Indy 500: Veteran Audio Crew Prepares To Turn Up the Volume

Crowd sound might compete with engine noise as seats fill again

Thirty-three drivers, 200 laps, 500 miles. The annual event that is the Indianapolis 500 got under way with a series of practice and qualifying laps last weekend, offering not only drivers and pit crews but also NBC Sports’ audio staff the opportunity to polish their skills for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Among the audio crew this year are A1 Fred Aldous, mixing from the IMSP HD-5 production truck on a Calrec Apollo console; Rob Sweeney, handling the submix of track effects, in-car audio, and general crowd ambience from IMSP B-1 using a Calrec Artemis desk; Jeff Feltz, mixing the live driver-radio submix on a pair of Calrec Brio consoles aboard the C-1 truck, aided by Tim Spero, handling the near-live edits of those transmissions; Mike Pope, serving as audio guarantee; and Bryan Korot, handling pre-race audio on a Calrec Sigma aboard IMSP HD-3. Steve Urick and Eric Anderson are among the A2s for the event.

Aboard IMSP HD-5 mobile unit, Mike Pope (left) is serving as audio guarantee and supervising the audio infrastructure, and Fred Aldous is A1 for NBC Sports’ broadcast of the Indianapolis 500.

In addition, six RF reporters (four in the pits, two for color-call talent) will provide analysis on teams and pit activities. Because SPL levels can reach more than 120 dB in these areas, pit talent wear enclosed headsets offering acoustic protection. They’ll carry Sennheiser e835 hand mics — featuring high-output gain, minimal handling noise, and a tight cardioid pattern for off-axis noise rejection — into BSI RF transmitters.

The race-level set compels A1 Aldous to keep an ear specially cocked at it. “One of the biggest challenges I face,” he says, “is the ability to hear the announcers from the pit box on Pit Row. It is an open-air set right on the track.”

Located at the Pit Row exit, the NBC pit box runs on a Dante network with Studio Technologies’ Dante-enabled announcer boxes and an RTS ODIN digital intercom, which uses Dante AoIP for media transport. RTS Roameo wireless beltpacks free up the A2 and stage manager.

Although Aldous is a veteran when it comes to motorsports, this is only his second Indy 500. Much of his time in the chair for the practice and qualifying runs was spent finding the nuances of the track.

“When they come down the straightaway, it’s like an alley,” he explains, “with the glass-fronted suites on the inside and the stands on the outside of the track. The SPL through there is incredible.” Another area that takes a sharp ear, he adds, is the pit box, where sonic reflections make the announcers’ intelligibility a challenge.

Feels Like Old Times

Crowds are back this year after being banned during last year’s pandemic, and they’ll be competing with the sound of the racecars, which can reach 140 dB. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is allowing 135,000 fans to attend the 2021 running of the race, which is generally considered the largest single-day sports event in the world each year, normally logging more than 300,000 in attendance.

This year’s event will feel — and sound — a lot like old times. NBC Sports has deployed eight Calrec Hydra field boxes around the track, along with six Dante 5205 two-channel transport boxes, all on fiber. The  track’s microphones, which make up part of the estimated 100 or so mics for the production, combine various Sennheiser mono shotguns, Shure VP88 stereo condensers, and Audio-Technica stereo shotguns. A few “roar” mics come back via dry pair, given the size of the infield, says Feltz.

To keep the foundational sound together, Sweeney relies on what has become a signature trick for motorsports: an Ernie Ball guitar volume pedal that lets him swell the general ambience and roar of the track as needed when the cars are between turns, where most of the microphones are positioned. (The origin of the technique is widely attributed to late A1 Ron Scalise.)

No one is happier to be back to a more normal Indy 500 than the audio crew, says Feltz, who is working his 19th Indy 500 race. He started attending the race when he was 8 years old, making this the 38th he has seen as either a spectator or an audio technician.

“I’m sure you heard the cars better [last year, without crowds], but there’s an emptiness to it,” he says. “It’s gonna be exciting to get the fans back in here. You just want something real, and there’s nothing more real than real crowd noise.”

Technique and Flow

Feltz notes that microphone technique and signal flow around the track are little changed from previous years, although it has become progressively more networked over time.

“As [the cars] come up close to the wall, we’ll have a 16-channel Hydra box that links up to Rob’s submix console, and we’ll take two channels and put the ‘approach’ and the ‘go’ microphones out 8-12 ft. in front of the robo [cams]. You don’t want to put them right at the head necessarily — the cars are approaching at 220, 230 miles an hour; you want to get them out a bit ahead of the camera. That’s typical in NASCAR as well. There are some cameras, robos, or other microphones that we can’t go out in front of, so we’ll put a longer stereo microphone on it, like an A-T shotgun.”

Driver chatter, which is in stereo within the overall 5.1 surround show mix, has become a staple of this race, and Feltz will tweak the EQ to keep it as intelligible as possible within its implicitly narrow RF band. Mixing it, he says, can often feel as though he were in the driver’s seat.

During the intense, four-hour-plus race, he juggles 34 Motorola radios, including Race Control. “It’s a tricky spot,” he says, “because you’re listening to four things at once. To the director and the producer, so you know where the show is heading. To the actual non-delayed radios, trying to search for what is good and can be pulled off the EVS for on-air.

“It can be kind of a loud room you know,” Feltz continues, “and it’s interesting just mentally mixing the balance of different things in the room. And then you have 1.4 seconds [of profanity delay] to decide whether that’s gonna be good enough content-wise to put it on. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.”

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