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2020 NBA Bubble

Courtesy of mondo | stadia

It’s been a turbulent, challenging year within the world of sports, with every major league disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when faced with difficulties on a scale like no other, the industry has gone to extraordinary lengths to adapt and bring sport back for fans in any way possible. The approach taken by the NBA is the perfect example of planning, ingenuity and determination, resulting in the impressive 2020 NBA Bubble. In a bid to protect the players, staff and crew from the pandemic during the final eight games of the 2019-2020 season, as well as the 2020 NBA playoffs and finals, an isolation zone – or ‘bubble’ – was created at Walt Disney World in Florida, Orlando. There were 22 NBA teams invited to participate – all staying at Disney World hotels – with all games being held behind closed doors at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The project was a $190m investment approved by the NBA in June following the suspension of the season in March.

Read the full article in issue 15 of mondo | stadia here.

NBA Returns: Massive Compound, COVID Protocols Complicate Intercom System

Courtesy of Dan Daley via SVG

Imagine running three NBA All-Star Games a day every day for month — with social distancing

The enclosed NBA ecosystem (aka the NBA Bubble) in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando is complicated. In this truncated season, each of 22 teams plays eight seeding games over two weeks to determine playoff standings, with a possible play-in series between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds of each conference if the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth.

Even more complex is the broadcast infrastructure for that. ESPN, TNT, and the league have built an Olympics-scaled compound around three indoor venues: The Arena, HP Fieldhouse, and Visa Athletic Center. The Arena, home to the main national-telecast court and the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, features 20-plus manned cameras, more than 60 robotic cameras, and scores of microphones connected to the WWoS’s more than 27,000 ft. of fiber.

But talk to crew members running the complex’s intercom systems, and they’ll say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

A Riedel system, provided by Firehouse Productions, comprises nine Artist-64 frames, two Artist-32 frames, and one Artist-128 frame, all networked over fiber and connecting the three courts to the broadcast compound’s six production trucks supporting both TV networks simultaneously. End-user devices deployed include 113 master panels, 57 C3 beltpacks, 116 Bolero wireless beltpacks, and 186 analog four-wire circuits for a total of 490 active ports of Riedel hardware.

The design of the intercom system, according to Firehouse Productions VP Mark Dittmar, came out of discussions around The Arena’s unique PA system, which Firehouse also designed and that focuses faux crowd and other prerecorded effects sounds on the court, and the expanding mandate for the NBA season.

“One court became two courts, two courts became three courts,” he explains. “Each venue is treated as a separate show at its core. We then added a global layer so that all venues can work together. This was critical since any change to the audio, video, or lighting in one venue would need to be replicated in the other venues.”

Safety First

Even as the huge event came together, the COVID-19 safety protocols further complicated things.

“You can’t actually walk up to someone and tap them on the shoulder and have a conversation with them,” says Dittmar. “That’s literally breaking protocol. “So our NBA All-Star [Game] model for comms, which is an incredibly large show, initially became the model for this. People that wouldn’t normally be on comms now have PL [partyline connectivity] to increase the social distancing.”

In addition, every night, all hardware and headsets are sanitized to kill any viruses and are sealed in a plastic bag until their next use.

The process of building the comms network had to take place within the confines of those safety protocols, as does its use. A dozen comms technicians across the three venues are divided into color-coded teams, which have to stay separate. A team bringing a cable to an area another is working in can’t simply hand the cable over directly, says Dittmar. Instead, protocol calls for the first team’s dropping the wire and letting the next team pick it up after a certain amount of time.

“No one has ever dealt with that before. But those are the things that we’re up against. Luis [Espinal, senior RF/PL technician, Firehouse Productions] can’t just walk out into the compound and check on a truck interface. He has to relay any info to the yellow team and have them deal with it. If one person tests positive, the whole team gets pulled out until we have negative tests.”

Referee Interaction

One of the challenges for intercoms in this singular series is how referees interact with the scorers’ tables, which are separated from the courts by a full-length plexiglass barrier to prevent airborne viral transmission, blocking direct verbal communication between referees and scorers. The solution is for all court officials to wear omnidirectional lavalier mics, which are fed into the comms system. That audio is controlled by an announce box that the referees can activate themselves. When scorers at the table need to talk to the referees, they use the intercom to talk through Fostex speakers positioned on the courtside of the glass.

Espinal, who monitors the comms from a master-control room in the WWoS complex, had to program a number of logic functions into the Riedel Artist system to control the referee mics. Private conversations can be kept isolated when necessary: for instance, when officials need to consult with the NBA replay team in Secaucus, NJ. The intercom headset they use automatically mutes the lavalier microphones and the speakers for the duration of the conversation.

