Big sound for big games

ESPN combines technique and technology to put fans on the ice

The NHL Stanley Cup Series is underway and viewers are hearing the action like they’ve never heard it before.

“We try to be aggressive with capturing sound in each area as is happening now, versus a large-scale collection approach,” explains Dan “Buddha” Bernstein, A1 for ESPN/ABC Stanley Cup broadcasts. “[The latter] has been the approach in the past: get a big static sound image around the ice and just let the action play out on it in front of the microphones. It was as if you were somewhere in the stands. Now we’re looking to put you on ice.

It requires a combination of technique and technology, he says: the first is dynamic mixing, raising the mic channels as the action gets closer to each.

A1 Dan “Buddha” Bernstein: “My goal wasn’t to put anybody in a seat in the stands; it was to get people in the game.”

“It’s just about being very active on the faders and following the action closely,” he says, on the Calrec Apollo consoles aboard the Game Creek Spirit Mobile Unit in Tampa Bay and NEP EN2 in Denver. The Effects Sub-Mixer helps manage all those extra actions Ben Majchrzakwhich was added for the Finals and Cup series.

“We continued our efforts throughout the season to expand the sound around the crease,” Bernstein says. “We’re still using all three microphones in each array, a small LCR array, but we’re getting more aggressive with them. For example, the microphones we install in and around the goals – specifically the NHL overhead and the microphones and cameras in the net – are recorded independently of the effects mixed with the camera. When we play them, you feel the energy happening there in a way that I think hasn’t been effectively captured before.

“We’re also getting a lot more aggressive with all of our robotic cameras around the ice to pick up even more direct local sound,” he continues. “It’s been especially great in the positions in the middle of the ice and the positions just behind each net, where they’re really close and right on top of the action. It just brings out all the nuances. There are so many details in this mix. It definitely gets people in the game. My goal as a mixer on this sport from the very beginning hasn’t been to put someone in a seat in the stands; it’s been about putting people in the game.”

As for the microphones — ESPN deploys more than 50 per game — the traditional Crown PCC160 boundary layer microphones are on the glass around the rink to pick up shots. This tends to leave the inside of the rink less covered, but this year Bernstein relies on Sennheiser 416 shotguns mounted on the robocams, which helps create a central image for the sound.

“The other thing we’re trying to do this year is we’ve become more aggressive with our crowd recordings,” he says. “Eight to 10 crowd mics per event, depending on the building and where there’s an opportunity — in Carolina, there were aerial positions we had access to that gave us great sound positions — are set up like a network forward and backward, down and up. We’ll also be open to opportunities where we ask our advertisers to pitch and just let people feel like they’re in the building, part of the experience.

Wireless microphones offer perhaps the best opportunities for close-up sound. Each night, the intention is to capture four players and the two coaches for a deeper sound that is accessible to all. CP Communications handled the RF during the regular season, but the NHL took over that task for the playoffs, handling the distribution of that audio to the various rights holders, as it did for the Winter Classic game in January.

Added effects submixer Ben Majchrzak to the ESPN audio team for the NHL Finals and Stanley Cup Series.

Player and manager audio remains available for replay use only. However, ESPN has built its own infrastructure to manage and research it.

“We’re building multiple routing points that have all of these mics available on different channels that the EVS folks can seek out and grab the best sound at all times,” Bernstein explains. “And the cameramen doing isos on particular players have a secondary program input from the truck, which is sub-routed through the EVS operators and the producer’s tape. At all times [the camera operators are] tell someone iso we are changing the iso stream going to the source of their program so they can follow the action or maybe even report if they hear something awesome. It’s really a collaborative effort between me and the submixing and proofreading department.

Several Waves plugins, which run on a separate server connected to the console via a MADI link, have been added to processing. The noise reduction plugin, Bernstein says, was particularly helpful.

“It allowed us to dig a little deeper into some of the spots that are being blown out by the sound of the crowd,” he explains. “It helps us improve the dynamics of certain microphones. There’s so much sound in Stanley Cup games. Getting all of this and getting it across are the challenges.

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