ESPN Gives Discrete Surround the Checkered Flag for the Indy 500

Viewers of the 100th Indianapolis 500 race, on Sunday, got to hear the historic broadcast for the first time in discrete 5.1 surround sound. ESPN, which has made discrete 5.1 its policy going forward, is bringing the audio format to the IRL. Previous Indy 500 races had been broadcast in matrixed surround using the DTS codec.

The race audio followed a more circuitous path than the cars did. ESPN used a “side-by-side” format, in which it split-screened commercials and race action during commercial breaks, with the race-action audio muted, an approach it will use for its NASCAR Chase for the Cup coverage later this year. The race audio was sent, embedded and discrete, via transmission links from the track to ABC in New York, then to ESPN’s Manhattan Times Square Studios facility for commercial insertion and side-by-side integration, then back to ABC and on the air.

During the race, all audio was integrated into the surround field, including RF feeds of communications between drivers and crews. A Tascam X48 rack-mountable replay system allowed ESPN to record, play back, and edit radio audio from any of the 33 drivers. (According to Tascam’s Dan Montecalvo, the X-48 MkII version will be introduced in late June. This iteration will upgrade the current 80-GB drive with a 1-TB built-in hard drive, replace the existing FireWire with USB 2.0 connectivity, and offer an eSATA interface.)

“We have a communications mixer and a radio editor on-site, mixing the communications live and building packages,” explains Kevin Cleary, senior technical audio producer for event operations for ESPN. The challenge at the Indy 500, as contrasted with the NASCAR events the network plans to use the system on, is the scale of the Brickyard track: “It’s massive. There’s a golf course in the infield. It’s difficult maintaining the integrity of the RF signal over such a huge course, plus you’re covering 2 miles of track with cars going over 225 miles per hour.”

The effects channels also required some modifications for the discrete 5.1 broadcast. Cleary says the shotgun microphones in the corners were spaced differently than for stereo or matrixed surround, with more distance between most of the them. The race also used more resources in general, including all three NEP Supershooter 21 vehicles, from which A1 Jason Blood and submixer Steve Urick worked the race.