“There was a lot of extra programming, a lot of ingenuity had to go into it, just so [a scorer could say,] ‘Hey, that was a three,’” says Vinny Siniscal, who is managing RF for Firehouse Productions.

The nature of the production meant that its comms would be a hybrid of wired and wireless. The Riedel frames are on a ring-type topology, within and between venues, which Espinal describes as “small islands [that are] part of a big group. In terms of wireless and hardwired, it’s dedicated per venue, because we are not letting users carry around things between locations, [to prevent] cross-contamination.”

Meanwhile, the wireless aspect of the system is networked using Luminex 14R and 26i Gigicore Ethernet switches. The Riedel Bolero system consists of a 14-drop, fully redundant spoke-and-hub Luminex network with 40 edge devices and 128 multicast flows.

“The Bolero network is a global network,” Siniscal explains. “The way it’s distributed is that the load gets distributed between two Luminex 26i switches, a main and a backup. Each venue works on its own in terms of a Bolero network for the switches, [and] we limited the amount of hops to two.”

To say the comms for the NBA season are complicated is, he notes, an understatement. “We took what we’ve done before and went two times and then 2½ [times that] to get to the scale we’re at now.”

NBA Returns: Virtual Crowd-Noise Mix Is Complex and Authentic

Courtesy of Dan Daley via SVG

Mixing hundreds of audio elements creates a virtual crowd that makes the game sound real

Perhaps no sport lives and dies by the intensity of its crowd reactions as much as basketball. With triple-digit game scores as close as a single point with tenths of a second left on the clock, crowd reactions can literally influence the outcome of games. That fact confronted the folks figuring out how to re-create the sounds and swells of those crowds when the NBA began its COVID-shortened and crowd-less season in late July, within a protective bubble inside the Wide World of Sports venues (WWoS) at Disney World.

“The goal was to replicate what the players would hear if there were 18,000 people around them in an arena,” says Carlton Myers, Associate VP, live production and entertainment, NBA Entertainment. “A 360-degree soundscape where the sound would come from all directions, and it would sound different for home and visitors and for each shot.”

It was a tall order, and it produced a startlingly realistic sonic environment that authentically re-creates what NBA players experience on the courts, doing so with a technology infrastructure unlike any ever seen.

The league worked with Firehouse Productions, the integrator hired to install and operate the audio systems within the NBA bubble. Led by Kevin Dobstaff, production supervisor, live broadcast venues, Emerald City/NBA Restart, Emerald City Productions was the technical production supervisor on the entire project and worked on all areas of the production.

The Crowd PA

Sound is focused on each of the three WWoS courts, each with distinct system designs. The PA system in The Arena, the main national-telecast court and site of Conference Finals and NBA Finals, is unique in that it puts the sound only on the field of play. It comprises 60 L-Acoustics K2 loudspeakers configured as 10 hangs of six boxes each, buttressed by a dozen L-Acoustics KS28 subs. These speaker clusters place the sound on the court instead of the seats (which are “occupied” by 300+ actual fans populating 17-ft. LED videoboards lining the sides of the court via Microsoft Teams’ Together mode; the audio, along with venue announcers and a DJ, is also part of the ultimate mix). It’s all mixed through a DiGiCo SD7 console — heavily loaded at 147 inputs — by the front-of-house A1.

The HP Field House court, used for the regular season to second round, and Visa Athletic Center, for games broadcast exclusively by regional sports networks, have DiGiCo and Yamaha mix consoles and two PA systems each — one for the court, one for the stands — comprising combinations of L-Acoustics and JBL components.

Who’s Who in the Virtual ‘Crowd’

However, it’s the content of the crowd audio, and how it comes together, that’s especially remarkable. More than 700 individual audio clips — cheers, boos, and other reaction sounds — are stored on media servers and controlled over a Figure 53 QLab audio interface. According to Myers, these clips have been collected from a variety of authentic sources, including videogame publisher 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series, as well as from recordings of actual games, provided by the teams and the league. In addition, Firehouse Productions provides audio recorded at recent NBA All-Star Games, for which Firehouse also handles some venue and broadcast services.

“We collected actual audio chants and cheers from all 22 teams,” Myers explains. “We asked them to send us sound that was specific to them, to make them feel at home here.”

Examples include Miami Heat announcer Michael Baiamonte’s trademark “Dos minutos!” warning as the game clock ticks down and the Portland Trail Blazers’ comeback call “Dame Time!” for superstar Damian Lillard.

