NHL All-Star 2023: For ESPN’s Audio Team, the Event Is a Sports-Sound Lab
The game and the Skills Competition offer an opportunity to try out new tricks
While the stick jockeys show their stuff during the Skills Competition tonight, prior to tomorrow’s NHL All-Star Game, ESPN’s audio team will be showing off some new techniques at the FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, FL.
Wireless lavaliere microphones placed in the cones the players navigate for the skating competition will pick up the unique sound that blades make in a tight turn, and shotgun mics on robocams will catch sonic nuances from a distance. Another idea under consideration: for the Accuracy contest, a pair of shotgun microphones in a golf-tee-box–style configuration to capture more of the explosive impact of the shots.
“The Skills Competition on Friday affords us the opportunity to try some different things, a kind of Petri dish for different ideas we’re trying out,” says ESPN Lead A1 for Hockey Dan “Buddha” Bernstein, working on his second NHL All-Star event. “It’s a little bit more of a free-for-all compared to the actual game on Saturday. It’s its own kind of X Games or even a gymnastics event, trying to mike up individual elements that people might hit, like multiple mics in each goal for different kinds of shooting options. It’s a test bed for new ideas.”
Hockey Is Noisy
The effort takes place in an increasingly noisy environment. Bernstein notes that hockey is one of a number of sports that have been cranking up the broadcast audio, incorporating both the game’s nat-sound FX and the environmental sound from music performances, as well as the PA system and other event sources.
“During the Skills events, it can become almost like an NBA or WNBA game, where the PA is actively part of the show while the event is going on,” he says. Those sources will be dialed back for the game itself, he adds, although they’ll still be present at points, such as breaks, and are now part of what makes All-Star Games more event-like than regular-season matches.
“The challenge,” Bernstein notes, “is finding microphones with enough gain to pick up the sounds but won’t be overwhelmed by the PA system. We also have to find ways to put the microphone as close as possible to the source.”
Many of the sound beds for the Skills events and the game come through the PCC boundary microphones that ring the rink, as they do for regular-season games. He says the robocam-mounted shotguns have been a particular success for those games and will be a major factor in the All-Star Game.
Noise in the Net
A hallmark of hockey is the noise in the net, and there’ll be plenty of that, given the multiple nets between the Skills events and the game. Bernstein says the team will be experimenting with variations on the three-microphone configuration used for regular-season games. The mics create a left-front, right-front, and synthesized-stereo center that establishes an audible sense of movement within the goal for viewers.
“It sounds enormous, as though you were actually in the goal,” he says. “The live action around the crease is evident. It’s skates and pucks, but you’re also hearing the goalies directing the action. It’s pretty spectacular.”
The Skills segments also present an opportunity to place microphones on as many as four hand-held cameras that will be leaning in for shots.
But the big “get” for hockey audio is the miked-up player. As many as 16 will be wired for sound, thanks to the NHL’s event format, in which four All-Star teams, representing the league’s four divisions, compete in a single-elimination tournament.
“We’d get access to maybe three or four players even in a Stanley Cup game,” notes Bernstein, “but here we have much more opportunity to mike the players. We’ve been establishing a sense of trust with the league and the teams to be able get more of that audio. We’ll see at game time if we can even use some of that live during the All-Star Game. It’s the sound that gets the personality of the players and the energy of the game across best.”
Bernstein will be working from the audio compartment of Game Creek 79 producion truck, with submixer Ben Majchrzak mixing from Game Creek Spirit.
A dozen extra wireless microphones will be available during the weekend — tools and toys at hand for when engineering inspiration strikes, Bernstein says. In addition to the growing trust of the league, the audio team has a champion in ESPN VP, Production, Mike McQuade, who “has been pushing us to amp up use of our nat-sound and player microphones.”
All those additional microphones in South Florida’s dense RF environment means that some will have to share frequencies. Lead RF tech Abi Sehga will be on hand to juggle them, turning them on and off as needed to conserve spectrum.
The NHL All-Star Game is all about hockey, of course, but its location this year in South Florida is a reminder that pitchers and catchers will be reporting to MLB training camps within a few weeks. Both Bernstein and Majchrzak mix ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, so the comparison “Buddha” makes isn’t out of place.
“We’re developing a rhythm for the [hockey-stick] shots and the hits in the net that are kind of like how we set up the sound of the [pitcher’s] delivery from microphones around the mound to the catcher’s mitt at home plate,” he explains. “There’s that first point of impact followed by the second; they’re each distinct but part of the same picture. It’s just that, when it happens in hockey, it happens fast. Very, very fast.”