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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Audio Control Room 2

Audio Control Room 2

Because the X Games are produced by ESPN, the network is deeply involved in choosing the events and has tremendous input into the design of the courses where they take place. As Cleary notes, “They’ll send us a course map showing all the different tricks and features, and we will custom-design what we need for microphones that will go on these features and determine how many mics we need per feature. At the end of the day, for instance, on the slope-style course [in Tignes] we used 27 Xducers on the rails, and add that in with 12 camera mics, so you’re looking at maybe 40 effects mics just for that course.” In Tignes, there was a three-day blizzard that covered the contact mics each night, but, as Cleary says, “the contact mics are much more adaptive to the elements than a shotgun mic with a diaphragm.”

For the summer skateboard big air competition, however, “it’s not uncommon for a big air ramp to have 80 different inputs on it—contact mics that go all the way down the ramp and pick up the skater. One of the interesting parts of the ramp is, after they do their jump and they go onto the other side, there’s a piece of coping on the back end of that and the guys go so fast that they get some board wobble, and when they land, the tail end of the board will hit that coping as they go off it, and it gives out a really unique ring to it. That’s one of the ways you can tell if the guy’s going really fast—you’ll get that ‘ping.’ That’s the type of nuanced sounds we really want to capture, so we’ll have a mic there.”

Another example: “For the rally car racing last year in L.A., we actually buried a tube in the landing and put microphones in it to capture the cars as they came to the other side of the jump.

“Anyone can make the show sound big,” he continues. “The excitement comes from the little nuanced sounds, like a guy strapping his boot down, or when a guy comes off a rail jump and he lands and he grunts that ‘uhhh’ sound. Or if he hurts himself and you hear him groan. Our mics picked up one guy [in Tignes] who landed badly and said, ‘Man, my ankle is definitely not stoked right now,’” Cleary laughs. “Those are the little moments that tell the story. The important thing is not to just make it sound like some huge event, with people cheering and all that. That’s not difficult. The important part to me is telling the story so our viewers are immersed in the action through those nuanced sounds, and giving them more information that way.”

In Tignes, Cleary did his mixing work in an OB (outside broadcasting) van situated at the bottom of the super-pipe and slope-style courses for the winter events. “The uniqueness of Tignes,” he says, “is there’s one venue, so we have one truck to cover both venues and then we have a smaller mobile unit—almost like an ENG van—that utilizes our host set, and in that case our host, Ramona [Bruland], was directed and produced from Bristol. The actual venue is produced locally, so it tosses back and forth and requires quite a bit of coordination. It’s like having two trucks, but one is in Connecticut,” he chuckles.

As the on-site mixer in Tignes, Cleary was juggling all of the mic inputs from the fixed Xducers and multiple camera mics through a Studer Vista 8 console in the OB van, plus dealing with the announcers’ microphones (and not just the English-language ones), all the while worrying about commercial and network inserts added in Bristol, and always keeping in mind both the 5.1 and stereo mixes being uplinked to master control in the U.S.

“In order to create a 5.1 mix that remains true and pristine to the viewer,” Cleary notes, “most microphones are in mono, and usually a mono element in a 5.1 mix will go to the center channel. Well, the center channel has our announcers in it—that’s kind of the most important channel—so having a bunch of microphones stepping on your announcers is not ideal, so you have to utilize a bunch of different devices and some tricks to keep all those mono elements out of your center channel and steer them toward your left front, right front, left rear surround and right rear surround. You want to give the viewer the full experience, but you also want to be able to hear the announcers calling the action. So that’s one of the challenges: While you’re managing 40 effects microphones in conjunction with three different in-house booths and all the ancillary bells and whistles that go into mixing a TV show—music and features and playbacks and graphics noises and whatnot—you have to make sure you keep that center channel pristine.”

Cleary says he is constantly checking the 5.1 and stereo downmix, “and also checking it in mono, just to make sure it’s not collapsing, and you’re still putting out a great show for our viewers who are watching in stereo. A lot of countries aren’t 5.1-ready yet, so they’ll get a stereo or sometimes even a mono mix. Our 5.1 is encoded on-site and sent back to Bristol as an ASI [asynchronous serial interface] stream, decoded in Bristol and then distributed as 5.1 discrete, through our audio control room there, with commercial insertions, back out, and sent to our viewers. It becomes an AC-3 [Dolby Digital] stream for our distribution domestically. One of the beauties of the discrete mix is you don’t have anything that’s lost in the sauce, so to speak.”

The summer X Games have more events and present different obstacles than the winter Games. In the recent Foz Do Iguaçu X Games, for instance, the site had to be built from scratch in what is practically a Brazilian rain forest overlooking the breathtaking Iguaçu Falls, and all the equipment was rented locally and trucked in. At the Barcelona and Munich events, the X Games are using facilities left over from those cities’ respective Olympic Games, so there is at least some foundation in place in advance.

Cleary says they have established certain parameters for the audio equipment in the OB vans, no matter what the locale, but the console or mics they use in one place might be considerably different than what they use in another. And, of course, what might work in the snows of Tignes might not be right for the humid 100-degree heat that scorched the Iguaçu games. The summer skateboard and BMX bike courses also tend to be noisier than the winter slopes, with plenty of loud music and non-stop commentary through the on-site P.A.s—more challenges for whomever is mixing in the truck.

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is always the same, Cleary says: “We want to put the viewer in the best seat in the house, right in the sweet spot.”

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