The Breeders’ Cup Audio Is Muddy — And That’s Good
Most people consider Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First” the best sports comedy bit in history, but few recall that the same duo also had the second-best sports shtick. And anyone at the first day of the two-day Breeders’ Cup races at Churchill Downs in Louisville Nov. 4-5 would know how appropriate Bud and Lou’s “Mudders and Fodders” would have been: the track was pudding that day, which was only slightly better than the soup it was the day before, when regular races served as rehearsals for the Cup show, which culminated in the Breeders’ Cup Classic — at $5 million the single biggest purse in thoroughbred racing — on Saturday afternoon, broadcast by ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the races: it seems that mud, a term used metaphorically by audio mixers to signify a less-than-pristine-sounding track, is literally a good thing when it comes to sound effects. Leaning over the Calrec Alpha console in the NEP ND4 B unit, main program mixer/A1 Florian Brown marveled at the extra detail the wet track added to the sound effects coming from several dozen shotgun microphones positioned around the track — extra mics were authorized by ESPN Senior Audio Producer Kevin Cleary to cover the sprawling mile-wide event from paddock to track — through the analog Calrec Q2 submix console manned by Jayson Polansky in the ND4 C unit.
“The mud makes the sound of the horses’ hooves fatter, thicker,” he says. “On a dry track, I might decide to synthesize some more low end by dialing in around 80 Hz, but we definitely don’t need to today. It really sounds incredible as it is.”
This year’s Breeders’ Cup was the first that ESPN has broadcast in discrete 5.1 surround.
Even on Saturday, when the sun finally broke through in the afternoon, the track remained soggy, causing the dirt to appear “puffy,” as Caleb’s Posse jockey Rajiv Maragh told ESPN’s Randy Moss as an outrider equipped with a microphone and arm-mounted speaker trotted alongside him before the race. The 13 announcers on the show also included Caton Bredar on horseback wielding one of ESPN’s signature Blue Steel handheld wireless mics.
The rain caused some early concerns about interference with communications systems and the occasional crackle in an effects-mic cable line. Wireless Sennheiser 816 shotguns attached to the vertical rail supports in key positions, such as the clubhouse turn; several pairs of 814 short shotguns in X-Y configurations; and camera-mounted shotguns — coverage featured a total of 40 cameras — remained covered in plastic much of Thursday and Friday.
Copper cabling connected the field microphones to a router at ESPN’s announcer desk near the first turn, where analog signal was converted to AES digital and sent to the trucks. Brown says that much of Wednesday was spent tracking down problems in PL lines.
Trackside cabling had to be well concealed and could not be moved while horses were on the track during warm-ups or races. As Cleary points out, “to a horse, a thin black line wriggling on the ground is a snake, and that will spook them. We have to leave the cables alone around the horses.” The same caution applied to the use of the Techspray Blue Shower cable spray, used to evaporate moisture from cabling. “It can sound like a snake hissing,” says A2 Rob Sweeney.
Wiring the riders for sound is a variable at any race, and the Breeders’ Cup was no exception, since it’s at the discretion of each individual jockey. When a jockey does agree to wear a microphone and beltpack, Cleary outlines a mic placement that, at first, seems odd but makes perfect sense as soon as the rider assumes the position.
“You can’t put the microphone on the chest, since there it’ll be muffled between the jockey and the horse when the jockey is leaning full forward,” he explains. “We put the microphone” — in this case, either a Sennheiser MKE 2 or a Sony ECM 77 — “at belt height on the side and back of the jockey, pointed to the rear, which picks up the sound of the horses and riders behind him. We just have to hope he’s not running last.”
Cleary’s crew was experimenting with a new, extremely long shotgun microphone on this show, a prototype still in beta stage so Cleary could not disclose the manufacturer. With an interference tube nearly 3 ft. long, it achieves the long-distance isolation of individual sounds that he considers the essence of sports effects mix.
“We’re constantly asking for a lower noise floor so we can gain the mics higher and get more distance from the microphone, and a horse race is a great place to test this because, other than a mic on the horse, the closest we can get is the outside rail, where the microphones are,” he says. “We’re always looking for a way to capture more energy from further away. It’s all about trying to pull more detail out of a lower noise floor. The less I have to add gain, the more detail I can pull out.”
Natural sound is also augmented with “snoop” microphones placed discreetly in the paddock and other backstage areas. These candid sources are blended in with the rest of the effects audio, occasionally adding a reality-show air. Three Sony 77 lavaliere microphones were suspended from the frame of the starting gate to catch signature sounds, such as the closing “click” of the rear panel, the slam of the front gate opening, and the shrill starting bell. Crowd ambience was picked up with a combination of Sennheiser mono (some in X-Y configurations) and Audio-Technica stereo shotgun microphones facing the stands.
“We’ve got really good coverage of the whole area, from paddock to post parade,” Brown says. “There are not a lot of holes in the audio at all.”