Live from the US Open: Audio Gets Streamlined and Organized
Audio for this year’s US Open tennis championships represented another step in moving sound deeper into a networked configuration. Where last year’s main form of audio transport around the courts was copper, this year, as part of ESPN’s “expandable and flexible” approach to signal transport and management, virtually all audio is carried on fiber.
More than 600 fibers are used onsite to carry broadcast signals from the courts, booths, and sets to the compound. Twenty audio sources per court, plus sets and booths, travel over 220 fibers to the ESPN broadcast center, according to Remote Operations Senior Specialist Chris Strong, speaking from the two-story, 17,000-sq.-ft. production facility at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the nerve center for ESPN as it took over as host broadcaster and sole domestic-rights holder.
“We’ve deployed MADI-based stage boxes to each court and announce booth, and these return over fiber back to the MADI core,” explains Remote Operations Specialist Sam Olsen. “This year, the audio is 99% on fiber throughout.”
ESPN’s new infrastructure resembles that of an Olympics or FIFA World Cup International Broadcast Center, and audio is integrated into it via nine Lawo mc2 56 consoles coupled with two Lawo73 routers and 16 Lawo Vpro video processors. This made network management (using intelligent tie lines) of the audio much easier, allowing signals to be matrixed (64×128 MADI ports, 8,192 bidirectional sources) essentially from any source to any destination. And, while there were not necessarily any more microphones deployed across all the courts and booths than in previous years, those that were deployed brought back clearer, more reliable signals, according to Strong.
“We can share audio from console to console, point to point, through the MADI core, and the advantage that gives us is flexibility,” he points out. “At the same time, the use of fiber [throughout the campus] assures us that the signals we’re getting are always clean. There’s no ground loops like you could get with copper, and the clarity is great. This way, there are actually fewer challenges getting the audio.”
The Lawo consoles are the same types that ESPN installed in its new Digital Center 2 operations center in Bristol, CT, last year. However, according to Show Director Terry Brady, the use of the consoles at the Open doesn’t represent an attempt at continuity with the plant. “It’s not strategic,” he says. “It’s just building on what we thought was the best way to go for this event.”
ESPN Domestic has done the show in 5.1 surround sound from the site for four years. The 5.1 surround was produced per host TV court (Ashe, Armstrong, Grandstand, courts 5, 11, 13, and 17) this year for the first time and provided to the rightsholders.
Other firsts for the US Open include the use of Lance Design ADX systems in all the announce booths. The systems use standard Ethernet as the audio-transmission medium and can be integrated into the Lawo stage boxes, and the signal is transmitted via MADI back to the core. Also, a new organizational layer has been added, with veteran A1s Florian Brown and Leonard Fisher named co-senior audio supervisors.
“This is a collaboration of many moving parts, of which Flo and Leonard oversee the host and ESPN sides of the operation in order to assure the audio quality is consistent and of the highest level,” says Strong. “We’ve done this for some other sports, but this is a new organizational approach for tennis, and it’s working out extremely well.”