These and hundreds of other audio clips sit atop an ambient bed of “murmur” tracks, a concatenation of hundreds of indistinguishable voices also culled from NBA-related sources. These form the foundation for individual fan and crowd sounds controlled by two “sound sweeteners”— audio mixers with broadcast and other professional CVs — per game via the QLab interface. Each interface offers separate, virtual activation buttons for dozens of individual sound clips, and each channel that these team-specific clips are assigned to has five intensity levels that the mixers can choose based on the heat of the moment during play; the murmur tracks have nine intensity levels and will continuously ebb and flow with the game’s narrative like the underscore to a film. There’s yet another step as well: the interface is programmed to “randomize” the sounds, so that no single clip is played over again.

There’s still one more level of audio. The “game director 2” — actually, the team’s game director when they aren’t sitting at the scorers’ table and working in that capacity — joins the sound sweeteners and calls up an additional layer of sound effects, using an iPad, for specific moments in a game, such as boos on questionable calls and groans for near-miss shots.

“Those are available to enhance the impactful moments,” says Myers.

Practice Shots

Not surprisingly, the four two-person teams that serve as sound sweeteners and the nine game directors spent a considerable amount of time in rehearsal for their task, practicing to video of NBA games to get not just the rhythm of the game but also the nuances of individual teams and their fans.

“For instance, when the home team is down by 10, they run up and tie the game, and the visitors call a timeout,” says Myers. “The home fans will go crazy! [The sweeteners] have to understand nuances like momentum.”

Some of this took place starting in April, in a rented barn venue at the Taconic Retreat in Upstate New York, near Firehouse Productions’ HQ in the town of Red Hook. There, the entire sound system and its playout components were set up, initially as a proof of concept for the idea, developed by Firehouse Productions VP Mark Dittmar, and then to familiarize the mixers with managing this new universe of sound.

All of this is pumped through PA systems designed to create zones around the venues that allow the crowd-sound mixers to put different elements in different areas of the venue at different times and volume levels, to approximate the locations of home and away fans’ responses.

The workflow for this complex audio infrastructure was fine-tuned with input from the players themselves. During the scrimmage games in July before the start of the season, team members and representatives were polled about the sounds, and the overall response was positive, Meyer says.

“A few told us they wanted it louder,” he says, noting a common reaction. “We took that to heart. We had been apprehensive that we were doing too much, but they wanted more of it.”

Myers adds that, once the audio mixers had gotten through the first week of the season, they were comfortable in what is certainly a unique audio environment in sports broadcasting.

“We’re trying to replicate the intensity and the anticipation that the players feel during a game in a full arena,” he says. “That’s not easy. But we’re succeeding.”

Riedel Pops into NBA Bubble

Courtesy of Pro Sound Network

A massive Riedel Bolero wireless and Artist digital matrix intercom solution is being used inside the NBA Bubble.

Orlando, FL—Firehouse Productions, the live sound provider ensconced inside the NBA Bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL., has also been supporting broadcast and team communications throughout its time there, providing and maintaining a massive Riedel Bolero wireless and Artist digital matrix intercom solution for the duration of the season, ending this month.

The Riedel solution enables officials, coaches and production personnel to communicate safely during NBA games played in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The NBA Bubble is a strict isolation zone created to allow the 2019-2020 basketball season to continue while protecting NBA players from COVID-19.

The on-site deployment consists of a dozen Riedel Artist intercom nodes, providing nearly 500 active communications ports to support 113 master panels; 57 Performer C3 intercom beltpacks; 116 Bolero wireless intercom beltpacks; and 186 analog 4-wire connections to six onsite OB trucks. Deployed in a fully redundant fiber ring configuration, the Artist nodes are able to support users communicating via Bolero beltpacks throughout the vast ESPN complex, including players, coaches, and officials in the green zone, where games are played on three venues, and the yellow zone, encompassing the technical and broadcast compound.

“This was a complex installation,” said Vinny Siniscal from Firehouse Productions. “Working with the Riedel team, we were able to design a truly elegant and integrated solution that enables crystal-clear communications while also ensuring that officials, coaches, and producers maintain safe distances from each other.”

Luis Espinal, intercom curator for the Firehouse team, built custom logic functions into the Artist nodes that allow specific mic feeds to be routed to specific broadcast trucks. The onsite Bolero universe, based on two fully redundant hub-and-spoke networks of Luminex switches, offers up to 128 multicast flows, giving the deployment room to grow as more beltpacks are needed.

