X Games Live: Big Sound From a More Compact Set Up

Even as ESPN’s X Games franchise keeps getting bigger, critical aspects of its broadcast technology are becoming more compact. Examples of a tighter technical infrastructure were on display at the Summer X Games that began Thursday at the L.A. Live campus in downtown Los Angeles; most notably, the audio for an expanded show with more venues spread over the 27-acre site is being handled this year by just two remote trucks – NEP ESPN SS32 and Denali Summit – rather than the three trucks used last year (NEP’s ESPN SS25 was the third truck on the 2011 show).

Kevin Cleary, ESPN Event Operations’ senior technical audio producer, says a combination of platforms like MADI, which allows mixers to combine more channels of discrete audio in the transport stream, and accumulated expertise at managing the sound for this extreme-sports circus have allowed some consolidation of the technical resources demanded for it.

“It’s important to point out that we’re not cutting resources – we’re making the existing workflow smarter,” he says.

It’s also part of the process of creating a technical template for a show that is quickly becoming a global franchise that will allow an efficient and cost-effective package for sound and other broadcast operations to be ready to produce a consistent show anywhere in the world as the franchise expands. ESPN announced earlier this year that Barcelona, Spain; Munich, Germany; and Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, have been chosen as X Games sites for the next three years. The new cities will stage summer competitions through 2015 and join current host cities Aspen, CO; Tignes, France; and Los Angeles, creating a six-event (four summer, two winter) X Games schedule that will run from January to August in 2013. The effort to essentially modularize many aspects of the show may include centralizing broadcast operations for it in any location from ESPN’s Bristol, CT, headquarters, according to several sources at the network.

“It’s driven by the evolution of the business model as [X Games] moves global,” Cleary explains. “There is a cost component, but that’s not what’s driving this. It’s about being more nimble and able to provide the same level of coverage from a more efficient centralized operation.”

Moving With MADI
Part of what’s helping Cleary achieve that is the more extensive use of MADI audio routing around the campus. Morgan Martin of GMA is managing the Stagetec Nexus Star router that’s at the heart of all of the wired broadcast sound and comms trunking across the campus, including the Calrec Alpha consoles with Bluefin on the remote trucks and the four DiGiCo SD 10B consoles, three of which are used as submixers and one for the international feed.

What Martin says is different for this event is that the A1s are able to control the routing of their own consoles to a much larger extent than in the past, with the Nexus GUI running on their local Mac laptops, which also gives them full metering of all their router I/Os. Martin limits what each A1’s GUI has access to in order to let them focus just on the ports most relevant to them.

“Having the ability to customize their routing makes each mix position better able to adapt to its particular needs,” he says.

On the wireless side, BSI, which has provided those services for previous X Games, was back and facing the need to once again wirelessly address ESPN’s 3D coverage of the show; over the course of four days, the most involved of the network’s 3D initiatives. Clay Underwood, technology development manager for BSI, says the single biggest challenge is the fact that the so-called 5D platform, which takes both a HD video signal for the standard broadcast and integrates it with the parallel signal that creates the 3D effect, has to be handled across all the remote trucks.

“The conjoined workflows for HD and 3D have very different shooting styles and are not easy to do,” says Underwood. “The two separate HD-SDI signals have to be absolutely synchronized perfectly. We have to be able to transmit the two signal in perfect synch because time delay between the left and right eye manifests itself as something the brain just doesn’t like to see.”

Winter X Games was performed using the same multiple signals, but Underwood says Summer X Games’ larger scale complicates the process.

Wireless audio is also a complex process across such scale. Underwood reports that BSI will provide 24 wireless microphones that operate between 1435 and 1525 MHz, a tightly controlled slice of spectrum that guarantees interference-free operation, along with 27 PL systems and 17 channels of IFB. That’s in addition to including transmission and control capabilities for two on-board 3D cameras, five HD on-board cameras, a FlyCam, two Steadicams, and two hand-held cameras.

Some of the wireless audio comes from a unique place: military spectrum specifically arranged for by Underwood 30 days before the show from a governmental agency, AFTRCC (Aeronautical Flight Test Radio Coordinating Committee), set up to provide short-term limited-use frequency solutions for exactly this kind of event. Underwood coordinates the requests for and the allocations of these and other spectra, such as the Special Temporary Authorization (STA) from the FCC, with Dana Underhill of ESPN.

Underwood says the mapping, acquisition, and management of all of these disparate RF sources is complicated, and it’s not cheap; the good news, however, is they have much of that spectrum all to themselves.

“We get spectrum no one else can use,” he says happily. “We have the capability to work in the 1.4-GHz range, outside of the UHF spectrum that’s been shrinking with government auctions and allocations to public safety and consumer devices. The White Spaces. We’re guaranteeing ourselves that we can operate all of these microphones without interference.”

Asked if Summer X Games, which relies so much on the ambient sound of the crowds that gather around the venues, has a signature sound, Underwood quickly indentifies the Rally cars, seven of which BSI has loaded with wireless dynamic microphones and custom cameras, two of which are also 3D camera rigs.

“After 27 years doing NASCAR, you’re used to cars making a certain type of sound, with lots of low-frequency rumbling,” he says. “The Rally cars are just as loud but they have more of a higher-pitched whine. You know them the second you hear them.”

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