Whiston Mixes Sound and Tradition for Wimbledon Coverage

Bill Whiston, the audio mixer for BBC Wimbledon coverage, was the only nominee for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award last year who worked on a live event (Wimbledon 2008). He talked with SVG’s Dan Daley about what we can expect for this year’s tennis tournament.

What’s new for audio at Wimbledon this year in terms of equipment, technologies, microphone technique, etc.?

This year, the stereo for our SD transmission is being taken from the fold-down of the 5.1 for the first time. In previous years, I have done a stereo mix at the same time as the 5.1 on the same mixer, much in the same way that we used to take care of the mono mix when doing stereo for the first time. Using the Dolby fold-down makes life a lot simpler, although, obviously, the stereo still needs looking after and checking as we go. Also, Wimbledon Centre Court has its new roof in place, [and] the sound of the court with the new roof closed is not pleasant! Even with an arena full of people, the slap-back is very marked.

What are the biggest challenges in tennis audio, and does Wimbledon itself present any unique challenges?

I suppose anyone who mixes tennis finds that the dynamics of the court must be the biggest challenge. Most will allow the effects to slam into a compressor and rely on a limiter to hold it all. I don’t do that. There are compressors in the effects (both court and crowd), but I ride the faders of both groups to try to prevent the compressors’ doing too much work. It’s hard work — you have to be really with it — and can be quite tiring over a long game, but I prefer the sound I get that way to the “slammed” effect [compressors] produce. Of course, one can get caught out by the crowd, but I seem to have developed an instinct for it, and I usually manage to get it right most of the time.

Commentators are a different kettle of fish. They get compressed (pre-fader) and limited (post-fader) as they can be an excitable bunch. Other on-court challenges include trying to ignore the horrible noise made by the camera mounted on rails behind the main court mic, directors’ mixing radio (delayed) and cabled (non-delayed) cameras during the interviews on the court after the finals, and covering the long walk down the corridor from the players dressing room to the court before the finals. All part of the fun.

The “thwock” is the characteristic sound of tennis. Which microphones do you use, and where and how do you position them? What are some of the other key cue sounds of tennis, and how do you capture them?

I use a Schoeps M/S [mid-side] pair for both the main court mic and the crowd mic behind it. There is another Schoeps M/S pair at the far end of the court. The main crowd mic is a SoundField DSF-2 (with a B-format–to–5.1 converter back in the truck), with an Audio-Technica AT825 as a stereo effects and crowd mic.

There are two Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics either side of the main court pair, pointing at the noisier elements of the courtside crowd and a tree [arrangement] of three 416s under the umpire’s chair to pick up conversations, banter, disagreements, and net hits. Another pair of 416s is fixed higher on the chair and act as standbys if the main court mic fails, to pull in a little more excitement during doubles matches, to listen in to conversations with the umpire [Note: It was Whiston who picked up John McEnroe’s catch phrase “You cannot be serious!” at the 1981 Wimbledon] and even the occasional grunt or squeak being commented on.

The commentators use Sennheiser HMD25 headphones and mics with two Coles 4104 [lavaliers] as spares.

The umpire is double-miked with a couple of Sennheiser MD211s. We take a direct split feed up our own cabling from the mic amp on the umpire’s chair, and the PA company also sends us a feed via their SoundWeb system. We used to take a feed from BBC radio via yet another path but have given that up in the last couple of years.

Where are you located during the matches? What console are you mixing on? Does this require a submixer for FX?

I sit in the sound end of one of our TV-production vehicles about 200 yards from the court, and I watch the output on-screen — a proper glass television, not an LCD or plasma, to be able to check lipsync. The program is mixed on a Calrec Sigma Bluefin. The [LCR] speakers are Dynaudio BM6A, two BM5A surrounds, and a BM10 sub. There is no submixing; everything is accommodated on the desk using the double-layering of the channels possible with these digital desks. The mics come from the court via a mixture of fiber and copper cable.

When it comes to mixing, what’s the philosophical approach? Are you following the director’s POV changes on screen, or do you keep the scene static?

The philosophy behind my coverage is that of giving the viewer a seat at one end, right on the edge of the court, and surrounding them with the extraordinary atmosphere generated by the most gifted and exciting tennis players in the world, guided by some of the best tennis commentators in the business. The aural viewpoint never changes except when we leave the court to go backstage, as following the director’s visual cuts would probably make even the hardiest tennis fan fall out of their seat.

Centre Court is such a unique place, and the crowd is itself is so different to most others that it is a very special atmosphere and experience to have to preserve as a broadcast. The dynamics are huge and are even greater this year, as the seating has been extended. The new roof will be a major challenge acoustically when it’s shut. At least I’ve heard the effect before the championships started, so I know what to expect.

What are some of the moments that stick out for you as an audio mixer at Wimbledon?

Quite a few over the years I’ve mixed Centre Court. Some of the best games have been semifinals. The semifinal between Agassi and Rafter in 2001 was a case in point. Great tennis, nail-biting finish, and the underdog won. Wonderful atmosphere and my first attempt at 5.1. Just brilliant!

Pat Cash’s climb into the stands to greet his father at the end of the 1987 final was a great emotional moment, emulated last year by Rafa Nadal, who went one better by greeting Spanish royalty as well as his family!

And then there was always John McEnroe to keep us amused. His matches with Bjorn Borg are legendary, thankfully for the quality of the tennis rather than any controversy. He never lost his temper playing Borg at Wimbledon. And he makes a very entertaining commentator for us these days. And this year, well, Andy Murray seems to be doing well enough to perhaps pull off the miracle of a British winner this year. It would be a nice thing to see before I stop mixing Wimbledon Finals.