Stoked! Sound of the X Games Is Nearly as Challenging as the Sports Themselves

Jun 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson

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X Games

When the first Extreme Games were staged by ESPN at the end of June 1995 at various sites in Rhode Island and Vermont, no one could have predicted that it would evolve into a worldwide phenomenon. There were 27 events spread across nine thoroughly unorthodox sporting categories, such as in-line skating, street luge, skateboarding, bungee jumping, biking and others. The event was so successful on every level that ESPN immediately scrapped its initial plan to stage the Games every two years and made it an annual event with a shortened name: X Games. The first winter competition took place in 1997 at Big Bear Lake in California and inspired new interest and respect for snowboarding, freestyle skiing and other daredevil winter sports.

The X Games have grown steadily since the late ’90s, adding many new events and disposing of others, as it changes to reflect the latest currents in the extreme sports universe. Since 2003, the main summer games have been staged around Los Angeles and the winter competition in Aspen, Colo. But since 1998, there have also been (summer-style) X Games in Asia—Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and China—and for the past four years, winter Games in the Alps in Tignes, France. Beginning this year, there are six X Games sites—Aspen was in January 2013; Tignes in March; Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, was the stunning backdrop for summer-style games in April; in May, the action shifted to Barcelona; in late June it’s on to Munich; and the first week of August, the X Games season wraps up in L.A. ESPN’s coverage has expanded greatly through the years, and with it, its ratings for what were once considered “fringe” sports.

As you can imagine, putting on and televising the X Games is a mammoth undertaking that involves hundreds of people, both on-site and back at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. From the outset, sound has always been a critical component in the network’s coverage, but even more so the last several years with the move into a hi-def, 5.1 surround sound world for all sports. Spearheading that side for ESPN—for all its remote events—is Senior Audio Producer Kevin Cleary. When we spoke in mid-April, he had recently returned from the winter X Games in Tignes—which he calls “the only show out of the 2,700 shows a year that I oversee, that I still mix”—and was consulting on the Brazilian X Games coming up that weekend, and, of course, a zillion other telecasts in the short- and long-term. He is one busy dude.

halfpipe X Games

“The X Games is one of my favorite sporting events ever,” Cleary says. “It’s unique, it’s innovative. Some of the things these athletes are doing are so over-the-top and incredible, they are constantly pushing the limits; it’s as cutting-edge as you can get. From a sound point of view it’s tremendously challenging, and we’re always looking for new ways to bring the fan to the experience, put them right there. These days, most people understand the importance of audio—sound really does change how you see television. It’s not as compelling or immersive without good sound.”

Cleary’s road to the top audio supervisorial role at ESPN has included many interesting stops. In his early 20s, the New York native worked in touring live sound, then got a gig as technical production manager for Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. After that, he did live sound for Broadway musicals, while also transitioning into sound tech for television. His next move brought him into “sports entertainment” with the World Wrestling Federation, which was broadcasting both bands and wrestling shows in conjunction with MTV from a large space in Times Square (which later became the Hard Rock Café). During his tenure with the WWF, he also helped design and build a studio complex at the company’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

“I was also starting to do support on some sports shows,” he says, “at the same time as the transition from analog to digital and to 5.1. So I found myself in a niche position where I had the mixing skills and the knowledge of digital audio, in conjunction with the live sound background and an understanding of how 5.1 was being implemented for television.”

In the mid-2000s, Cleary was increasingly plying his skills for ESPN, and by 2005, “I started working with them almost exclusively, with [ESPN senior audio producer and 14-time Emmy winner] Ron Scalise, who had some really interesting ideas and was a pioneer in so many of the things we do [in sports sound]. We worked on some cool projects together, not the least of which was when ESPN got NASCAR back in 2007. We spent a lot of 2006 designing and implementing a digital audio system that would incorporate fiber-optic cable that surrounded the rings of all these tracks, and basically changed the workflow in the TV compound from an old copper workflow to a MADI workflow; trying to go as digital as we could.”

Kevin Cleary

Kevin Cleary

Tragically, Scalise was killed in an automobile accident in December 2007, “and it was a challenge to pick up the torch from where he left off,” Cleary says. “But I think he’d be proud of us and the work we’ve done. In 2008, we did virtually no shows in 5.1 discrete; they were all matrixed. And today, with college basketball just concluding, we’re doing almost all of the 2,700 events we do a year in 5.1 discrete.”

Much of ESPN’s approach to audio for the X Games was developed under Scalise’s direction, but Cleary has made it one of his top priorities, as well, and, as mentioned, the Games themselves are constantly evolving, always requiring new approaches on the audio end.

“When you see a guy coming down a 90-foot ramp on a skateboard, you think, ‘How do I mike this thing? How can I capture that sound?’” he asks. “One of the things Ron came up with is the Xducer, which is basically like a contact microphone, or a pickup. It doesn’t work the way a diaphragm mic would—a push-pull with air. Instead, it takes the vibration and translates that to energy. In France, when those [snowboard] guys would get up on the rails on the slope-style course and grind, you’d really hear it. We worked in conjunction with our French crew, and those guys did a great job of placing the mics. I remember in Year One [four years ago], I was literally on the mountain teaching these guys how to attach contact mics to the rails. But good audio people are good audio people no matter where you are. Wherever you go, you find people who are just as passionate and excited about a new innovative technology and a new innovative sport as you are.” In addition to multiple Xducers, sound for the events comes from microphones mounted on each of the many fixed and roaming cameras providing video coverage—Cleary says the Sennheiser 816 is probably the most commonly employed camera mic.






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