Audio Capture for Sports Broadcast

MILWAUKEE -- When baseball cranks up again, Erik West will be handling sound on the Brewers’ games and that means bringing the TV audience the crack of the bat, the slap of the catcher’s mitt, and the roar of the crowd. Sound & Video Contractor’s Bennett Liles spoke with West recently.

S&VC: Erik, thanks for being with us on the SVC Podcast from Milwaukee, where you’re doing freelance TV sound on baseball games. This is an area we haven’t gone into much and it’s a fascinating subject. There’s a lot to doing sports audio for TV. I used to do that myself way back in the prehistoric days and I was curious about what types of sports remotes you like to do.

West: I take anything and everything that I can get a chance to do, and that’s a cool thing about this business. I get to do a lot of variety stuff like baseball, basketball, football, occasionally soccer, occasionally volleyball, sometimes Olympic sports like gymnastics, wrestling, track and field. I’m in Milwaukee, Wis., so being so close to a Big 10 school in Madison, I get to mix different things. But I also mix non-sports broadcasts as well. I just finished up working with the BBC and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a broadcast. However, there I was just a recording engineer and handled routing, timecode and communications, which is one of our jobs as you know, and sports TV business is handling all communications well as doing audio.

S&VC: So how long have you been doing TV sound? When did you get into this?

West:[For] about 10 years; my first broadcast gig was a basketball game, and I really had no idea what I was doing. I had some experience in video directing at a job. I went to film school, but I was way in over my head in my first mixing gig and then I stepped back and got a chance to A2 for a while and then I A2’d baseball and then I got my first chance to mix baseball when there weren’t any mixers in the market and then they’re like, “You’re it.” So it’s been about nine years for baseball, 10 years total.

S&VC: Well, that will give you an appreciation for who’s working for you out there on the field and doing all the manual labor if you’ve been there and done it yourself.

West: Absolutely. Most mixers start as A2s and then work their way up. I think that’s an important step, so you know where the A2s are at and that way you can take cues from your A2s when they’re not able to do something or a challenging cable run or something you can reconsider.

S&VC: Yeah, and that’s what’s really interesting about sports coverage is that every sport sort of has its own personality. What’s the most challenging aspect you see in doing TV sound for baseball?

West: I say the most challenging aspect of mixing any sport is really the changing trucks. Trucks that I haven’t seen before, different consoles, different patch bay layouts, different router set ups. That’s the most challenging part. You can look at an empty patch field and there are over 2,500 patch points. That’s all at the moment you need to find one or two for a stereo, and that can be a bit much.
As far as mixing sound, I would say that getting my stereo crowd to sound the way I like it can be the most challenging, and now I am talking about on the road because at Miller Park, I’ve got everything the way I like it. I work with the team to get my mics where I need them and that’s a big help.
When I’m at a ballpark I don’t regularly work at, when I position my crowd mics, it can be a challenge and I have to rely on A2s and a lot of times they’re use to mixers who have no problem with booth crowd mics. That’s actually one of my pet peeves and that’s one of my, I go to that last—this putting a pair of shotguns out of the booth, which seems like it’s a standard for a lot of people, but it drives me nuts. I can’t stand the sound of a booth crowd.
Often times there’s a PA speaker hanging near the booth or at least the PA’s imaging heavy to one side or you hear slap back off the wall either from inside the booth or just above it or just below it. A lot of times I don’t get out into the venue a ton because I’m pretty busy setting my show and it’s not until like game time that I notice with the booth crowds how bad they can be, which is actually why I use two stereo sources for my crowd especially if I have to go with a booth crowd. I like to layer two different stereo sources.

S&VC: Some of these stadiums are sort of fiendishly laid out. It’s like they wanted to have the latest and greatest of everything and then they thought, “Oh yeah, we’re going to be doing TV out of here, too.” Have you worked any particularly difficult stadiums for TV remotes, say, long distance mic line runs or hard-to-get-to press boxes?

West:Yeah, nothing really stands out. I mean when I do Big Ten soccer in Madison, the venue is not cabled at all, so it’s long DT runs and long single XLR runs to try to get to your goals and to any kind of far side effects. Depends on where they have the teams set up.
In the past, they’ve had the teams on the far side, so over there I need a TOC headset plus an official stats headset, interview headset over there and then if I wanted to have some sort of snoops for the coaches or for each team, I’d have to do all that. Usually I end up cutting that out because of the long cable runs, so you have to sort of adapt to where you’re at and do the best with what you can with what you’ve got.

S&VC: And when you’re doing home games you have an obvious advantage. How long it normally take after you get to the stadium to get things set up and ready to go? What do you do first?

