TVG’s Audio Crew Aims To Keep Horseracing Real

Authorities in Beijing announced earlier this month that China will allow wagered horseracing to resume on the mainland, lifting a 60-year ban, imposed shortly after the 1949 Communist takeover.

Just what Donald Cribbs needs: more races.

Cribbs is senior audio engineer for TVG, the official television partner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), which takes in feeds from tracks across the country, adds local and in-studio commentary, and rebroadcasts via such outlets as Dish Network and DIRECTV into homes and OTB outlets nationwide. Cribbs mixes dozens of feeds from dozens of tracks around the country and around the world, some as far away as Australia and Japan (TVG covered live last week’s 300th running of the Royal Ascot from the UK).

Cribbs has plenty of audio sources to work with. Besides working at the network’s Los Angeles studio, which produces several shows including TVG’s flagship Trackside Live, he travels to tracks around the U.S. for the All Access show. The show is aptly named: he has full access to the riders and wires up several, who ride with microphones wide open in several races per day.

“We get to listen in all day on conversations when they’re in the paddock area as they’re getting legged up,” says Cribbs. “So the viewers are getting insights into what they feel about the horses and the upcoming races,” information that avid railbirds live for when making their bets.

TVG Manager of Engineering Frank Walters says he and Cribbs have experimented with various microphones over the four years that they have been running the 12-year-old network’s sound. He says they’ve been getting the best results from a combination of the Lectrosonics UM250 bodypack transmitters and the TRAM 250A microphone capsule.

Signal strength is a critical factor since, at some tracks, the receiver can be as much as a half mile away. Cribbs says they wind the mic cable up through the riders’ silks and attach it to the Kevlar flak-jacket-like protective piece that many jockeys wear.

“We originally planned to place the transmitter on their backs,” he says, “but they realized that, if they fell, it would not be good for them or the transmitter, so we put it on the side, on their hip, and that’s been working out fine.

Sound Quality
The variety of feeds from many racetracks means that Walters and Cribbs have to contend with varying audio quality on a daily basis. It ranges, says Walters, “anywhere from decent to horrible. The kind and quality of facilities that different tracks have vary widely, and some of the smaller tracks don’t have much at all. Sometimes, you just have to work with what you get.”

TVG’s facility has been using a Yamaha PM4000 as its main mix console but will have a new Studer Vista 8 commissioned by midsummer. This will significantly boost its ability to improve the audio, Cribbs says. “Right now, for replays, we have to manually go back and get the sound clip from the server and run it live and EQ on the fly. With the Studer’s cut-and-paste capability, we can have it right there at hand.”

The Studer desk will give TVG the potential for 5.1 surround in the future, which will benefit from the wealth of nat sound it already gathers, taken from the multiple wired-up riders, wireless lavalier microphones clipped to the starting gates, and a rail-mounted remote camera fitted with a shotgun microphone. In some instances, TV has also been able to use a parabolic mic at the finish line.

“Some of the best sound comes from the gate mics,” Cribbs notes. “You’ve got 21,000-pound horses that the riders are trying to coax into the gate, everyone is pumped up, and you can hear the jockeys talking to the horses, trying to calm them down and line them up.  Then, bang! The bell rings and the gate clangs open, and that’s the coolest sound.”

As the pack heads into the far stretch, he opens up the rail-camera microphone, which is mounted low to the ground, adding more horse-hoof sound to the mix to keep the excitement level high as the horses head into the final turn. Very little SFX sweetening is used, Walters notes.

All that audio takes a lot of control. Multiple jockeys wearing constantly open mics means that a few choice words inevitably make it to broadcast, and TVG is not running audio on a delay line. Cable-only distribution avoids the FCC regulatory headaches, but Walters and Cribbs still try to anticipate where profanity might crop up.

“Sometimes, we’ll see something like there’s a horse getting pinched against the rail. I know the rider is going to be hooting and hollering, and I’ll drop that [channel] back,” Cribbs says. “We have talks about that with the jockeys now and then, to remind them that the sound is going out live and that they don’t want to say anything that could come back later to haunt them.”

Sometimes, though, the jockeys want to get in on the joke. At one race, Cribbs heard a rider talking into his microphone, asking anyone who heard him on the track television broadcast to flash a light at him from the grandstand. It’s funny stuff, says Cribbs, “but what we’re really catching out there is raw emotion.”

And a narrative that NFL mixers waiting for league approval to replay five seconds of on-field chatter would envy. “We catch the rider [in the paddock] talking about what he’s planning to do on the track, we hear him doing it, and [then] we’re talking to him right after that in the winner’s circle,” he marvels. “It’s live, it’s real, it’s immediate.”