Crosscreek, ESPN Roll Out Turbocharged EtherSound Workflow for NHRA Drag Racing

Few sports boast the aural ferocity and dynamic range of sound featured in drag racing. Although roaring dragsters make for a heart-pounding, eardrum-thumping experience for NHRA racing fans at the track, they can rain hell on a production team trying to deliver a high-quality audio experience to viewers at home. Welcome to the weekly trials and tribulations of ESPN’s NHRA crew, which will once again deploy Crosscreek Television Productions’ Voyager 8 HD mobile unit when the flag drops on the 2014 NHRA season this weekend in Pomona, CA.

Crosscreek’s Voyager in the compound at Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Raceway last season

Crosscreek’s Voyager in the compound at Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Raceway last season

“Drag racing is such a unique sports from a television-audio aspect,” says Rusty Rourke, A2 on ESPN’s NHRA coverage. “Take, for example, a basketball game, where you have a set game structure for your microphones. Once you get them set, they are set; you are not tweaking them during the game. With drag racing, though, you can have Top Fuel cars generating 160-plus dB. Then you could have a motorcycle running up the track 30 seconds later, which is a completely different sound level and requires everything to be [adjusted]. That kind of dynamic range makes things very difficult.”

EtherSound to the Rescue
However, the auditory challenges of NHRA racing will be greatly simplified this season, thanks to a new EtherSound-based workflow. With an EtherSound interface in Voyager 8’s Yamaha M7CL audio console, the ESPN NHRA audio show is able to run on a digital-network infrastructure — for enhanced automation features, increased reliability, and reduced setup and strike time — as well as on heavy copper wiring required by the previous workflow.

“I can’t emphasize enough how big of a change this is for us,” says A1 Tim Record. “The logistics of setup, the amount of physical labor, the weight saved on the truck from all that copper [wiring], the time spent to tear it all down on Sunday night, and the technical accuracy — it’s a major improvement.”

ESPN's NHRA producer Eric Swaringen inside Voyager 8 (Photo courtesy ESPN Image)

ESPN’s NHRA producer Eric Swaringen inside Voyager 8 (Photo courtesy ESPN Image)

EtherSound, an open standard for networking digital audio, provides bidirectional, deterministic, low-latency transmission of synchronized audio channels and control data over standard Ethernet connectivity, allowing ESPN to make adjustments on the fly because audio levels vary drastically from event to event. As a result, Record and his team were able to establish precise settings for each NHRA event and call them instantaneously.

“[We are able to achieve] precise gain, dynamics, and EQ from one [dragster] class to another simply by calling up a new scene on the console,” says Record. “Every run down the track will be tweaked and saved. With total recall, the sound will get better every day, with no looking back.”

The mic locations on the track, meanwhile, will stay roughly the same. ESPN will deploy three 16-in, eight-out stage boxes throughout the track: one at the start line with about 10 mics, one between the two finish lines to get the completion of the run, and a third at a location that varies from event to event.

“It’s an ongoing tweaking process from day to day, and the sound quality just keeps getting better and better because we are building on what we did yesterday and the week before and last year,” says Rourke. “It’s really a unique opportunity to tweak the sound of the show to get the best possible sound. In drag racing, sound is a major part of the show, so that makes a huge difference.”

Say Goodbye to Analog
ESPN approached Crosscreek prior to the 2013 season regarding a move to an entirely digital audio-networking workflow in an effort to increase the overall sound quality. In response, Crosscreek revamped Voyager 8’s audio infrastructure, bringing in the EtherSound system last season.

ESPN's NHRA producer Eric Swaringen (right) and director Bruce Watson (center) with the NHRA technical director (Photo courtesy ESPN Image)

ESPN’s NHRA producer Eric Swaringen (right) and director Bruce Watson (center) with the NHRA technical director (Photo courtesy ESPN Image)

“We are now going to keep all of the signals in the digital realm as [ESPN] had requested,” says Butch Mueller, director of engineering, Crosscreek Television Productions. “That way, we don’t have any artifacts developing from converting back and forth from analog to digital, which we did several times under the old way of doing it. Now we will be taking it straight in through the [stage] boxes, converting into an EtherSound stream, and feeding that into the console.”

Rourke adds, “The reliability just goes through the roof with a digital network compared to an analog network. Also, the reliability of our TV-compound set is going to be simplified. Previously, we were feeding in 11 DT12 copper cables, and that’s gone now. So that’s a lot less weight for the truck to carry.”

A New EtherSound Frontier
Perhaps the most significant advantage of the new EtherSound infrastructure is the potential for growth. Already a massive audio production from week to week, ESPN’s NHRA show now has the ability to expand even further without adding significant complexity or resources.

“The other important thing about this proposed system is the room for future expansion,” says Record. “As things are now, we are beyond tapped out. We are in a position were we jump through risky hoops every race just to keep up with the changing and expanding coverages. With EtherSound, we have a lot of room to expand and improve.”

Although drag racing remains unique from an audio standpoint, Crosscreek President/CEO Spruce McCree sees a future in this EtherSound-based truck for other properties in the future.

“It is starting off just for NHRA, but I’m sure, as we get into it more, we will figure out other applications where it can be useful,” he says. “ESPN wanted us to pursue this and install it for their shows. We have all seen how much emphasis ESPN is putting on the audio side of things: 16 channels, 5.1 surround. That is a huge part of their production now, and this really takes this to the level they want to see it. We will have to wait and see and go from here, but I’m sure there will be some experimentation on other events in the future.”

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