Vroom! NASCAR Audio Has Its Own Sound

The sound for NASCAR, whose season kicked off a couple of weeks ago at Daytona, FL, remains in matrixed surround this year. But ESPN mixer Denis Ryan still has plenty of ways to put viewers in the driver’s seat.

He has set up a combination of “approach” and “leave” microphones in front of and behind the robocams at the turns, each of which has its own mounted shotgun mics. Audio-Technica 815 stereo shotguns are on the ground, with Sennheiser e835 microphones mounted on lower cams, where they’ll be hit with the highest SPLs, and Shure VP88 condensers or Sennheiser ME 66 shotguns on high cameras.

“How we mix them will vary,” says Ryan. “Often, the camera mics will move left to right, and we’ll play with [fixed] microphones, say, taking the ‘leave’ microphone and panning it from front-left to rear-right. It all depends on how the shot is built. If the shot zooms out, then we might use more of the [fixed] microphone sound.”

A Calrec Alpha console is used as the main mixer, and a Calrec Sigma is deployed for the submix; both use Bluefin HD signal processing. A Calrec Zeta does the radio mix. All consoles are networked via Calrec’s Hydra. Console equalization is often called on for NASCAR mixes.

“We’re limited as to where we can place microphones on some tracks so I’ll use console EQ to compensate for that,” Ryan says. “If we can’t position a microphone right on axis for a speed shot and it sounds a little dull as a result, I might have to add some 4 kHz to add some bite to the sound. If the wind kicks up, I have to roll some low end off. That can thin the sound out a little so I’ll add some around 200 Hz to get some of the bottom back.”

He was working last week at the Bristol, TN, track, regarded as the consistently loudest on the circuit, with 43 cars packed into a half-mile bowl. SPLs routinely hover at 110 dB to 112 dB. And microphones also have to withstand physical abuse to the track itself. “You’ve got lots of rubber and other stuff churned up by the cars, then you have the weather,” he points out, “so we have to give all the microphones weekly cleanings.”

The microphones get as much protection as possible. They’re bagged overnight and, in precipitation, on race day until a few hours before the green flag drops. They also need a careful combination of robust mounting, to prevent their being blasted off their stands, and isolation from mechanical coupling with road surface vibrations, including four-point elastic bands and blimp-wind covers.

Inside the car, the sound can be even bigger. Peter Larrson, GM at BSI, which supplies UHF audio from the cars and the pits, says the interior SPL is “horrendous.” A pair of Shure SM11 lavalier EFX microphones mounted near the center of the horizontal bracing of the roll bar and pointed outward at a 90-degree angle pick up in-car sounds.

“We’ve experimented with many, many microphones, but these handle the SPL the best,” says Larrson. “We had used some electret-style [condenser] microphones in the past. They handled the SPL well but were subject to a lot of interference from the high-voltage ignition systems on the cars.” (The audio has not been without its losses, either: BSI has lost a few microphones over the years to car fires after wrecks.)

The EFX microphones produce an effective stereo image of the car passing or being passed, Larsson says, adding that the “whack” when one hits a wall is unique to NASCAR. Of the eight to 12 cars wired up for each race, he points out, on average, at least one will have a noisy encounter with a track wall. BSI sends three discrete audio tracks — its own stereo EFX and the driver-team communication picked up from a scanner — in real time to whichever network is broadcasting the race.

“There’s definitely an art form when it comes to putting microphones on a race track,” adds Ryan.

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