ESPN’s First College Football Championship To Offer Hundreds of Audio Channels

ESPN’s coverage of the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship between Oregon and Ohio State on Monday Jan. 12 will be the network’s biggest production to date, with multiple viewing options via the “CFP Megacast” across the entire ESPN stable of channels: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Goal Line.

That’s saying a lot, considering that the network broke cable ratings records on New Year’s Day: back-to-back semifinals at the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl attracted the largest audiences in cable history, with 28.271 million tuning into the Sugar Bowl.

In most cases, a variety of audio feeds will be available to viewers. For instance, “Sounds of the Game” will feature only the natural sounds of the game and coverage of the halftime performances by each marching band; “ESPN Voices” will allow fans to listen in on multiple ESPN on-air personalities and shows discussing the game; the “Taco Bell Student Section” — new this year — will feature a camera and microphones in the student section of each team.

“We learned some things from last year, and they’ll be applied here,” says Kevin Cleary, ESPN remote operations specialist in charge of the sprawling show’s sound, referring to ESPN’s first and only other Megacast production: the final BCS National Championship last season.

Signal Management
Management of what will be hundreds of signals from the field and elsewhere is a primary focus of the production. The main event will be mixed from the A-unit console on the Game Creek Spirit truck, with sound effects submixed aboard Game Creek Glory. Pregame and halftime audio will come through Game Creek Larkspur, linked through Spirit and Glory. ESPN Deportes’ sideline reporters will be switched in Glory through Spirit’s router, and the Taco Bell Student Sections’ audio will come via the Lyon Video Lyon 3 truck, otherwise used for the Longhorn Network.

Most of the audio will be mixed onsite, including specialty sound. “Sounds of the Game,” for example, will be mixed in Glory’s B unit and feature enhanced audio from the stands, the field, and the PA system. However, a substantial amount of sound will be shipped back to ESPN’s Bristol, CT, plant for mixing, including the “CFP Film Room,” “Command Center,” and “Off the Ball” audio. But signal transport will range even further afield, with the sound from the “Champion Voices” feed going to ESPN’s Los Angeles production-control room for mixing.

“It’s a complex infrastructure, with a lot of moving parts,” says Cleary, noting that planning for the event’s audio began in November. “The connectivity plan is key to making this successful. We worked directly with our network-traffic team in Bristol to make sure we have the proper feeds back and forth.”

True to the Schools
As complex as the production’s audio will be, Cleary says, the production team will not lose sight of the overarching goal: to stay true to the sound of college football. The school bands are the unique characteristic of a college game, and Cleary says each band’s sound will be analyzed and emphasized.

“We want to capture and translate each band’s distinctive sound,” he explains. “Some bands sound especially bright; others tend to be warmer sounding. We’ll reinforce those characteristics with appropriate EQ curves. The real challenge in a cavernous NFL stadium like this one is to make it sound like a college game. We want to make sure we keep the individuality and nuances of each school’s band and songs. We don’t want to let that get washed out in the roar of the crowd. We want the fans at home to experience it as though it was in their stadium.”

To help accomplish that, the championship game will be broadcast completely in discrete surround, including the bands, and, for the first time in a college game, the network will deploy two dedicated surround microphones: a DPS 5100 and a Sennheiser Esfera surround microphone system. In addition, eight parabolic dishes will be deployed on the field, along with dozens of stereo shotgun microphones.

But, says Cleary, don’t look just at numbers when it comes to managing a production of this scale. “You can put as many mics out there as you want, but, in the end, it comes down to the people, and we have the best in the business.”