Live From 2022 NFL Draft: Wrangling Audio Challenges Live on the Air and on the Strip
Production manages feeds from mics on stage, in the green room, at team facilities and prospects’ homes, even around Las Vegas
The first NFL Draft took place on Feb. 8, 1936, when representatives of the then-nine NFL franchises assembled at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Today, it’s a three-day extravaganza across 15 hours of television. This year, it’s the hub of the largest party so far, one whose scale is suited to Las Vegas, where it takes place starting Thursday, April 28 across multiple networks — ESPN, ABC, and the NFL Network — and streamed live through NFL digital properties as well via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
When it comes to sound, there’ll be plenty of it, both on the air and live in the streets. A1 Justin Blackwood is mixing the ESPN shows from NEP EN-1; his counterpart, Florian Brown, is A1 for the ABC broadcasts aboard NEP SuperShooter 5. The main challenge of the event’s audio, says Blackwood, is the sheer number of sources. These include microphones on the podiums (there are two podiums this year), which, with backups, means eight sources just for that. Then there are remote camera mics and handhelds in the green room, the teams’ war rooms, ESPN’s SportsCenter show onsite, and in the players’ homes, where they’ll capture the whoops of family members as their sons are selected.
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Connecting all these sources creates a large-scale matrix that both Blackwood and Brown have to navigate, keeping up with scene and picture shifts as the events heat up.
“Just sharing all of these resources is the biggest challenge,” says Blackwood, who is on his second stint as lead A1 for the NFL Draft and has worked nearly a half dozen times as SportsCenter A1. “We have connectivity to the NFL Network via MADI, and, between ESPN, ABC live, and the NFL Network, we’re passing all those resources around. It’s really just about getting a grasp on who needs what, when, and where and how we’re going to get it to them.”
The overarching goal for sound is to support the video, including keeping some common ambience in the mix to avoid abrupt tonal shifts, with background crowd sounds as aural continuity for transitions to quieter environments.
“I think the biggest thing is trying to just have the audio match the cameras, which is challenging because it’s very spread out,” Blackwood explains. “We’ve especially got a lot of crowd mics out there — in the theater, at the College GameDay set, at the beer garden — so it’s really just trying to bring all that and have it match what they’re cutting around on screen, because they’re all very different environments.
“When you go out to the beer garden on the Las Vegas strip,” he continues, “it’s totally different sound, with all the crowd mics open, than when you’re in the green room, where you’ve got players and their families and it can be very quiet. You want to make sure you’re bringing up the handheld-camera mics to get those family reactions and cheers. You can be going from a hundred thousand people one minute to a few people in a green room the next, so it’s really just trying to figure out where to put all the crowd mics and have it match what they’re cutting around on.”
Blackwood deploys a neat trick to manage the sea of noise that’s inevitable in a show of this scale, using several Waves plug-ins in an unusual manner.
“I use the WNS and NS-1 plug-ins on our Waves server for noise suppression, kind of like a Cedar[-type] emulator,” he explains. “What that does is help me drown out everything but the talking heads. I’ve used them on Countdown the last couple years, and it really helps. You know, the PA’s blasting, and you’ve got a bunch of [commentary] mics open that pick up a lot of that noise.
“I first started using them on tennis, on the serve mics, to keep the crowd noise out of them,” he continues. “Then, when we were [doing the 2019 NFL Draft] in Nashville, I was doing a morning talk show as they did a PA check for some country artists, but, because of those plug-ins, you were able to hear the talent just fine. It cuts down the PA a lot. So now I use those plug-ins often on talent. You do have to try to find a balance [between the direct signal and the processing], because you don’t want to hear the plug-in pumping, but it gives me enough of an edge that it helps isolate those microphones, drown out some of that PA noise, and give me a little more control.”
All the Sound We Need
The scale of the event’s audio is graphically illustrated on Brown’s Calrec Apollo console aboard SuperShooter 5. On it, 128 faders are connected to input sources ranging from the main set to the beer garden to the Las Vegas Strip, with room for remote and “sideline” interviews as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the action, all mixed onsite and shipped to Bristol, CT, and New York.
“Then there’s all the integration with SportsCenter and NFL Live and the other platforms,” says Brown, who also mixed the 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland. “There are tons of sources, far more than a game and more like an awards show. But the crowd shots and some of the interviews also give it a bit of a game-type feel.”
In addition, both Brown and Blackwood are taking in feeds from the live sound of the entertainment portions of the event. These are essentially the “instant replays” of the Draft, made available as needed to streaming outlets and the NFL Network.
Crowd-sound capture is mostly conventional, says Brown. Fortunately, there’s plenty of it.
“Las Vegas is a noisy place; the pool party bands start at 9 a.m.,” he says. “And that’s good, because there’s constantly sound going on, and, the more sound there is, the more live it all feels. We are not hard-pressed to find all the sound we need. The challenge is managing it all.”