More microphones for more sources overwhelm sneaker squeaks
The best-of-2022 WNBA Finals that began Monday (ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ESPN.com) at Las Vegas’s Michelob ULTRA Arena will cap the first full season in which all WNBA games were broadcast in 5.1 surround.
It’s also one in which the WNBA achieved technological and strategic parity with the NBA and other major leagues for its sound in other ways, too. The WNBA Finals pits the Las Vegas Aces versus the Connecticut Sun, who will host Games 3 and 4 at their Mohegan Sun Arena, Like their male counterpart, the finals will feature at least one player from each team fitted with a wireless Q5X PlayerMic RF transmitter, along with head coaches and game referees, wearing Q5X CoachMics and RefMics, respectively, a process it began earlier this season. (The WNBA’s marketing term for this array of wireless audio is, ironically, “WNBA Wired.”)
“That kind of parity had been a goal for us,” says Michael Sullivan, remote operations specialist, ESPN. “To have the production reach a level of other major championships throughout was important for us. We’ve worked this entire year so that we can showcase the league at the highest level, bulking up the technical resources of the WNBA Finals this year, from both a video and an audio perspective. It’s especially important for us to achieve that at a time when our [viewership] is up 50%-60% in some rounds. The fans are coming, and audio is an important part of that.”
It’s Loud Inside
Another aspect that the WNBA Finals seem to have in common with the NBA is sheer volume. Sunday night’s game had an ambient noise level in excess of 90 dB and reached as high as 105 dB at certain points. In fact, the combination of crowd noise and music in the arena completely overwhelmed televised basketball’s most fundamental sonic element: sneaker squeaks.
ESPN A1, NHL productions, Dan “Buddha” Bernstein was brought on as lead A1 for the WNBA Finals, abetted by Mark Skipper managing Riedel comms and Steve Simone on RF management. According to Bernstein, the WNBA Finals also have a slew of SFX capture, including eight Sennheiser 416 shotguns around the court and Sony ECM-77’s on the nets and the far table. Sennheiser 418 short stereo mics (configured as M/S) are mounted on all handheld cams (three wired, two wireless). Crowd sound is picked up by a pair each of Shure SM81’s and Audio-Technica AT-5100 condenser microphones, providing most of the 5.1 rear-channel content.
“Dan brings that NHL and NBA mentality about the sound to the show,” says Sullivan. “Also, from an announcer perspective, we have an additional reporter, Holly Rowe, and Andrea Carter will act as a sideline analyst. So we’ve got additional talking heads and reporters around the court in addition to an enhanced mix on the overall court.”
He adds that the expanded “Wired” infrastructure for player, coach, and officials audio was built in cooperation with the NBA — the league for which Q5X originally developed the PlayerMic — and leads out to the broadcast compounds, with Game Creek Video’s Riverhawk serving as the hub for the Las Vegas matches and Justice for the Connecticut games.
“To enhance the audio this year, we’ve added more microphones to [‘Wired’],” he says. “In past years, we weren’t miking as many sources. Now it’s a much larger kind of wired setup just to make sure that we are bringing the emotion to the viewers at home throughout the game.”
Seamless Production Integration
In terms of production, ESPN is integrating the onsite audio seamlessly between the trucks and ESPN’s Bristol, CT, facility. Cameras and microphones are encoded in Las Vegas for the first two games through the same Game Creek truck and sent to Bristol, where the studio show is produced.
“All the studio microphones, all the studio IFBs will have complete integration,” Sullivan explains, “so that we can throw from studio talent to game talent and have conversations throughout the show to engage the analysts’ and announcers’ expertise throughout the game. Even though there’ll be two completely different shows — a game broadcast and a studio broadcast — it’s one centralized compound and one kind of centralized audio infrastructure.”
He cites other enhancements for the WNBA Finals production: deployment of many as 25 cameras, including two roaming RF cams and what he calls a “significant” Fletcher component with remote POV cameras near the basket rims and the scorers table. In addition, ESPN is testing a handheld MōVI camera that can mimic a RailCam-type look, using a camera/lens combination that occupies a smaller footprint than a typical RailCam and is installed along the court’s edge. These visual elements, he says, will combine with audio to create the overall experience.
“I think it’s about how we enhance the audio that we have and how we present that audio in a creative way so that video and audio come together to create a unified experience,” Sullivan says. “We’re trying to build out an entire infrastructure where it gives us production creativity, where we put announcers, how they’re contributing to the broadcast, and then how that game and how that broadcast sounds at home. It’s all one presentation.”