NASCAR Chase Gets More-Intense Sound

By Dan Daley
Viewers of this season’s NASCAR Chase for the Cup will get a somewhat bigger earful, thanks to more-intensive microphone placement throughout the activity spectrum.
For example, a pit crewmember is wired for sound with a Sennheiser noise-canceling RF microphone inside the helmet, which picks up both the person’s running description of the task at hand, such as gassing the vehicle or changing a tire, and ambient pit sound. The signal is sent to a 48-input Calrec Zeta mixer manned by Jeff Bratta, who records the audio to a pair of Tascam X-48 multitrack recorders (also used for other RF incoming audio from pits, cockpits, and helmet cams) and edits them for content for broadcast later within the race.
“Overall, there’s more emphasis on what’s coming in from the RF mics this season,” says Denis Ryan, senior mixer for ESPN’s NASCAR broadcasts. “It really gives the fans a new level of insight into the teams. We’ll go back and match some of the chatter to specific incidents on the track so the viewer gets the immediate story behind what happened minutes earlier.”
In addition, track announcers are using the Sennheiser HSP4 headset microphone and in-ear monitors, a concept introduced midseason last year. Ryan says the move has improved the consistency of the audio during standups but is not immune to the never ending tug of war between audio and picture.
“The headset microphones need more attention to positioning,” he explains. “It’s inevitable that it’s often a compromise between the best location for the sound and for the camera.” The optimal position for the microphone, he says, is about 1 inch from the corner of the mouth.
Field audio rides on Calrec’s Hydra fiber-optic networking system back to the broadcast compound, where Ryan and his crew mix primary audio through a 76-fader/152-input Alpha desk with Bluefin processing and the effects mix through a 76-fader/152-input Calrec Sigma console, also with Bluefin. “Once it goes digital to the consoles, it never has to go analog again,” notes Ryan.
The Hydra has also been extended beyond the booths this season to field positions, thanks to new, environmentally protective boxes for the microphones on or near the track.
ESPN’s NASCAR broadcasts are still matrixed surround, using the SRS matrix system, upmixed to 5.1 at the network’s
broadcast center. Ryan says discrete 5.1 is still the goal and might be ready for next season. Monitoring is through Blue Sky 2.1 systems.
One of the central challenges of audio for car racing remains, though: timing the sound to the camera is as much art as science. “The faster the track, the farther out we have to place the microphones to match the focal plane of the cameras,” Ryan explains, noting that track FX mics include the Audio-Technica ST-815 and Shure VP88 stereo imaging microphones and the Sennheiser e835 cardioid microphone. “We keep experimenting a little more every season.”

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