The Kentucky Derby Gets Ready To Rock
More than 50 cameras and more than 100 mics will capture the race and festivities
Like the broadcast version of the parable of 40 loaves and 40 fishes, NBC Sports this weekend will convert a race that lasts barely two minutes into more than 15 hours of Kentucky Derby Week coverage, from Thursday live at 4 p.m. ET through Saturday’s live Derby Day coverage starting at noon on NBCSN.
The race itself, which has a post time of 6:34 p.m. on Saturday, will be covered by more than 50 cameras, including a helmet camera on the outrider (who escorts the winning horse and jockey to the winner’s circle), a camera suspended 80 ft. high on the Churchill Downs videoboard structure, a robotic camera in the paddock saddling area, and a camera focused on race caller Larry Collmus.
Sound is not getting short shrift at the Derby: plans call for a jockey, trainer, and owner to be miked for final instructions and post-race reactions.
“NBC has a long tradition with the Kentucky Derby and great experience knowing how to capture the elements that make it such a great race to watch, listen, and experience on TV,” observes Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. “It’s a tremendous event to cover for audio, and, straight out of the gate, the host will go around the grounds to six different reporter locations, covering the entire venue. Once that whip-around [is finished], we are off and running. NBC has 14 commentators contributing in total. We will also wire a jockey, trainer, and owner, for when the jockey is given last-minute instructions as well as for the post-race celebrations — or commiserations.” (Broadcast Sports Inc. is providing RF services and will choose the wireless systems used on the riders.)
“It’s a very busy event for RF and for our A2s, who are wrangling the talent, ensuring their mics and IFBs are in place and hot when they are thrown to,” Malone adds. “As far as the general sound design, we are trying to capture the true atmosphere of the different locations, be they on the infield or the paddock, and finally to have you out of your seat shouting at the TV with the rest of the grandstand.”
Working out of ND1B (part of NEP’s ND1 unit, usually deployed for Sunday Night Football), Simon Thomsen, the compound A2, is part of an “A2 army” of 20 sound engineers who deploy more than 100 microphones for the event. Thomsen is tasked with funneling all the signals — fiber and analog — from the racetrack to the truck.
“Churchill Downs has a pretty good I/O network,” he notes. “They updated the blockhouse a couple years ago, [and] there is good connectivity throughout the track. Our ‘audio army’ disperses and builds all of our positions with [Sennheiser MD 46] stick mics, IFBs, partylines, effects mics, and so on. Most [of the signals] are fed back to us through [Calrec] Hydra boxes on fiber and some on house copper to the blockhouse, where it is then routed to the truck.”
The microphone complement comprises mainly Sennheiser 416 and Audio-Technica BP4029 shotguns, blended with five mics on the starting gate: four Sony ECM-77 lavaliers and a Sennheiser 416 shotgun. But lots of other sound elements are critical to providing a complete picture for viewers, including Audio-Technica BP3025 stereo microphones on the bugler, the choir, and a marching band. The crowd will be picked up by an array of Sennheiser ME64 cardioid condensers.
“If it goes on camera, we want to have some ‘nats’ available, if only just a stereo shotgun on a handheld camera,” says Thomsen, referring to the ambient sound around the areas where cameras are trained.
He says that, ultimately, the weather may provide the single biggest challenge for the Derby’s sound. “It always rains this week,” he predicts glumly. “Also, 12 roving talent from 15 positions spread out over a very large area and moving from position to position, each accompanied by an A2. Sometimes, talent has to pick up different mics, depending on location and RF coverage.”
However, the A2s have devised an innovative workaround. “We use a voting system where you have console faders assigned to individual talent,” Thomsen explains. “Talent uses RF and hard-wired mics with number IDs — 101, 102, 103, and so on for primary mics; 201, 202, 203 for hardwire backups. These are assigned through a MADI router to the appropriate console destination as our team of A2s following [the] talent call in their locations. This system is used for IFBs as well. This method avoids a lot of confusion on race day.”
Then there’s the sheer size of the Churchill Downs campus. “The amount of area the A2 team has to cover is pretty impressive,” Thomsen says. “This is a big place, and we have assets all over it. I am here in the compound with a relatively small physical area to work with, and there’s a lot of equipment to lug around a large area, but these guys are all over the place.” But even at a horse track where, for a day, tradition reigns and that can look like a 19th-century costume drama, efficiency wins out: “We do have golf carts available.”
The Derby is part of more than 28 hours of NBC Sports Group’s Triple Crown coverage this season, originating from Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park and including live coverage of races at all three prior to the Triple Crown races. This marks the seventh consecutive year that all three Triple Crown races will air on NBC.