Reborn AFL Makes Lots of Noise — and Captures It

The Arena Football League has had its ups and downs. The most recent of the latter was the suspended 2009 season following a 2008 bankruptcy after 22 seasons. But a reformulated 16-team AFL is back for the 2010 season, working with a new broadcast partner, the NFL Network. And what the AFL might lack in numbers compared with the NFL, it makes up for with sheer volume.

“It can be insanely loud” in the covered arenas, says AFL A1 Lance Vardis, who travels with the broadcast for each Friday-night game. The virtually nonexistent sidelines also limit where he can place his two parabolic-microphone operators. Equipped with dishes loaded with Sony ECM55 and ECM77 lavalier mics, they are usually found around the 15-yard lines, leaning over the railing at the bottom of the aisle in the stands, or in the end zones. The ambience also means that Vardis can get all the crowd noise he needs with two pairs of Sennheiser 416 shotguns, one high and one low.

But what really sets the AFL’s audio apart is the access the league provides to the field: in most games, both teams’ quarterbacks and coaches wear lavaliers, as does the referee. Lectrosonics M400 bodypack transmitters with Sennheiser MKE-2 capsules are combined with Lectrosonics UDR 200C receivers in an RF package assembled by Total RF. A sixth mic has been added for an on-field roving announcer.

“You don’t get that kind of ability to mic both quarterbacks and coaches and the ref in other leagues,” says Dave Shaw, manager of technical operations for Tupelo-Honey Productions, the packager for NFL Networks’ broadcast of the AFL games. “It really gets the home viewer up-close to the action.”

That, says Vardis, is what makes the AFL’s broadcast sound unique. “You’ve got two quarterbacks, two coaches, and the ref wearing microphones, plus the parabolas and 416s on the three cameras that they let get very close to the action on the field. You put them in the middle of the crowd noise, and it’s a very exciting mix.”

Hearing strategic exchanges between quarterbacks and coaches is not unusual, as is the occasional blue word or two that gets out before Vardis can quash it. One time, a team did a quarterback switch that Vardis hadn’t noticed until the first player — still miked — began muttering as he headed off the field. “I heard some things I shouldn’t have, but, luckily, I wasn’t going to program with that [channel],” he recalls. “But the things that we do get on the field — like play calls, huddles and snaps, and hits — really put people in the game.”

The AFL broadcasts are in stereo; there are no plans to take them to 5.1, says Shaw. The broadcast’s crew understands that they’re working with a budget commensurate with a startup; Vardis usually finds himself with a different crew and truck for each broadcast. “But the crowd is so into it, and you can hear a lot more in these games than anywhere else,” he says. “And, so far, I haven’t lost a quarterback microphone yet.”

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