Shotguns Galore To Capture Kentucky Derby Audio

By Dan Daley

Horseracing is well-suited to a linear narrative: from barns to paddock and post parade, then on to the track and the race itself. It’s a comfortable path for the audio to follow as well, says Peteris Saltans, who on Saturday May 2 will do his seventh stint as senior audio mixer at the Kentucky Derby. “I try to match the audio to the picture as much as possible, so I rely heavily on the camera microphones.”

Each area of Churchill Downs has its own ambience, so, as the focus moves from reporter to reporter, Saltans switches both the dialog and the ambience as needed, from the wall-to-wall din of the crowd around the track to the bucolic bird chirping around the barns.

Key Sounds

But there are several singular audio moments at the Derby. The traditional singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” by the entire crowd is caught by Sennheiser 416 short shotguns placed throughout the grandstand, with four 416s set up in two stereo pairs to support the band and choir leading the song. These familiar sounds are punctuated by the six bars of “Call to the Post” played by a lone trumpeter and picked up by another pair of 416s.

The most exciting moment of all, though, is the clang of the starting gate as the electrifying “And they’re off!” blares through the PA. Three Sennheiser SK250 wireless microphones, each with its own battery pack, are attached near the top of the gate, picking up the horses as they approach. “The excitement really begins to build at this point,” says Saltans. “Some of the horses might be skittish, and you can hear them being coaxed into the gate.”

The inside front of the track will have 30 more 416s, some angled toward the final turn and all shooting straight across the track, to catch both the rumble of the hooves as they approach the finished line and the crescendo of crowd noise. But much of the audio will come from the two or three jockeys who have agreed to be miked, with Sennheiser Quantum lavalier microphones attached to their silks, boots, or saddle. And it’s the most intimate audio of the event. “That’s where you’ll hear the sound of the horses — the hooves, the breathing — and the jockeys urging them on,” says Saltans. The race is barely three minutes long and the jumble of elements so intense during that time that the usual live-sound delay is dispensed with.

All these track sounds are submixed before they arrive at Saltans’ 76-input Calrec Alpha console in the broadcast compound, which he says is one of the best connected in any sport, with fiber and XLR to spare. Throughout the race itself, he strives to keep a balance between the announcer and the ambient FX. “It’s a fine line; the sound builds from the minute the gate opens and keeps going from there,” he says. “But the call of the race is critical to know which horse is where.”

The Kentucky Derby is an interesting opportunity for the surround mix. “There are certain points when we can have a very clear left-center-right perspective, like in the first turn,” Saltans explains. “It gets harder to do as the horses are in distance in the back stretch. It’s not like car racing, which is louder and thus easier to establish directionality. But when you have so [many elements] compressed into such a short, intense time, it’s hard not to keep it exciting.”