Shogun Fights Bangs Out Ultimate Fighting for Regional Sports Networks

Just as indie bands are remaking the music business on a regional basis, upstart sports and leagues are helping crest the rise of regional sports networks. And no sport is “indier” than mixed martial arts. The UFC has had a mindshare lock on the sport’s national visibility, but local iterations are banging on those doors.

One of those is Shogun Fights, a four-year-old series that’s been drawing thousands to its twice-a-year events held at the venerable 1st Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore, a neighborhood and venue as gritty as the sport itself. The arena hosted the Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League as far back as 1962 and, after them, the Baltimore Blades of the World Hockey Association. The place is the CBGB of sports.

The second of this year’s shows will take place there on Oct. 26, culminating the event’s fourth year. It’s billed on its Website as part of an ad hoc farm system for the UFC, and fans get to watch up-and-comers like Nate Gebb and Ruben Martinez duke it out on replays carried on RSNs Comcast SportsNet MidAtlantic and Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“We’re not trying to become the UFC, but we’re feeding them,” says Richard “Vance” Van Horn, president of Sheffield Audio/Video Productions, the Phoenix, MD-based production company that jointly produces the live events and postproduces the videos that are shown on the Comcast RSNs. Van Horn says the number of annual events is kept to a minimum to keep interest and demand high, and often scheduled around NFL Ravens home games because there is significant overlap in the audiences. The events attract 5,000 or more fans to the 11,000-seat auditorium and Van Horn estimates that the cablecasts are reaching as many as 5 million viewers. The two annual events, which run between three and four hours each, are posted into six one-hour programs.

Things That Go Thump in the Fight
Two things make the Shogun Fights shows different from the typical UFC broadcast: the commentary from John Rallo and Nick Ehrlich is virtually nonstop, and while the signature “thump” of any canvas-mat match is present, it’s achieved in a very different way.

Jake Mossman, Sheffield’s chief audio engineer, acknowledges that the continuous commentary track can sometimes take away from the sound effects but, he says, the announce audio is itself a kind of effect. “There’s no punch-ins or retakes – John and Nick may know the outcome of the fight in advance of the session but their commentary is recorded in a single take, straight through, no stopping,” he says. “I hit record and they just go at it. We don’t want it to sound rehearsed. We treat it like a live show. It’s a one-hour show whose audio is recorded in one hour.”

Mossman says that may sometimes come at the expense of the sound effects. But he tries to ride them in the final mix, looking for moments in between words to punch up a hit or a slap. He’s working from a very basic capture array of just four Sennheiser shotgun microphones pointed into the ring from the corners. These are also all there are to capture the audience sound, which they manage to do remarkably well, helped in part by the stadium’s naturally reverberant sonics, and to a lesser extent by Mossman’s reuse of some sampled bits mixed into boost the ambiance and smooth over lulls.

What’s missing is the usual “thump” microphone, generally a PZM attached to the canvas or a typical kick-drum mic like an E-V RE-20 underneath and pointed upwards. Van Horn and Mossman say they’ve tried PZM microphones in the past but never were able to get a satisfactory sound from them on these mats. Instead, Mossman runs the effects mics through a Waves Bundle, a plug-in audio processor, and uses an integrated subharmonic generator to interpolate what the 100-Hz version of those tracks would sound like, then adding it in, and thereby assuring sync since he’s using the actual effects tracks.

The Shogun Fights shows are not being broadcast live but Mossman says he’s trying to keep them as close to broadcast specs as possible. He uses a limiter on the effects tracks to keep the audience sound in check around the announcers. He’s also using the integrated loudness metering in the Waves Bundle to keep dialnorm at the mandated -24 lkfs standard. Mossman says that The Discovery Channel’s audio specifications are built into the Wave Bundle and he uses them as a reference.

“What we’re getting here is a show that’s posted but still very real, very authentic,” Mossman says. “The announcers are playing it as though it was taking place right then and there, and the crowd is very present. Every year the shows have been getting bigger.”