In TSN Curling Broadcasts, Audio Gets Top Billing

Obscured by the weekend’s first NFL postseason games was a rather important event up north. The TSN Curling Skins Game featured four of the best curling teams in the world competing for $75,000 in prize money on a curling rink purpose-built for the event at the Casino Rama in Rama, ON.

It was an opportunity to look at the sound for a sport that rivals hockey in popularity in northern-clime countries and has grown 53% in the U.S. since 2002, when it became a Winter Olympics sport, according to the U.S. Curling Association. The estimated 16,512 curlers here are a fraction of the 1.2 million Canadian participants in the sport, but, once you listen in, it’s easy to see how the sport has become so engaging.

“It’s much more involved than you’d think,” says Graham Zapf, the A1 for the show, broadcast on TSN, who worked from the Dome Productions Trillium remote truck.

Zapf laid out five Sony ECM lavaliere microphones into slits in the foam bumpers that line the curling sheet (the field of play). These are used to capture the fundamental sound effects of the game: the sounds of the specially made brooms that the four players per team use to whisk the ice, the friction creating a thin liquid layer on top to affect the movement of the 42-lb. granite stones.

Even more audio comes from the players, all of whom are wired for sound with DPA lavaliere microphones and Sennheiser wireless transmitters. This is the sound that pulls viewers in, says Zapf. “Everyone is miked, and they’re constantly talking strategy about how best to advance and position the stones. In hockey or basketball or football, the camera is following the play; in curling, you’re following how the players think through what they’re saying.”

As a result, Zapf says, the director’s picture cuts will follow the audio as much as vice versa. And the amount of player and coach audio stands in stark contrast to the highly controlled audio bursts that the NFL releases just ahead of the snaps. There also is no delay on curling’s sound, which may be a function of Canadian politeness but, in any event, keeps the play audio consistent throughout the live action. In fact, the audio is so intrinsic to curling broadcasts that TSN sends an audio feed to a portable FM transmitter installed in the venue so that fans in the stands can listen on their own radios during play. (The fans can also hear themselves in the mix through Audio-Technica 4050 and Shure VP88 microphones used to mike the audience.)

“With the players being miked up, we really have 11 announcers on the ice,” including the three TSN announce talents, Zapf says. He notes that the announcers will often cede the audio to the players as the dialog gets heated.

“It’s the only sport I know of that lets the players’ sound carry the show,” he says. “It’s the best sport to watch on television. You really get absorbed in it because you can hear everything they’re saying.”