Live From the US Open: Lots of Mics, IP, Dante Mark Audio Effort for ESPN

RTS wireless system connects courts, TV sets, rightsholders

If you got the sense that there was a lot of sound on the sets and the courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC) for the US Open, you’d be right. A total of nine Lawo mc2 56 consoles are collecting audio from around the courts inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand, and Court 17. In addition, more than 2,000 intercom points on a seven-matrix RTS OMNEO wireless system connect all the courts, the television sets, and, with extensions, various rightsholders with host broadcaster ESPN.

It’s an audio empire managed onsite by Audio Supervisors Florian Brown and Leonard Fisher and is made a bit easier by increased deployment of IP-based and -networked systems.

“The entire broadcast industry is slowly shifting to IP, and we’re using it [here] to connect more of the audio systems, from the Lawo consoles to Yamaha consoles at the courts and the [Technical Operations Center] across the street,” says Brown. “The broadcast consoles are now tied to the PA consoles, everything is speaking to each other, and the connections are more robust than ever. It’s also making it easier to collaborate with internal systems on the ground and easier to send our feeds to the rightsholders.”

He notes that the intercom infrastructure is wider and more complex than ever, uses less wire, and is easier to access, thanks to use of a networked system. “Every comms panel can talk to every other comms panel,” he explains. “Before, we’d have to run four-wire and XLR connections; now everything is trunked together. The communications has really improved this year.”

Wired Tennis Players
Viewers are getting more direct sound from the athletes, who are being wired with a lavalier microphone as soon as they leave the locker room after their sets, letting viewers listen in to conversations with trainers and fans before they arrive at the broadcast set for interviews with ESPN hosts. Brown says that getting the mics on players earlier gets the process out of the way sooner and makes the interview subject more at ease on the set.

That’s enabled by the use of Alteros GTX Series L.A.W.N. 6.5-GHz IP-based wireless microphone system, which connects with DPA headsets and Audio-Technica AT899 lavalier mics, using Alteros GTX24 bodypack transmitters.

“That lets us get connectivity sooner, and that moves the timeline up considerably, so we can hear them and see them clearly as an RF camera follows them to the set,” says Brown. “This way, we’re switching one mic from antenna to antenna, instead of having to switch between different microphones.”

This is the second year for the Alteros system. A new enhancement enables a direct-to-fiber connection, according to Stephen Raymond, senior technical specialist, remote production operations, ESPN.

“We did deploy the system last year,” he points out, “but it was limited to a single frame at our practice-court set. Approximately 24 antennas were deployed around the practice set and on Practice Court 1. This allowed us to have coverage over those two locations. This year, the upgraded system includes Dante interface I/O on the mainframe and fiber-connected remote nodes. The central frame now resides in our main equipment room, and five SM fiber-connected eight-port remote nodes have been deployed. Three nodes are placed at the practice-court set, and two more are at the fountain set.

“A total of nine receivers are connected to the two nodes at the fountain set,” he continues, “where wireless bodypacks are fitted to athletes appearing at postmatch interviews. At the practice court, 19 receivers are connected to three nodes to support six announcer bodypacks, and a wireless stick microphone is used for on-court interviews.”

Brown acknowledges that this move to such a high-frequency range was a major transition, one that came with some understandable anxiety. “You don’t want to have Serena Williams sit down in the chair and then not be able to hear her,” he says, adding that the GTX system has been “rock solid.” “This was a big jump for us, but we’ve been very happy with it.”

The growing number of IP-based platforms used at the US Open and in broadcasting in general has made reliance on Dante for connectivity and device intercompatibility progressively more critical. “We have a lot of flavors of IP here,” he says, “but Dante’s been very robust about getting and keeping them all talking to each other.”

In a novel arrangement for the US Open, a Waves WNS noise-suppression plugin on the three Waves SoundGrid servers deployed is combined with the automixing feature on the Lawo audio consoles. The plugin allows operators to focus in on the sound of individual microphones and make EQ and other parameter changes to them, instead of having to apply EQ and other processing across an entire mix to mitigate problems caused by just one or two microphones. On ambience microphones positioned near the elevated subway tracks near the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, Brown notes, the WNS plugin was used to filter out problem frequencies without having to affect the rest of the array.

“The WNS figures out how best to adjust the sound of each mic using its six bands of EQ, which in turn makes the job of the Lawo automix feature that much easier and effective,” he explains. “The Waves plugin acts like a scalpel, so we’re able to isolate each individual microphone and tweak it, which is a huge improvement in sound.”

Another wrinkle for audio this year is how the redesigned umpire chairs better accommodate effects-mic placement: a Crown PCC160 boundary-layer microphone is being used to capture what Brown calls “a warm, low-level crowd sound that blends into the other crowd sounds and add some warmth to those.”

It all seems to be working well: overnight ratings for the first three days of coverage were up 20% from 2017. But the ESPN staff had plenty of practice even before the tournament began.

“We covered the qualifying rounds this year for the first time, including the virtual courts,” said Brown. “We did 89 matches before the tournament even started. We had a lot of practice.”

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