NBC Sports Audio Team Battles Elements at Kentucky Derby

Abbott & Costello made plenty of hay with their “mudder and fodder” routine, but we can forgive the folks at Churchill Downs if they weren’t laughing last Saturday when record rains inundated the track hours before the start of the Kentucky Derby.

NBC Sports audio mixer Peteris Saltans was busy making sure his crew of 16 A2s had slipped the plastic sleeving over the 36 Sennheiser 416 shotgun microphones attached to the inside rail along most of the length of the track, with mic-to-line amplifiers and PL boxes tucked into Rubbermaid containers to keep dry.

“There have been some Derbies in the past where it rained all day,” he notes, “but this one was [almost] Biblical.”

The rain compelled a rarely used plan B. Several wireless commentator locations were scrubbed in favor of covered alternate positions with wired microphones at the first turn, where Bob Costas and Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore sat, and in the Yum Yum sponsor suite in the grandstand. Saltans says wireless-mic/IFB/PL and wireless-camera provider Broadcast Sports Inc.’s RF mast could not be fully extended under the meteorological conditions, limiting reliable wireless range.

That, along with several microphones added to the console load inside NEP’S ND-3, such as the new Audio-Technica AT4050 stereo mic on the bugler, made it the biggest input lineup yet on the Calrec Alpha desk for the Derby. There were still five wireless mics used by reporters covering outposts in the paddock, owner suites, barns, and horseback interviews on the track.

The jockey room was hard-wired for interviews, and three of the jockeys themselves were fitted with Sennheiser SK 250 body packs.

“The location of the wireless body pack is per jockey’s request, either on the belt or in his back pocket,” Saltans explains. “The mic transmitter is placed in some sort of a pouch, usually a baby’s sock, and safety-pinned normally to the back of the jockey’s safety vest. It is at the jockeys’ discretion on where exactly they feel comfortable with the placement of the transmitter, as making sure the jockey is comfortable is key to their being willing to wear the mic in the first place.”

The actual mic element is then placed just below the shoulder, normally on the left side, of the jockey’s vest on the front side, and the mic is held in position with two triangles of double-sided gaffer’s tape. “This allows the mic to be held in place to the vest but also allows the silk on top to stick so that it eliminates the rubbing noise from the silk,” says Saltans. All of the excess cable is then secured to the back of the vest with some safety pins and gaffer’s tape.

All three jockey microphones survived the entire race. Mics in the main grandstand didn’t fare so well, with two of the 16 Sennheiser 416s knocked out by the weather.

The core sound effects of the Derby are the horses thundering around the track, but the mud and wrapped microphones inevitably cut some of the edge off the sound. Still, there were plenty of sources to draw from. Shotgun mics lined the inside of the front stretch through the third turn and back stretch, while eight Sony ECM 77s were fitted atop section poles that filled in the front stretch to the finish line.

A combination of the track mics and the wireless jockey body packs, all submixed by Chris Acker, kept the 5.1 surround-sound field full, says Saltans. The submixed-effects tracks were split into a stereo pair for track and jockey microphones and another stereo pair for camera-mounted microphones. Saltans says Acker’s mix followed the camera POV as much as possible, moving the track effects through the stereo field while the surround field was enveloped by the crowd sounds.

Minutes before the race began, the rains lifted, and the sun actually began to peek through. The track remained plenty muddy, though, so the audio crew’s efforts to keep the gear dry were well considered, especially given the ample splatter on the microphones along the track as the race roared by. It was a good day for 8-1–odds Super Saver, who proved to be a real mudder.

“We had a good day,” says Saltans. “Hopefully, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 15 will be dry, although we’ll be ready for rain.”

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