ESPN Builds Big Sound for BCS

The only thing more complicated than the selection process for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) might have been series broadcaster ESPN’s multiplatform, ADD-level coverage of it. And, while watching the games, including Monday’s championship matchup between Auburn and Florida State, you had to listen closely, because the BCS sound this year went into new territory even for ESPN.

Viewers had a lot to listen to. ESPN used six of its television platforms as well as audio and digital outlets for a BCS Megacast presentation of the college-football VIZIO BCS National Championship broadcast on Jan. 6.

BCS Title Talk, for example, eavesdropped on conversations of ESPN college-football analysts and special-guest coaches, players, and celebrities discussing the game from an on-site room. BCS Film Room on ESPNEWS featured ESPN experts and guest coaches and players in a film room equipped with multiple camera angles and touchscreens providing in-depth X-and-O analysis as the game happened. On ESPN Classic, Sounds of the BCS, featuring only the natural sounds of the game, coupled ESPN’s on-screen game coverage with audio originating from the stands, the field, and elsewhere, including the venue’s PA system, and the halftime performances of the Florida State and Auburn marching bands. BCS Command Center was carried on Goal Line, the network’s college version of the Red Zone Channel, and offered a split-screen of live action and immediate replays, with audio from ESPN Radio’s Mike Tirico and Todd Blackledge.

Lots of Sound
Audio for this multiplatform extravaganza relied on a complex infrastructure, one that ESPN’s crews were able to assemble ahead of time for the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game, the 100th anniversary of that event. “We had a week to get ready for that, fortunately,” says Kevin Cleary, senior audio producer for ESPN remote production. Game Creek’s Victory A and B trucks were the main game trucks for both events; its Justice rig took in overflow and was also used for the submixes. All of the trucks’ router frames were linked via a TDM bus to provide 512 channels of audio for the event campus, connecting the trucks to each other and to the Rose Bowl’s newly built broadcast center, part of a $140 million-plus multiyear renovation that also installed a new PA system, new videoboard, and 10 LED panels and clocks and restored the south and east scoreboards. MADI links were used as backup for the connected routers. It was the largest audio-channel configuration ESPN has deployed to date.

“You think that 512 audio channels sounds like a lot, and it is; it’s the first time we’ve ever had that many,” says Cleary. “But think of it in terms of groups of six channels [that is, 5.1 surround], and you begin to see how fast even that many channels can get eaten up.” He emphasizes that nowhere near that many channels were used for the surround broadcast but points out that, each year, sound for sports shows becomes progressively more complex. “Talk to me again in 2016 and see how many audio channels we’re up to then,” he adds, wryly.

Separate Effects Mixes
Effects submixer Jonathan Freed had many more audio sources to work with this year — a total of 72 microphones, according to ESPN Media Zone — including additional parabolic dishes and Sennheiser MKH 70 shotgun microphones on pistol grips arrayed along the sidelines. The surround field was further enhanced with the use of a Soundfield DSF-2 dedicated 5.1-surround microphone and Neumann KM84 condenser microphones. In addition to the conventional effects submix sent out with the main broadcast by A1 mixer Paul Krugman, Freed built a separate submix for the Sounds of the BCS show on ESPN Classic.

“They used a lot of the same elements,” says Cleary, “but the big difference between them was that the [conventional] submix ebbs and flows with the intensity of the announcers; the Sounds of the BCS mix more closely follows the flow of the crowd itself. This was a first for BCS.”

Overall, BCS featured a ton of sound, much of it nonstop; Goal Line’s continuous replays with radio-fed audio, for instance, never cut to commercials. What wasn’t present, however, was audio from microphones on players, coaches, or officials, which the NCAA refuses to allow. But Cleary says the additional microphones deployed to pick up nat sound and effects pick up enough of a sense of dialog to add that human element to the sound mix.

“We are able to get the emotions of the game,” he says. “You might not hear an entire sentence, but you do hear the emotion, which is what audio is all about for sports.”