On College World Series, ESPN Aims for a Wall of Sound

It’s widely agreed that baseball’s signature sound is the “crack” of the bat. However, during the College World Series, scheduled in Omaha June 19-29/30, finding a common onomatopoeia for the sound the NCAA’s aluminum bats make is less simple. It ranges from “ting” to “clang” to “brunk” (generally associated with bunts) and then some. Whatever the sound, ESPN’s audio crew is making sure that it will be one of many that keep viewers glued to the games.

Senior Audio Mixer Stevie Kaura Jr. will be looking over a Calrec Sigma with an input load more in line with what you’d find at the Grammys than at a ball game: 113 of the console’s 128 channels will be filled. Most of that will be from the 80-90 microphones scattered throughout Rosenblatt Stadium, which has hosted the games for 60 years (the CWS moves to a new venue in downtown Omaha next year). Most of those microphones are submixed and will come up on Kaura’s deck as groups for bases, the umpires, and the stadium walls.

The umpires will be miked with Sony ECM 55 lavaliers, threaded up through the padding but carefully positioned for comfort. “If the ump feels like it’s getting in the way, he’ll take it off or move it, and I’ll lose a great microphone [position],” says Kaura. “I tell the guys, keep the microphone so it’s safe and comfortable, and I’ll EQ it if I have to to make intelligible.”

Kaura leaves it up to the home-plate umpire to decide whether to wear a microphone, but there will be plenty of input from the other three umps. The protocol is to open the umpire microphone faders just as the pitch is being wound up and to close them as soon as the call is made, to prevent picking up any scatological reactions to the call. That kind of commentary can come from the players, coaches, or managers, as well as the fans, who — as both Kaura and Kevin Cleary, senior technical audio producer for ESPN Event Operations, point out — are a huge part of the any collegiate sports soundscape.

“One of the reasons it sounds the way it does is the level of the fans’ excitement,” Cleary says. “For some [players], they’ve played all their lives, from Little League on, and this is going to be their last game.” Kaura will keep an eye on the stands during emotionally charged moments, ready to ease in audio from a camera microphone if a family member is cheering on a batter.

The bases are also miked with lavaliers, with a pair of ECM 55s buried at home plate and three Sennheiser MKH 70 shotgun microphones pointed at it. “We get a tremendous amount of sound from home plate, mainly from the lavaliers, which pick up the home-plate calls, the slides, and the ‘ting’ of the bat,” says Kaura. (He’s a “ting” proponent.)

The bat sound is crucial, so he keeps it up in the mix, adding a little bit of onboard compression for limiting, to keep this signature transient from pinning the meters. The miking around home plate is so intense, Kaura says, that sometimes even home-plate umpires who opted not to wear a microphone think he has sneaked one on to them anyway.

Each dugout is heavily miked, as are each of the bullpens, which are adjacent to the playing field and where three lavalier microphones by the pitcher, catcher, and in between them contribute to the effects sound.

The walls, however, are the most heavily wired of all, with 20 Crown Series Phase Coherent Cardioid (PCC) contact microphones alternating between 10 lavaliers. This configuration is relatively recent. “We found that using the PCCs alone was getting us great sound from the warning track and outfield catches but we weren’t getting the thump from players hitting the wall padding,” Kaura explains. “We added the lavs, and we get it all now.”

Microphones on the foul poles and the mesh fencing brings the total number of wall-area microphones to about 40, which alone might be as many as are used in a typical MLB game. Some microphones in other nooks include two lavaliers on the padding behind home plate, to pick up missed catches and foul-backs, and three buried around the pitcher’s mound, which Kaura says are great for picking up pitchers’ wind-ups and throws and the occasional cleat cleaning.

In short, the CWS will be under a microphone microscope, with every nuance able to be picked up and woven into a dense background of enthusiastic fan noise. “This kind of sound is on a par with the X Games,” says Kaura.

Adds Cleary, “The audio involvement is what really brings the emotion back home.”