West:The first thing I do is I take all my DT fan outs and I patch the inhouse I/O panel so that’s all cabled out to all the different spots in the park. We pre-cable Miller Park at the beginning of the season, so I run a lot of effects mics for baseball. I have mics all out in the outfield in the gaps along with bull pins, [so] if someone jumps up and catches something off the wall or the ball hits off the wall, I like to hear that.
There’s a big plexi-glass or a scoreboard that’s covered with plexi-glass I have a mic on that so if somebody jumps up to stop a big homerun bang you hear that crash, so I’ve got all that. So it’s nice having all that pre-cabled. So the first that thing I do is I basically take all my fan outs and patch the wall.
Meanwhile my A2s are running the DTs from the truck to my fan outs and then I head into the truck and start patching. Frankly, when it’s a home show and I’m on my normal home truck, it’s actually pretty easy because I just recall my show and I have several different versions of my show based on temperature and how crazy I want to get with that, but it only takes me about an hour to throw all my patches and double check everything myself and then I eventually talk to the tape room and we check all of the routing and that’s called “faxing.”
That was a tough term to understand when I transitioned from rock n roll is checking like what we would call in rock n roll a line check is called faxing. I’m like what is this fax stuff, so you fax and then by then the A2s have got stuff cabled, everything pinned up, and so we fax the booth, fax the set, fax all of our talking mic drops, and then I listen to all my field effects that the A2s put out and make sure that I don’t have any noise or any buzz or anything like that on any of my lines and that’s usually before preproduction.

S&VC: I notice you’re using some Shure mics to get effects. What do you see as the most important thing in getting crowd sounds and game sounds and picking up things like the umpire calling balls and strikes? Do the umps ever object and say you’re getting too close or picking up too much of that?

West:No, and you know when I mix a network fox we actually mic the umpire and we’re not supposed to use that in the actual live to air mix. We ISO that and then it goes to a tape machine so we can record that for sounds of the game, but every once in a while, if there’s been some sort of, say, clutch pitching situation and the batter strikes out, I’ll look and I’ll grab like that ump mic and so we can hear the hoop-haa of the umpire calling that strike.
That’s sort of cool, but you’ve got to be really careful because yes, they wouldn’t like hearing too much, but interestingly enough, the only thing you’re really hearing with my Miller Park set up, without a network fox situation, you hear them if they holler out their strikes. Other than that you don’t hear a ton.

S&VC: What do you like to do on say EQ-ing for the crack of bats and the smack of catcher’s mitts and stuff like that?

West: I EQ my back cracks like a kick drum, sort of my old rock n roll roots, not exactly the same frequencies. But I pull out a bunch of mid range probably 600-800Hz about 6dBu with a medium Q and then I boost a little low end and depending on the weather, that will go from 100Hz to 200Hz or somewhere in between with a tighter Q, a more narrow Q, about 2 or 3dB.
And then, depending on the weather, once again I boost a little AK, 6-8 K, 0-3dB depending on the weather and the mic really and that’s one of the things I love about the VB-89L shotguns that I just started using last season. You don’t really have to do much with the high end because it’s all there. It’s just very crisp and I love those mics.

S&VC: Yeah, I was going to ask you about those and you’ve apparently got an advantage in using the Shure VP-88 for crowd sounds? Where do you put those?

West: If you look at a ballpark, normally there’s the net that follows the backboard or right around home plate, so my VP-89s, my shotguns are up about 12ft. in the air just behind the net. Basically I use conduit that has a yoke back bend that bends back sort of over the crowd just a little bit and then up.
So I have enough I can get the long shotgun in behind the net so that protects the mic from the ball on a foul ball or something like that. And those are on either side of that net actually on the aircraft cable that holds that net up.
So those are my first base and third base bat crack mics and then on most parks, and specifically at Miller Park, there’s a robo camera positioned right behind home plate about 15ft. in the air and my VP-88 is mounted just underneath that, behind the net as well.There’s a hole in the net for the cabling to come through for the robo cams, so I took off that and actually brought my mic through the net so it’s on the crowd side and I point it up at about a 10-degree angle to avoid too much single voices.
Although that doesn’t make a huge difference with a great stereo mic like that, but that height is perfect because you hear a murmur. If you’re really paying attention you might be able to pick up conversations but not really. It’s just high to not hear that and now this is a full ballpark and at Miller Park we have the benefit of selling out a lot, so it’s always sort of a playoff atmosphere there. So when it’s dead, sometimes I boost up so that it still sounds like there’s crowd there.
You can hear a little bit more, but ideally, when it’s a nice full house, you don’t hear any individual voices except for say vendors which I love, like a vendor off on my image to camera left from the camera four position calling out beer here and you can hear that on the left side and maybe another vendor on the right side. So that’s pretty cool.

S&VC: Yeah, sometimes you can pick up the vendors in the stands so well you almost have to pay them scale for being on the show, but it’s been interesting hearing how you do game sounds and crowd sounds. In part two we’ll get into the PA system interaction and how you set up the guys in the announcer booth. I appreciate it Erik. Erik West, freelance sound engineer for TV sports. Thanks for telling us about it.