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Immersive Audio at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

By Steve Harvey. With less than 10 months remaining before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, the Olympic Games is shaping up to be a record-breaking event, with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the permanent host broadcaster, set to produce an unprecedented amount of content across all delivery platforms.

Madrid, Spain—With less than 10 months remaining before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, the Olympic Games is shaping up to be a record-breaking event, with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the permanent host broadcaster, set to produce an unprecedented amount of content across all delivery platforms. For the coming quadrennial sports bonanza, OBS will debut several technical firsts, offering the first-ever live coverage of the Olympic Games with ultra-high definition (UHD) and high dynamic range (HDR) imagery, together with immersive 5.1.4-format audio from every venue.

“Immersive audio has to move forward,” says Nuno Duarte, OBS senior manager, audio, on the phone from the organization’s headquarters in Madrid. Worldwide, demand is not yet that great, and the number of consumers able to experience immersive audio is still small, he acknowledges. “But someone must take a step forward, so that’s what we’re doing.”

To be very clear, audio from the competitions is not being offered to participating rights-holding broadcasters (RHBs) in any encoded immersive audio format, Duarte explains. Rather, in planning for the event, he was aware that different territories around the world have adopted different international television standards that mandate, currently, one of two audio codecs. “Audio can be delivered to distribution platforms in Dolby Atmos or MPEG-H 3D Audio,” he says. As examples, North America has adopted Dolby Atmos as part of the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, but in Brazil, China, South Korea and the European Broadcast Union (EBU) countries, MPEG-H 3D Audio is specified. “We need to be completely agnostic,” he says, so OBS will offer the immersive audio feed as discrete channels: five on the lower listening plane, a sub-bass and four overhead.

OBS, which produces the live television, radio and digital coverage of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, will produce immersive audio at every one of the 45 venues but will be delivering far more feeds than that to the RHBs. “For athletics, we have seven productions. For gymnastics, we have seven productions,” he explains. In total, 85 separate 5.1.4 audio feeds will be made available.

Related stories from Olympic Broadcasting Services:
One Year to Go: OBS and Rights Holders Enter Final Stretch in Olympic and Paralympic Preparations for Tokyo 2020, Aug. 1, 2019
• OBS and Broadcasters Ramping Up Digital Efforts for Tokyo 2020, May 30, 2019

Central to the audio plan is Duarte’s collaboration with a major microphone manufacturer. “I worked closely with the manufacturer on some concepts and ideas for the development of immersive microphones to capture audio for the broadcast,” he says. “We aren’t using Ambisonic microphones.”

Consumers are not the only ones with limited experience with immersive audio. “We have 45 production teams for all the different sports. For 99.9 percent of them—I’m talking about the directors and producers—immersive audio is unknown to them. They’ve heard about it for cinema or Netflix series, but for most of them it’s quite new for sports. The first step is getting those people used to the terms and to the workflow,” says Duarte.

Indeed, immersive audio is so new in television broadcast—apart from a few premium sports competitions on a handful of platforms, such as the English Premier League of soccer, boxing title fights and NHRA drag racing—that audio crews generally have limited experience with the format, too. And while much of that experience is with Dolby Atmos, Tokyo 2020 is not the place to generate audio feeds in that specific format, says Duarte. “We can’t have 85 Dolby Atmos encoders. We don’t have 120 A1s trained for Dolby Atmos. Maybe after the Los Angeles Games in 2028 we can be ambitious and do that. But for now, people first need to understand the sound design, what objects are, what the workflows are.” Ahead of the day when any particular audio codecs might be implemented by OBS, says Duarte, he and his team can experiment with Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H and familiarize themselves with the platforms beginning at Tokyo 2020.

Related: NBC Olympics Takes Calrec to the Games, Feb. 9. 2018

More immediately, those 120 A1s participating in the Olympic Games broadcasts need to get up to speed on immersive audio, even though the focus will be on 5.1 and stereo production, which is what most consumers will experience. “We are pushing for the A1s to come prepared,” he says. “We’re pushing for TV stations to provide training for their A1s.”

That said, OBS will offer some training and guidance, he says. “I’ve been mixing in immersive for more than five years, so I have a lot of experience. We mix a lot of sports in 5.1.4. The challenge is to make everybody, the 120 production teams, aware of it.”

There are plenty of challenges, of course. For one, OBS is not able to train the A1s on mixing consoles, he says: “Because we don’t have time to give them a year of training. So we need to choose simple solutions and be very pragmatic about training all these people.”

Furthermore, there are still only limited tools available for immersive broadcast audio. For example, there are currently no mixing consoles that offer a complete immersive audio feature set. “There is no 3D pan, as an example. We don’t have 5.1.4 meters,” he says, in the quantity needed to install in the OB vans. “There is no noise reduction for 5.1.4.”

At this stage in the preparations, Duarte is meeting almost daily with engineers. “I have to explain how we configure the DVS, how we configure the meters. It’s complex.” But the upside is that, after the closing ceremony on Aug. 9, “We’re going to have more than 120 A1s who are used to the terms and have experience. All the engineers, DVS operators, OB van engineers, everyone in the chain will be used to 5.1.4 when we finish the Games,” he says.

Related: Lawo Takes Control at the Olympics, April 13, 2016

Every four years OBS takes a major step forward in terms of the technology behind the Olympic Games broadcast. But this year the organization will make a significant leap as it produces a record-breaking 9,500-plus hours of live sports and ceremony coverage for the Olympic Games, and approximately 1,300 hours for the Paralympic Games. The Games are expected to be the most-watched in history across all platforms—broadcast, digital and mobile.

Enabling this lofty goal will be a new cloud-based technical infrastructure, developed in collaboration with Alibaba Cloud, to which OBS has begun moving most of its workflows as it goes through a digital transformation. The OBS Cloud aims to offer all the necessary cloud components, in specialized configurations, to support the demanding content production and delivery workflows of broadcasting the Olympic Games.

Olympic Broadcasting Services •