Live From US Open 2022: The Last Major of the Year Is Back, Big, and Loud
ESPN’s audio operation switches to Calrec consoles, Hydra network
Last year’s US Open tennis tourney was like watching a tennis match, with the event itself lobbed back and forth over the net of the COVID pandemic. In 2021, two months after announcing plans to allow full capacity in the stands for that year’s event, USTA altered its stance: fans would be banned from US Open Qualifying matches, but the main draw would be open to the public. (And that, not surprisingly, didn’t go smoothly.)
2021 may have been year of the Open’s Shaky Serve, but this year has been its Rousing Return, led by the farewell of the inimitable Serena Williams, whose every move was cause for a lens aperture to open and a microphone to follow, with lots more of both than ever before.
“This has been the ‘Serena Retirement Watch 2022,’” says Florian Brown, one of two audio supervisors of ESPN’s audio for the US Open. “A lot of our focus has been following her around the grounds, transitioning from the practice court to the Ashe court to the parking lot as she leaves.”
He handles the evening matches, and co-supervisor Leonard Fisher oversees the day shifts. They have plenty of resources to manage that, Brown says. As many as 52 Calrec Hydra 32×32 network boxes are deployed throughout the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, allowing microphones to be plugged into the network pretty much wherever needed as the tournament’s narratives — and there are a few — have progressed.
Getting Up Close in the Player Box
Player boxes are getting increased attention. The sound of coaching is being picked up, with combinations of shotgun, lavalier, and PCM “snoop” mics covering these once off-limits audio areas. In addition, USTA is permitting RF lav mics to be worn by amenable coaches to create a more intimate experience. Although a few coaches have agreed tacitly to be wired for sound, none had made it to air by the weekend.
However, the snoop-mic arrays themselves are amazing, says Brown. The combination of transducer-type choices depend on which court is focused on, with individual acoustics and aesthetics determining their deployment. It is as much a visual decision as an audio one, keeping the point of view low to minimize the microphone’s presence and keep it invisible to participants and viewers alike. The results have been uniformly excellent.
“Each court’s a little bit different,” Brown explains. “Depending on that, we added a lav or a shotgun or a PCM, and the guys make a nice little mix of that. Every time we cut to the player box, we were getting some great stuff. To be honest, it has been so good, we haven’t needed the RF-lav options.”
Deployment of more microphones on the Hydra network has meant more bowl-sound nuance. That has included having Brown and Fisher dial in some additional low end in certain spaces, such as the fence covering the bottoms of the stands on the courts, so that a passed ball hitting them generates a satisfying thump.
“As the ball comes back and hits that wall,” says Brown, “we’re definitely helping boost that low end to make it a little more thumpy. Tennis is pretty squeaky, so any low end we can reintroduce helps balance that out tremendously.”
Big Crowd Sounds
Such elements present a nice balance to the otherwise dominant higher frequencies and considerable louder SPL of the main crowd sounds. And it has been loud indeed: Saturday’s record attendance reached 42,259 in the day session and 29,806 for the night session, surpassing the previous record of 72,039 set on Friday.
Umpires aren’t wired, but their elevated chairs and the rest of the courts are very much covered, enabling lots of court audio into the mix. The usual thwacks of racquet and ball and the line-calling system’s vigorous “out” calls are picked up by arrays of Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics, which also cover the net and player seating areas. The only need for wireless on the court has been the lav attached to the net and for the coin tosses before matches on the Ashe and Armstrong courts.
“We’re always very aggressive around the player seating area and the ump chair, to capture any arguments or controversy there,” says Brown. “The nice part is that, before, they used to go to the lines person and we might not have a microphone there but now, because of the computer line calling, there’s only one human to argue with, and so they almost all come to the ump chair to argue,” focusing a lot of the drama where the microphones are waiting.
SFX is more broadly distributed this year. For instance, a shotgun mic attached to a robotic camera at the Unisphere entrance to the complex has been capturing the sound of turnstiles clinking as fans enter
New but Familiar Desks
A major technology shift this year has been to a Calrec audio infrastructure from the Lawo consoles that had been in place. The change began last year as part of a change in systems vendors, with Gravity Media supplying the nine 74-fader Calrec Artemis Shine consoles deployed to cover the multiple courts this year. An additional Calrec Apollo desk aboard NEP Supershooter 9 onsite is used to cover such events as the Qualifying matches, the DirecTV shows, and the grandstand shows.
Both Brown and Fisher emphasize that the audio for the US Open has been constantly changing and evolving over the years.
“We’re always in a constant state of transition as the show evolves toward the final weekend every year,” Brown notes. “Everyone is familiar with the Calrecs and the Hydra networking, and it makes everything shareable between desks throughout the campus, and that simplifies things as we try new things. That’s very important, because, as we build this show, it’s constantly evolving; nothing ever sits waiting to be used. We’re constantly reallocating our resources to cover as much as possible.”
There has been plenty to cover. Each day seemed to have its own narrative arc, with crowd noise building throughout: Brown estimates as much as a 15-dB increase in noise level from day to night crowds. The combination of a fully restored US Open and the storyline provided by Serena Williams’s serendipitous send-off made the sound of play, players, and fans its own kind of symphony.
“[ESPN color commentator] John McEnroe said you can feel it in your chest how loud the crowd is,” says Brown. “And he’s sitting in an announce booth, not even in the seats. The crowds are really interesting this year. They’re back, and they’re loud. It has been deafening, but it has also been great.”