Winter X Games 13 Has All-Digital Sound

By Dan Daley

At X Games 13 (Jan. 22-25 on ESPN) in Aspen, snow wasn’t the only thing both soft and crucial to the broadcast’s success. ESPN Senior Technical Audio Producer Kevin Cleary, working with Tim Casey of Studio Consultants and Henry Rousseau, senior technical producer for ESPN Event Operations, created an all-digital audio compound and connectivity map using a 96-kHz MADI connection between the trucks and Calrec’s Hydra networking system.

Three Calrec Alpha consoles served as the main mixers at the three event venues: Pipe/Slope (Venue A), Big Air/X Course (Venue B), and Snow Cross (Venue C). Each venue also had a Calrec Sigma, Zeta, or Omega console as a submixer.

“There was little if any copper in the compound this year,” says Cleary, adding that he has dabbled with an all-digital multiple-mixer environment in the past, including running fiber to various points on a NASCAR track. At X Games, he says, combining the MADI protocol, Calrec’s Hydra digital audio networking system (with GB Ethernet fabric), Lightviper 1832 digital fiber-optic audio snake cabling, and uncompressed, low-latency CobraNet provided a completely digital loop from start to finish.

The benefits included a less cluttered signal path that eliminated the need for hardware mults and allowed soft-patching virtually every connection within the consoles themselves. “Instead of running between trucks, between venues, any operator at any position could call up any other venue on his console without ever leaving his seat, because all six consoles are on a single network,” Cleary explains. Mixers could call up any of the microphone placements at all of the venues and “take ownership” of the channel, even providing it with 48-v phantom power, if needed, while still keeping that channel available to any other mixer who might want to tap it.

Lots of Microphones

There were plenty of channels to choose from. Cleary estimates that more than 300 microphones were used during the games, most of which were shotguns to let A2s keep their distance from airborne snowmobiles. X does, after all, stand for “extreme.” Sennheiser MKH-816 and MKH-416 shotguns were widely used to cover such venues as the 7,000-plus-foot-long X Course. Microphones were staked into the snow and clipped onto anything reasonably solid, allowing uninterrupted audio as picture followed contestants down the slope. The loud snarl of snowmobiles allowed the use of short shotguns like the Sennheiser MKH-416 and MKH-70 at the Snowcross venue. ESPN’s own Xducer piezo-type contact microphones were on the Slopestyle course for tricks, rails, and jumps.

Getting in close was important. The assembly that held the camera for operators who followed skiers down the slopes was also fitted with a short-shotgun microphone and a lavaliere on each side of the lens, giving viewers a bird’s-eye-and-ear over-the-shoulder take on the action. The Super Pipe’s 22-foot walls were the biggest yet used at X Games. Three handgrip shotgun microphones on either side of the pipe aimed down into the run caught the whoosh.

Despite the advantage conferred by the all-digital signal path, Cleary says, the biggest challenge was nonetheless the logistics of simultaneously covering three venues spread out over a large area and in constant low temperatures: “Aspen is 8,000 feet above sea level and gets over 500 inches of snow a year. It’s an insane environment.

A crew of 30 was kept busy uncovering microphones after snowfalls. That would be a challenging task on a nice, flat football field, but the rough terrain of a extreme winter sports made it that much more difficult. But there were resources to help. “One of the A2s, Bruner Dyer, lives in Colorado and is a great skier,” says Cleary. “We had him out there a lot on skis.”

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