Instant Replay, Microphones, and When It’s Wrong to Be Right

How is instant replay like a gooseneck microphone?

As some of you might know, I’m a dedicated baseball fan – specifically of the New York Mets. In recent years, Major League Baseball has added an  instant replay system in which a dedicated team in a remote location are available to review close plays if a manager challenges them. Today, however, we’re not talking about the technical aspects of replay, but about how a play reviewed yesterday made me think of discussions I’ve had about gooseneck, ceiling, and boundary microphones.

The Play

This was a close play at home plate – one of the more exciting moments in a ballgame. The Mets were leading by a single run when Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki tried to score from third base on a sharp ground ball. A quick throw to the play just beat him, and he was tagged out by Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, preserving the Mets lead.

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Or was he?

The Marlins challenged the call, and the TV audience got to watch almost six minutes of the officiating crew listening for an answer on the phone while we watched the same replay over and over and over again. Five minutes and 45 seconds later, the officials gave the final answer: d’Arnaud’s tag had just missed Ichiro on his way to the plate, and the second tag attempt was a heartbeat too late. He was safe, the score was tied (don’t worry – there is a happy ending. The Mets scored again and went on to win).

There was some anger from Mets fans over what might be a bad call, some relief that “we” won anyway. What do I think? And what does this have to do with a gooseneck microphone? Before I answer, watch the play at full speed. Don’t watch the replays. Forget what I just said.

Was he safe or out? The truth is that in real-time it happened so quickly that you could tell me either and I’d believe you. Watch five minutes of instant replays — and we can still debated it. Perhaps we’re a bit more likely to have the right answer.  Either way, however, it is not so egregious an error as to hurt my enjoyment of the game. I’d argue that my enjoyment was hurt more by having to wait for the results. Replay made the game more “fair” but less “fun.”

Microphones and Microphones and Microphones

We AV professionals are often in conflict with the interiors part of design teams regarding microphones, speakers, and any other AV elements which might have to be more visible than would be ideal for aesthetics. What makes matters worse is that the best solutions from an audio perspective are often the most problematic aesthetically.  Recently I had a discussion with the manufacturer of a “delegate system” consisting of free-standing little boxes with gooseneck microphones and some simple controls. Their argument is that it made a better solution than a boundary mic or a ceiling mic. I agreed, but pointed out that whenever I propose such a thing in a high-profile boardroom with expensive furniture, the architect would most certainly complain. The response: “I hope you set them straight.”

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This is a problem some of us in the industry have. Like the well-meaning baseball executives who insist on making sure the calls are right, we can become obsessed with finding the best solutions. At best, this leads to excellent performance. At worst, it creates a kind of tunnel vision in which the enjoyment of a space is harmed by a lack of attention to overall experience (which includes how a space looks).

The truth is that for simple conferencing applications boundary or even ceiling microphones are adequate. They’re the experienced umpire’s best judgement at game-speed. A 12-inch gooseneck? That’s a team in a control room with five minutes to view super-slow-motion from multiple angles.

Last year, I posted about a mad-science experiment in which several mics were compared for use with a soft-codec. This is something about which I’ve been thinking more — especially as expectations have shifted.

Sliding Expectations

Not many years ago, if you said “videoconference” to an executive, they would think of a dedicated conference room, with integrated microphones, a DSP capable of being tuned for the specific room conditions, and possibly acoustic treatments to maximize performance. The idea would be a space built and designed for that function.

Now if you say “videoconference,” most people will think of the Google Hangouts or Apple FaceTime app on their phones. Does a room system need to be better than this to accommodate a dozen or more people? Absolutely. Is the expectation an immersive experience with the best-quality audio and video? Only in the most specialized spaces.

I’m no longer in the business of setting anybody straight; I do educate, and I do try to guide clients to the right answer.

What I’ve learned is that sometimes the right answer is to let the call on the field stand to preserve the flow and experience of the game, even at the expense of some measure of accuracy.

It’s good to be right, but sometimes being right is not enough.

Sometimes it’s even wrong.