No Bull: Bull Riding Is a Unique Challenge for Audio
By Dan Daley
When Lance Gordon says he has to clean the crap from his microphones at the end of the show, he’s not using a figure of speech. Bull riding produces a significant amount of collateral damage in the form of bull dung being flung far and wide. “The camera operators know not to have their mouths open during a ride,” deadpans Lance, the A1 and mixer for the bull-riding events broadcast on Versus (formerly, the Outdoor Life Network), Fox, and NBC during the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) organization’s 33-week season.
The event travels to a new venue on a weekly basis, doing two to three shows per week and carting its own PA system and lights. One of YES Productions’ two HD trucks does most of the shows, with Gordon mixing the broadcasts on an SSL MT-Plus Production console. He has a crew of four A2 mixers.
A typical soundscape uses eight Sennheiser MKH 416 short shotgun mics, four mounted on the chutes (where they pick up most of that coating mentioned earlier) and four handhelds. POV cams in the arena are fitted with Audio-Technica AT875Rs. A total of seven Sennheiser ME 66 shotgun microphones are mounted on hard cams and elsewhere around the arena. Two Audio-Technica AT825 stereo mics at either end of the arena pick up crowd sound.
Aside from the biohazards his microphones and A2s endure, Gordon’s biggest challenge is keep the PA system, which can reach 120 dB in certain arenas, out of the broadcast mix. “I’ll EQ it out, generally in the low-midrange, but where the notch is isn’t predictable from venue to venue or even from show to show,” he says. “So I don’t pre-EQ anything, but I fine-tune each show from the beginning. The trick to the mix is to anticipate where the shots are going to go and to keep the announcers riding above it.”
In addition to talent mics, Gordon gets voiceover and effects from a Sennheiser SK 250 lavalier microphone he tucks into the Kevlar-covered protective vest of one of the bull fighters that roam the ring to distract bulls away from thrown riders (do not mistake them for rodeo clowns, Gordon cautions). Another is clipped onto the neurological specialist who travels with the troupe and attends any thrown rider on the field. “There’s no other way to get a microphone that close to the action,” Gordon explains.
The lav is clipped into a pouch he has carved into the bull fighter’s vest, to give it some protection from the hard falls they often have to take. In addition to on-the-spot analyses and interviews with the bull riders he tracks through that lavalier, he and the viewers sometimes get an earful of other, more scatological commentary — there is no audio delay. “We’ve gotten in trouble for it a couple of times,” he acknowledges. “The raw sound is part of what makes it exciting. But we did recently get a bull rider that doesn’t cuss.”
Gordon says he can, on occasion, mike an actual bull rider, which nets some truly intense audio, including the snort of the bull and the singular sound made when a one-ton bull tries to drill a thrown rider into the ground. But those opportunities are rare. “[The riders] are no different than any other pro athletes,” he says. “The cowboys don’t want one more thing to think about out there.”