The Indy 500 Readies Its Roar

Racecar spelled backwards is still racecar. It’s not the most obvious palindrome in sports, and the fact that it’s pointed out by the audio crew for Brickyard’s IMS Productions underscores the intimacy they’ve achieved with the surprisingly nuanced sound of open-wheel racing.

“My friends think NASCAR is tougher to do because it’s all about low frequencies,” explains Mike Pope, senior audio mixer at IMS, “but, with Indycar, the sound-pressure levels are much higher in the mid- to high-frequency ranges these races produce. Low-frequency SPL has less possibility of inducing overload on the mic preamps. We used to have to put 10-dB to 20-dB pads on the effects microphones years ago, before the equipment got better. Keeping the signal clean makes the sound a lot fuller, but we’ll still have to use pads in rare cases.”

Over the years, IMS has created a substantial infrastructure for audio for Indycar races, built largely around the iconic Indianapolis 500, running this year on May 27 and shown on ESPN/ABC. But it’s also there for the entire season, including run-up events like the Carburetion Day show and others that will be broadcast by NBC Sports and the other four races that Disney’s nets will broadcast.

The A unit of IMS’s HD1 truck handles the main production, including the main audio mix; the newly built B unit, fitted with a Calrec Artemis console, does the effects submixing; the recently refurbished C unit mixes the driver radio communications on a Yamaha IM840. That audio is supplied by BSI and is also recorded to a pair of Tascam 48-track digital recorders. The in-car audio is used live — in fact, Indy Racing League LLC, the race’s governing body, gives the production company substantial latitude in its use, including driver communications with Race Control, which warns and occasionally admonishes drivers mid-race, buffered with only a 1.5-second delay — but the recorded radio traffic can be used to fill in during lulls in the action to keep viewer excitement level high, says IMS Technical Manager Ken Fitzgerald.

The track-sound infrastructure has become more complex, but that makes for a better show, the audio crew agrees. The Calrec Sigma console in the A unit can accept different feeds from two Telecast Adder II modular audio-, intercom-, and data-multiplexing systems and from the Calrec Artemis in the B unit, as well as from the five Hydra routers around the track. That allows the engineers to establish variable gain structures for each audio unit’s mission. It also lets them back off on compressing the mix — Pope estimates the broadcast compression ratio maxes at about 3:1 — and creating gain structures down to the per-camera level.

“We want this thing to breathe, and it does,” says Pope. “And people have noticed that the sound has gotten better and better.”

To the point, he adds, that show producer Terry Linger will ask the announce talent to lay out periodically to let viewers take in the sound. True aficionados will note slight changes in the engine sounds year to year, such as the additional whine brought about two years ago when Indycar engines first incorporated turbochargers. Less subtle are the sounds produced during street and road Indy courses at other times of the year, when down/upshifting creates a symphony of torque and screaming splines.

An extensive web of effects microphones positioned around the track picks much of that up. These include a dozen Shure SM89s and plenty of the staple Sennheiser 816 and 814 shotguns. IMS Supervising Engineer Paul Stage says that more Shure VP88 and Audio-Technica BP4027 or BP4029 stereo microphones are added to the effects mix each year, with an emphasis on speed shots.

“We’re using the Hydra boxes on the field to bring back more of the microphones right to the consoles,” he says. “IMS is spending a significant amount of money on the audio facilities, and we expect that, with new consoles coming next year, we’ll continue to be state of the art.”

All that makes for good fits when the IMS crew interacts with the networks for the events leading up to and including the Indy 500 itself. “ABC and NBC share the facilities with us, and we provide a lot of cameras and audio for them, including effects mics and intercom,” Pope explains, adding that ABC will put out some additional microphones for its 5.1-surround broadcast.

“[The Indianapolis 500 is] really very much a team effort between IMS and ESPN and NBC,” he notes. “Everyone wants their network shows to be the best, and we’re working with them to make that happen.”

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