X Games Sound Big In Texas

It was Austin’s first X Games, the venue was Texas-sized, and the audio challenges were just as big.

The X Games took place last week on a campus inside the 1,500-acre Circuit of the Americas (CoTA) sports complex, which had previously hosted the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix and a MotoGP motorcycle race. Two main areas — Venue A (Park, Street, BMX Dirt, and Big Air courses located along the front stretch of the track) and Venue B (Moto X, Rally, and the new Super Trucks courses) — were located on either side of a mall whose stage hosted constant music shows, including a battle of the bands. Venue C, located about 13 miles northeast of CoTA in front of the state capitol in downtown Austin, hosted the Skate and BMX Vert competitions.

“There’s no doubt that it’s gotten a lot bigger this year,” Florian Brown, the X Games audio manager and Venue B mixer from NEP’s SS32, observed during the Games. A1 Steve Koura was positioned at Venue A in ND1. Their areas of responsibility were split by one simple condition: “Steve mixes everything that doesn’t have an engine; I mix everything that does,” said Brown. Andre Carabajal submixed the Vert from SS14, as well as announcers to the IFBs locally, sending the effects channels to Venue A, where production was handled out of the ND1 truck.

The distance to the downtown venue presented the biggest challenge of the show and ate up much of the miles of fiber cable that audio needed for the four-day show, according to Brown. Audio from there was embedded with the video feeds, with separate announce and mix-minus tracks, via 11 individual fiber paths from the Vert downtown to support video and audio needs at CoTA. This resulted in a minor but noticeable latency problem, which compelled the audio crew to send the IFB mix though an aux send.

“The way the venues were configured we had to do a double hop with the signals,” Brown explained, “and that caused some slight latency.”

DT12 copper cabling, applied to any cable run under 200 ft., was used for local signal transport within the venues, including for the scores of microphones used around the three-mile-long CoTA racetrack and the Xducer microphones attached to the underside of Vert, covering the takeoff and quarter-pipe sections. Between them, the audio was networked using a Calrec Hydra 2 system; nine Hydra boxes were used for Venue A and five more at Venue B, which was managed from the SS14 truck. Intercoms used Studio Technologies Model 41 line-level audio to IFB-circuit interface for announce positions and the Model 47 dual two- to four-wire interface for the full-duplex partyline intercom circuits. All audio was ultimately trunked to ESPN’s Bristol, CT, main plant, where all elements were edited, cut, and mixed and graphics and commentary were added, part of ESPN’s continued “at-home” production efforts.

X Games always uses plenty of wireless, and this year’s channel count was no exception. Supplied by BSI, it broke down as 12 microwave channels for cameras, a pair of microwave channels for return video, 24 MIC1500 microphone channels, 16 duplex UHF PL channels, 10 simplex UHF IFB channels, and two simplex UHF data channels.

The Object of the Games
X Games was also a test bed for object-oriented audio this year. ESPN recorded 64 channels of digital audio from each of ESPN’s trucks. These tracks were sent via a MADI stream and recorded to Sound Devices PIX-270i hard-disc AV production recorders in a ProRes 422 lossy compression video codec. The tracks were provided to Fraunhofer, Qualcomm, and Technicolor, each of which had outposts on the X Games campus where they also recorded their own live multichannel sound effects using Soundfield surround microphones along with additional effects microphones.

“They are out there capturing all the different mic feeds,  audio sources, submixes, mixes, bringing it all in,” explained Samuel Reisner, senior development engineer, ESPN Technology Innovation. “For each event, our audio ops are routing the appropriate microphones via MADI for our recordings. There are dozens of mics on each course, and we are getting them all individually. We had one MADI feed each from Venue A and Venue B, limiting us to 64 channels per venue at any given time, [so] each production truck had a total of more than 64 sources. We were able to get the full complement of microphones/sources from each event, along with various submixes and the full mix for reference purposes. The selection and routing of the MADI feed for each event was preprogrammed by the A1 in each venue’s production truck, so that the appropriate collection of sources could be easily routed for our recording purposes.”

Object-based audio can assign individual sounds to an array of individual speakers, which can be configured to add the dimension of height to the horizontal surround plane with an extra four (or more) speakers, and sonic “objects” can be moved throughout the array to more precisely conform to the action on a video screen. Providing the sounds of X Games to these entities is part of ESPN’s ongoing research into how object-based audio can be used for broadcast.

“We have been recording every microphone that we can at the event so we can go back and work on things in the lab,” Reisner said. “We want to be able to replay every source repeatedly so we can truly compare different vendors and technologies.”

Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN amplified that: “Because various people have done stem collection at other events and used that as material for demonstrations of the three-dimensional–audio technology, we decided that it would be prudent for us to collect our own as a reference package to be able to give it to different [vendors] and see what they could do with it. We are collecting reference files of all the events from both venues that we can then provide to anyone that is involved in this process of developing 3D audio. That way it is a level playing field because they are all using the same source media.”

With far more fiber cabling and greater use of MADI transport, Brown said, moving signals around the larger X Games Austin campus kept getting easier. It’s moving people around that was harder. “Everything’s a 20-minute golf-cart ride,” he said. “That and having to reposition ourselves and the microphones after nearly every event. That’s the real challenge.”

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