“The ability to add custom logic to the Artist network was a huge plus because it allowed us to build in more redundancy and ensure effective monitoring for the entire intercom ecosystem,” said Siniscal.

Firehouse Productions Brings Live Energy to NBA Bubble with JBL VTX V20 Arrays and VTX S25 Subwoofers

Courtesy of Front Of House

BAY LAKE, FL – To bring the energy and excitement of a typical basketball experience to an NBA season that was anything but typical, Firehouse Productions deployed two complete Harman Professional Solutions audio systems featuring state-of-the-art JBL Professional loudspeakers and Crown amplifiers.

More details from Harman Professional (

Due to restrictions on large gatherings related to COVID-19, the NBA decided to proceed with the 2019-20 season without fans present. To safely accommodate players, staff and support crews, the NBA set up a strict isolation “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Teams began playing July 30 at the 8,000-seat AdventHealth Arena and 5,000-seat HP Field House venues with audiences of just a few hundred essential personnel.

To ensure uncompromised, high-impact sound for the dramatically reduced crowds, NBA officials turned to Firehouse Productions, who have been providing sound reinforcement for NBA games for more than a decade. To deliver a dynamic experience while retaining intelligibility under strict volume limits and preventing bleed onto the court, Firehouse Productions deployed JBL VTX V20 line array loudspeakers and VTX S25 subwoofers powered by Crown I-Tech HD Series amplifiers.

“The NBA has a very strict 85 dB limit on the PA system, so intelligibility becomes everything,” said Mark Dittmar, Vice President, Firehouse Productions. “When you can go up to 100 dB, you don’t need as much intelligibility, because you can just turn it up and people can hear it. When you have an 85 dB limit, that’s a very different game. You need to be intelligible above the audience sound.”

To ensure a high degree of intelligibility for commentary, court audio and music, Firehouse Productions deployed three hangs of eight JBL VTX V20 line array loudspeakers in each venue. With 10-inch Differential Drive woofers and D2 dual-diaphragm compression drivers, the VTX V20 provides impressive power output with ultra-linear frequency response and low distortion characteristics. The three-way design and Radiation Boundary Integrator waveguide provide broad coverage for the audience while preventing sound from bleeding onto the court, which had its own sound system. The ASM suspension system allowed Dittmar’s crew to deploy the sound system efficiently and precisely while following COVID-19 safety protocols.

“For most of my shows, and for the NBA in particular, I’ve been using JBL VTX V20 loudspeakers for a number of years,” said Dittmar. “With their intelligibility, size and power factor, they’re just spectacular. The 105-degree pattern really lets me cover a lot, and they sound great. Part of what I like about JBL is that it’s very consistent and reliable for me. I don’t have to worry about intelligibility or things like that, so I don’t have to get into a complicated design. I like to keep it very, very simple.”

To provide the same impact as a typical arena sound system with more focused coverage, Firehouse Productions added JBL VTX S25 subwoofers in cardioid configuration. Featuring two 15-inch Differential Drive woofers engineered for extra-long excursion, the VTX S25 provides industry-leading low-frequency output for its size, with extremely low distortion. Designed specifically for use with VTX V20 line array elements, VTX S25 subwoofers can easily be arrayed in a cardioid configuration to prevent low-frequency spillage outside the coverage zone.

“The subs are my favorite thing out there,” added Dittmar. “Up until I saw this product, I hated 15-inch subs. Then the S25 came out, and I don’t know what they did or how they did it, but it’s a huge amount of power in a very small package. I use it all the time. It’s designed to work with the V20s, and it’s got way more low-end than any double 15 I’ve ever worked with in my life.”

Firehouse productions selected Crown I-Tech 4x3500HD and 12000HD amplifiers to power both sound systems. Featuring BSS OMNIDRIVEHD processing with linear phase FIR filters and the acclaimed LevelMAX Limiter Suite, both models provide crystal-clear amplification with ample headroom. Network connectivity via HiQnet and Ethernet protocols provides a high degree of control and real-time diagnostics.

Having provided sound reinforcement for NBA games and all-star events for the past 10 years, Firehouse Productions maintains a solid working relationship with the organization. It’s this mutual trust, Dittmar says, that allowed his team to react quickly to the unique situation, designing and deploying the sound system in a short time frame with outstanding results.

“I’ve got a very long-standing relationship with them, and a heck of a lot of trust,” Dittmar said of the NBA. “If I say something, that’s what I’m going to deliver. If they tell me something, that’s not just them making up an excuse or something. We have a very strong working relationship together, and that allows us to take complicated, fast-moving situations and get really great results.”