Live From the US Open: CBS and ESPN Split Two-Story ‘Truck’ for US Open Audio

Upstairs in the “truck,” Bill Baggett and Jay Willis mix the audio from the two main courts at the 2013 US Open tennis tournament. They were in the shadow of Citi Field and underneath the departure paths of jets out of La Guardia Airport, modified to somewhat mitigate the noise that the stadium seating in the 22,547-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium and nearby Louis Armstrong Stadium, acting as reverse loudspeakers, can amplify. Downstairs in the truck — actually a two-story, iron-framed building covered in corrugated metal and intended to be temporary — CBS Sports and ESPN take the feeds from two Lawo mc256 Mk II consoles and embed them for distribution for their respective networks and to the international feeds. It’s a shared infrastructure that’s smoothing the way for ESPN, which currently broadcasts the weekday matches, including the men’s and women’s singles finals, to also take over the prime weekend games in 2015 in an 11-year deal.

It’s a sea change for coverage of the USTA’s Grand Slam gem: CBS has had the broadcast rights since 1968.

For Baggett, however, it’s as though he never stopped mixing the music that got him started in pro audio 30 years earlier. His fingers move constantly, tweaking the array of fixed Sennheiser 816 shotgun microphones as the ball moves between hemispheres of the court. Two mics are set up at the foot of the fence at each end, panned in stereo on the console, with two more placed beneath the umpire’s chair at 45-degree angles to the court. Behind those is another shotgun microphone, mounted on a handheld grip and held by an A2 following the back-and-forth travel of the ball. That might have been the easiest one to bag during the often-torrential rain squalls that hounded the ESPN broadcasts on the US Open’s first day. Others, including a lavaliere mic affixed to the net and Audio-Technica stereo microphones used for crowd sounds, kept a small army of A2s busy whenever rain interrupted the play.

“I give a little more emphasis to the shotguns at each end of the court as the ball moves into each one,” Baggett explains.

The “thwock” that is tennis’s signature sound — along with players’ various grunts and shrieks that last year compelled the International Tennis Federation to green-light research into a “gruntometer” that could establish definitive values for when those sounds become distracting — is clear and present on Baggett’s mix, which uses a light touch of EQ and limiting.

On the Louis Armstrong court, Jay Willis estimates he has upwards of 30 microphones, including those for on-court post-match interviews. The rains didn’t allow him to get a smooth curve of volume as the day progressed, with spikes and lulls in the ambient sound. A swell in the crowd noise at the end of the evening resulted in his completely resetting the mc256’s gain structure. As if on cue, another surge in sound sent him quickly pulling back the crowd-effects faders.

“The crowd gets rowdier as the day goes on and especially at night,” he says. “Then the crowd sound is reflected onto the court and gets amplified by the bowl. You get spikes and even some brief distortion. You have to catch those while still keeping the overall sound smooth, trying to keep the ball effects riding about 20-30 dB above the rest of the effects.”

Willis says he has become more aggressive at mixing tennis in the decade or so that he has done it. Some of his experience with hockey comes through as he looks to make the ball effects sharper and more present.

“This is going out to 150 countries around the world,” he says, noting that the US Open is America’s calling card when it comes to the sport. “It’s going to get listened to over everything imaginable, including a lot of bad speakers, and it still has to have a voice. It has to sound good.”

Both Willis and Baggett gave the Lawo consoles ample credit for that, citing both sound quality and an intuitive operating system that let them keep the status views of all of their input channels visible simultaneously. “Digital takes some getting used to,” he says, “but it’s getting a lot better.”

The Big Picture
The bigger picture for the two mixers’ work was an extensive use of MADI routing of audio signals throughout the building. “What was different this year as the amount of MADI that we had for our audio infrastructure within the ESPN plant upstairs,” says Johnny Pastor, director of technical services for Bexel, which provided much of the cabling and infrastructure support for the broadcast. That infrastructure included an Evertz EQX high-density SD/HD/3G router with 20 MADI ports, allowing Bexel to streamline the process of embedding and de-embedding the audio.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of copper to go around. Pastor notes the substantial amount of copper wiring that’s still part of the stadiums’ permanent infrastructure (but which is likely to be replaced by the time of the 2015 host-broadcaster switchover).

Commentary for the domestic broadcasts is mixed in through a Calrec Artemis desk, which also takes in audio from Hydra units in the stadium. The international mix-minus feed is sent through a Yamaha DM1000 mixer.

Now That’s Entertainment
The entertainment elements of the show, including the opening ceremony featuring a performance by Lenny Kravitz and the Arthur Ashe Kids Day event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, were by far the largest users of wireless microphones.

Mike Sinclair of Audio Inc. estimates that he used about 40 channels of RF for these, including eight channels of a Sennheiser 9000 digital wireless system the manufacturer provided for the events, 12 channels of Sennheiser evolution 300 series wireless, and six channels of evolution 300 series in-ear monitors. The Kravitz show marked the first time the entire performance was live; previous opening-ceremony shows used backing tracks with live vocals.

Arthur Ashe Kids Day saw the stands in the eponymously named stadium filled with 22,000 youngsters. Sinclair is noted for having addressed what had been the problem of uneven coverage for live performances in the venue in the past. Previously, speakers on carts were aimed at each of the four sides of the bowl, producing sometimes excruciatingly loud volume levels for front rows while barely reaching those in the back. Sinclair solved that by moving the cart covering each side to the opposite side of the square court; each speaker cart was pumped with enough level to reach the rear rows but was far enough away to avoid blasting the front rows it faced. Says Sinclair, “It’s clever and it works.”