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ESPN is combining technique and technology to put fans on the ice

The NHL Stanley Cup series is under way, and viewers are hearing the action in a way they haven’t heard it before.

“We’re trying to be aggressive with capturing sound in each area as it happens now, vs. a wide-area collection approach,” explains Dan “Buddha” Bernstein, A1 for ESPN/ABC’s Stanley Cup broadcasts. “[The latter] has been the approach in the past: to get a big static sound picture around the ice and just let the action happen on it in front of the microphones. It felt like you’re up in the stands somewhere. Now we’re looking to put you down on the ice.”

That takes a combination of technique and technology, he says: the former is a dynamic mix, bringing up mic channels as the action moves closer to each one.

A1 Dan “Buddha” Bernstein: “My goal has not been to put someone in a seat in the stands; it has been to put people in the game.”

“That’s just about being very active on the faders and closely following the action,” he says, on the Calrec Apollo consoles aboard Game Creek Spirit mobile unit in Tampa Bay and NEP EN2 in Denver. Helping manage all that additional action is effects submixer Ben Majchrzak, who was added for the Finals and Cup series.

“We’ve continued our season-long efforts at expanding the sound around the crease,” Bernstein says. “We’re still doing the three microphones in each net, a little LCR array, but getting more aggressive with them. For instance, the microphones that we put in and around the goals — particularly the NHL overhead and the mics and the cameras in the net — are recorded independently of the effects mix with the camera. When we play them back, you feel the energy happening in that spot in a way that I don’t think has been effectively captured before.

“We’re also getting a lot more aggressive with miking all of our robotic cameras around the ice to pick up even more direct local sound,” he continues. “That has been particularly great at the mid-ice positions and the positions right behind each net, where they’re really close and right on top of the action. It just brings out all the nuance. There’s so much detail in this mix. It certainly puts people in the game. My goal as a mixer on this sport from the very beginning has not been to put someone in a seat in the stands; it has been to put people in the game.”

When it comes to microphones — ESPN is deploying more than 50 per game — the traditional Crown PCC160 boundary-layer mics are on the glass around the rink to pick up the hits. That tends to leave the interior of the rink less covered, but, this year, Bernstein is relying on Sennheiser 416 shotguns mounted on the robocams, which helps build a center image for the sound.

“The other thing that we’re trying to do this year is that we’ve gotten more aggressive with our crowd miking,” he says. “Anywhere from eight to 10 crowd mics per event, depending on the building and where there’s an opportunity — in Carolina, there were overhead positions we had access to that gave us some great sound positions — are configured as a front and rear array, low and high. We’ll also listen for opportunities where we’ll ask our announcers to lay out and just let people feel like they’re in the building, part of the experience.”

The wireless microphones offer perhaps the best opportunities for close-up audio. Each night, the intent is to mike up four players and both coaches for deeper, all-access–level audio. CP Communications handled the RF during the regular season, but the NHL has taken on that task for the postseason, managing distribution of that audio to the various rightsholders, as it did for the Winter Classic game in January.

Effects submixer Ben Majchrzak was added to the ESPN audio team for the NHL Finals and Stanley Cup series.

The player and coach audio remains available only for replay use. However, ESPN has constructed its own infrastructure for managing and searching it.

“We’re building multiple router points that have all of those mics available on various channels that the EVS folks can hunt and grab the best sound from any particular moment,” Bernstein explains. “And the camera operators who are doing isos on particular players have a secondary program input from the truck, which is being subrouted by the EVS operators and the producer’s tape. Whenever [the camera operators are] told to iso somebody, we change the iso feed going to their program source so that they can follow the action or maybe even report back if they hear something that’s awesome. It’s very much a collaborative effort between me and the submix and the replay department.”

Several Waves plugins, which are running on a separate server connected to the console via a MADI link, have been added to the processing. The noise-reduction plugin, Bernstein says, has been especially helpful.

“It let us dig out a little bit more from some of the spots that are getting blown out by the crowd sound,” he explains. “It helps us enhance the dynamics of certain microphones. There’s so much sound in Stanley Cup games. Getting it all and getting it across are the challenges.”

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