Summer X Games Audio Goes All-Digital

The 2010 Summer X Games on ESPN will feature some new events, including a tricks-video skateboard competition and an indoor moto-car race. But there’s plenty new on the audio side as well.

For starters, this year’s X Games — already the most complex audio show that ESPN produces regularly and the largest audio infrastructure it builds for any remote of the 3,100 shows it broadcasts each year — is the network’s biggest X Games coverage to date. According to Kevin Cleary, ESPN’s senior technical audio producer, the five venues (the Staples Center, the Event Deck, the Nokia Theatre, the LA Live Plaza, and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum) are staffed by 45 people on the audio team, at four main-mix positions and four submix positions.

The number of microphones is equally mind-boggling: about 450 total, with more than 150 microphones at the skate-park venue alone. Also this year, eight of the 31 hours of X Games broadcasts will be on the new ESPN 3D channel.

Cleary says that much of the enhanced audio infrastructure will also support the 3D picture. “When you put this kind of comprehensive sound against the 3D picture, it really gets the story across to the viewer.”

Discrete 5.1 surround sound is passed within the ESPN plant among the various venues; a DTS Neural encoded to LT-RT is transported back to network headquarters in Bristol, CT. Additionally, DaySequerra’s four-channel Mono2Stereo synthesizer, which uses a DTS Neural Technology algorithm, is being used to upmix mono elements.

A Digital Show
The sound for the Summer X Games is the most comprehensively digital yet. Stagetec has an Aurus digital console positioned at the motocross and rally-car event, and a Crescendo digital mixer at the Big Air event, both at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. These are linked together and with the Calrec console in the Denali Summit remote truck via a large Stagetec Nexus digital audio router, with three bidirectional MADI streams between them riding on fiber cabling.

Dan Bernstein, who is mixing the effects tracks for the motocross, rally cars and the new super-rally-car races, notes that all of the audio is running on fiber for the first time. “It’s all reliant on strands of glass, and things get pounded pretty good around here,” he says, with mock apprehension.

But he’s also been pleased with the sound of what’s running on that fiber: “Everything’s running through the Nexus. We can get any signal from anywhere to anywhere, and there’s plenty of headroom, and the mic preamps sound great.”

Bernstein will have a wider palette to spread that sound over, submixing the effects in 5.1 surround for the first time at an X Games. (In the past, the effects stems were done in stereo and upmixed as part of the final broadcast feed.)

This calls for an expanded microphone complement. He has about 30 Sennheiser MKH 416 short shotguns lined up along the perimeter of the bowl to catch the sound of the passing rally cars (the rally and moto course has more than 70 microphones altogether). The figure-eight track configuration doesn’t lend itself well to a Doppler effect, but Bernstein says he’ll be able to approximate one using the camera microphones. The rally cars will also have wireless Sony ECM 77 lavaliers inside the cars, provided by Broadcast Sports Inc.

And several classic Electro-Voice 635A ENG-type microphones are buried in the dirt at the ramp ends to pick up the thud of landing vehicles.  “This is the first year we’re doing that,” he says. “Before, we had pointed shotguns at the landing area, and that worked, but we were looking for a way to get a bigger thud sound. Putting the 635s in the ground gives us a lot more low-frequency energy, more thunder. Plus, they’re bullet-proof. You can drop them out of an airplane, and they’ll still work.”

Ironically, some of the channels actually need to have some of their low end rolled off a bit — the combination of wind in the open-topped venue and the gusts created by passing race vehicles causes low-frequency rumbles that Bernstein dials out using EQ.

The camera microphones, on the other hand, he tends to run on the crisp side, adding in the upper midrange to pick up the chain noise from the motorbikes. “Between the 635s, the shotguns, and the camera mics,” he says, “we get a lot of very cool noise.”

Mixer Andre Carabajal is submixing effects for the Big Air event, using a Stagetec Crescendo console. His mix, however, will be in stereo, given the linear nature of the Big Air event. He has installed ESPN Xducer microphones to the underside of that insanely steep, nine-story ramp, covering the take-off and quarter pipe sections.

On the console, he’s grouped them in threes, then zones them to create a left-right sonic panorama. The rail at the end of the quarter pipe has six contact microphones attached to it — essentially Xducer piezo elements without the casings. These are ganged into a single circuit. “When they hit the rail,” Carabajal says, “it makes for a nice clang.”

The 16th Summer X Games marks what Cleary calls a turning point in the evolution of extreme-sports broadcasts. “We’re seeing it [bridge] generations now,” he says. “We’re seeing fathers and sons at the games who share a common bond in skateboarding or BMX bikes.”

He’s sure it’s the same for millions of home views as well. “That’s why the sound has to be so good. They need to feel like they’re here. And that’s what we do.”

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