Figure-Skating Audio Takes Some Fancy Footwork

Capturing the sound of figure skating is no easy task. Just ask Peteris Saltans, audio mixer for the sport at both the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (Jan. 12-24) and the Winter Olympics next month (both on NBC).

“It’s really unlike almost any other sport,” says Saltans, who next month will be mixing his sixth Olympics broadcast and third Olympic figure-skating event. The U.S. Figure Skating Championships begin next week in Spokane, WA.

The basic elements of figure-skating audio are straightforward enough: the sound of the blades (and the occasional butt) on the ice, the crowd and other ambient sounds, the music from the PA system, and the announcers. The challenge stems from the fact that the focus is almost always tight on a single skater, or on a couple in pairs skating, crisscrossing a 98- x 100-ft. indoor Olympic-sized rink, larger even than the 85- x 100-ft. NHL regulation rink.

To achieve that kind of coverage takes a lot of microphones — 36 effects mics, to be exact. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, they include eight Sennheiser 816 shotguns and 12 Crown PCC 160 unidirectional boundary microphones mounted on the rink’s dasher board; six Sennheiser 416 shotguns aimed at the viewing stands; four more 816s on handheld cameras; a pair of 416 microphones in the “kiss and cry” area, where skaters sit to see their scores announced on the PA (that audio has no delay; skaters just don’t seem to swear); and two backstage ambience microphones.

(Audio-Technica microphones are used exclusively at the Olympics, where the host broadcaster is responsible for microphone choice and placement. NBC takes microphone splits from the host to create its own mix for U.S. coverage.)

The shotgun microphones on the dasher board are positioned at the corners and at the midpoints; the boundary microphones are interspersed between them. A large number of highly directional microphones is necessary to follow the skaters around the rink, picking up such details as the sound of the blade tip stabbing the ice prior to a jump and the whoosh of a side blade.

Compounding that are the crowds, whose sound level changes as the skater draws near and pulls away from the microphones in the course of the program, as well as errant ambience from the PA system, which plays the music that the skater performs to. Saltans gets a stereo feed of the music, which gives him a pristine signal, but the distance and proximity of some of the microphones to the PA speakers means that he has to delay the music line and certain microphones to match the live sound.

With such a moving target for a POV, the surround field uses the judges’ position as its reference. Saltans keeps the effects left and right; the music is panned left and right, with some spill into the surrounds and LFE channel; and he places crowd and ambience into a combination of the stereo and the surrounds. When the announcers are silent, as they are during much of the actual performances, the center channel they occupy stays quiet but open.

While the multiplicity of microphones establishes the on-ice shots, Saltans does crossfades as skaters transition from the backstage area to the rink. “Each location has its own very specific ambience,” he explains. “The backstage has some bleed from the arena that you’ll hear; then, it opens up to full surround when they walk into the arena.”

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of mixing figure skating is the fact that so much of its sound effects fall into very similar frequency ranges, mostly upper-mid to high frequencies. “The blades on the ice are in a pretty high register, and, if the music is orchestral and is heavy on violins and piano, then it’s also in the upper frequencies,” he says. “It’s an ongoing battle with the PA; they have a certain regulated decibel level they have to maintain, and some of the speakers are mounted on the dasher near the microphones. There’s a lot going on.”

As a result, figure-skating audio relies heavily on EQ. “I find I have to apply a lot of it to each microphone to differentiate the sounds,” he says, noting that he cuts more than boosts. The mixes will differ in tonality and level, too, based on male or female skaters and singles versus pairs.

It takes a lot of finesse to do world-class figure skating. And, Saltans will tell you, “It takes a lot of finesse to mix it.”