X Games Takes Audio a Little Closer to the Edge
By Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group
ESPN’s X Games franchise has been a laboratory for extreme sports. This year’s event (June 4-7, in Austin, TX), for example, witnessed the debut of Big Air Doubles on the MegaRamp, matching up four teams comprising one skateboarder and one BMX rider each. But the coverage has also been notable for the broadcast technology and techniques that get it convincingly on the air, such as the drones used at Winter X in January.
This year, ESPN moved its intercom infrastructure into a fully fibered environment. The system is centered on a DirectOut Andiamo 2.XT AES/MADI AD/DA converter and allowed zero-latency comms audio to be deployed throughout the sprawling Circuit of the Americas campus in Austin.
“It’s really helped us as far as flexibility [and] reliability, especially here at X Games, where it’s always incredibly hot or always incredibly cold,” explained ESPN A1 Florian Brown during the Games. “We needed something that was a little more robust, wasn’t affected by temperature, dirt, heat. So it’s been very good.”
Previously, the comms had been essentially piggybacking on the Calrec Hydra stage boxes positioned at various event sites on the campus. That approach worked but could be cumbersome — audio would be ported from the truck into the mix console, then to the Hydra boxes, then out of the Hydra to the locations’ consoles — and made troubleshooting difficult.
“There [were] just so many interconnect points,” Brown pointed out. “If I [lost a signal], I have to check this cable, I have to check that cable, I have to check this place, and you have to involve 10 people. Now it’s the guy at the end of the cable and the guy programming, and that’s it. Once we’ve established that infrastructure, it’s very smooth. And it’s been working great.”
To adapt the new approach to the sheer scale of X Games, ESPN added a MADI router, because the Andiamo box is currently available only in a 32-output configuration. Those 32 outputs were configured into batches of eight. “The MADI router is a little complicated,” Brown pointed out. “But, once we’ve established the routing, outputs show up as ports to our comms guys, and then we’re able to just plug and play easily.”
Another new trick at X Games was the first use of Audinate’s Dante audio-over-Ethernet technology as the audio-networking solution for ESPN Event Productions’ onsite large-screen video system. Brown expects the technique to ultimately find its way into audio distribution around large campuses as well.
“The nice thing about Dante is that it’s such a small cable,” he said. “That’s ultimately the direction TV trucks are going. Everything is IP-based, so, if you can build a whole TV truck with a bunch of switches and Cat 5 cable as opposed to the 10,000 lb. of copper, the sky’s the limit. As long as it’s reliable and the cable doesn’t get cut, you’re in a very good place.”
It wouldn’t be X Games if microphones weren’t stuck in even more places. This year’s edition didn’t disappoint. ESPN deployed more PZM microphones this year, specifically the Crown PCC-160, along with more Sennheiser shotgun mics, according to Brown, in an effort to keep sound effects focused but also to broaden the sweet spot of sound sources. There were also more in-car microphones than in the past. However, the A2s encountered the same kinds of resistance that athletes in any sport seem to share.
“We’d love to put RF mics on the BMX bikes, [but] some of these guys are superstitious,” Brown lamented. “We’re trying to come up with a small pack that we can get on and off a bike quickly [and] without disturbing them too much.”
He noted that he has been looking into the use of the Quantum 5X PlayerMic. “Why can’t we put that on a skateboard?” he wondered. In fact, he added, the acceptance that the PlayerMic has earned with the NBA may eventually make it an easier sell to extreme athletes, who have reservations about the supernatural aspects of small transducers. In the meantime, he coaxed Sennheiser SK250 transmitters onto a respectable number of competitors.
X Games will likely remain at the cutting edge of broadcast-sports audio, especially with ESPN VP of MotorSports Rich Feinberg — whom Brown dubs “Mr. NASCAR” — now co-overseeing X Games production and with more motor events added to the competition.
“The beauty of X Games is that we can come out here and try new things and see what works, because we own the event,” said Brown. “And something I’m always pushing is being able to try new miking techniques, placements, microphones. This is the place where people come to try things out and see how [they work] in the world, because it’s hot, it’s cold — it’s an extreme event. Whatever we do, if it works here, it’ll work anywhere.”