDN to IP and introduced digital commentary systems, with Riedel DSC-16 panels with modified mic preamps or CCP-1116 commentary units connected to the manufacturer’s intercom system. YLE’s senior technical adviser, Matti Helkamaa, explains that the broadcaster favours “the integrated thinking pattern“ for its production technology. While all this goes on in the background, there is still doubt whether integrated thinking goes on for the commentators and pundits that use the equipment.