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Secrets to success: referee mic at Super Bowl

At this year’s Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, the referee microphone worked flawlessly throughout, with crisp, clear authoritative audio and nary a dropout. This result was no accident. Two new technologies were used in combination: Shure Axient wireless, which is designed specifically to detect and avoid interference in even the most adverse RF environments; and the new Portico 5045 Primary Source Enhancer (also known as the RND 5045), developed for Yamaha Commercial Audio by Rupert Neve designs.

The referee’s mic setup had to be approved by the NFL, which handles frequency coordination of the hundreds of RF channels that are active on game day. The system consisted of two channels of Shure Axient wireless, with two Sennheiser MKE-2 Platinum lavalier mics connected through a dual switch to two Axient bodypack transmitters. The ref wore both bodypacks (one live, one backup) along with the custom belt switch. Shure Axient employs a unique set of technologies specifically designed to ensure that the “money” channel is never audibly interfered with, including the ability to seamlessly jump to a clear channel should a problem develop.

The operator for the ref’s mic channel was Jack Bowling of ATK Audiotek.

“I saw the Shure Axient system demoed at ATK and thought it would work well for a ref mic, but didn’t have the opportunity to use it until the Super Bowl this year,” Bowling said. “I used it in full frequency-diversity mode, and it provided a great level of security.”

For audio tonality and gain before feedback, Bowling’s primary tools were the Yamaha RND 5045, used in conjunction with an XTA Parametric EQ and Cedar DNS-1500. The RND 5045 was a new addition, prompted by the success he had with it at the recent Rose Bowl game.

“Kevin Kimmel from Yamaha knows I work the Tournament of Roses Game,” Bowling said. “He initially introduced me to the RND 5045, suggesting it might help achieve more gain before feedback and provide more clarity on the referee microphone. I was curious to see what effect it would have, and after some patching and a discussion of various parameters, we tried it out and I was impressed with the change the unit made.”

The middle of a football field is far from an optimal place for any microphone. Reverberant energy from the stadium PA system is abundant, limiting effective gain. In addition, coverage by both the PA and the antenna system for the wireless varies across the field. And with no crowd in place, finding effective settings is a major challenge.

“Having bodies in seats also changes the reverberation characteristics drastically, as I can't really plan ahead for how much this will help or hinder the gain before feedback,” Bowling said. “The rehearsal for the coin toss gives me the only opportunity to check out the tonality of the ref’s voice and tweak a few settings, but even with that, I still have the unknown of how his voice will naturally project during an actual call.”

As a result, Bowling was forced to make his final adjustments live.

“I had limited time to tune the ref mic and was very pleased with the result,” Bowling said. “The RND 5045 did an excellent job tightening up the ref’s voice by attenuating a great deal of that reverberant energy. I ended up with a mic that sounded very natural and had plenty of gain.

“I am always looking for a way to improve the clarity and squeeze just a bit more level out of the ref mic, and this unit did both.”

The true test for any new technology is its performance under live broadcast conditions, especially at a high-profile event like the Super Bowl. Both the Shure Axient wireless and Yamaha RND 5045 passed with flying colors in Indianapolis.

“We were definitely happy with the results, and will be using them in the future,” Bowling said.