You are not sitting on your couch. You are at the ballpark. That was a bat crack, a slide into second base, an outfielder crashing into the wall that you just heard. At least that's what the ESPN and Fox Sports mixers want you to think.
Flash back to the way Major League Baseball sounded 20 years ago. Back then, Brian Shannon, who now handles mixing for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, was working in a truck with a 16-input console and had plenty of empty channels left. “Now, I've got 60 inputs, and I'm trying to figure Fout where I'm going to put this, that and the other,” says Shannon. He's seen the evolution first hand. From the shotgun mics behind home plate to mics on cameras to static effects mics on the first base side of the infield to the setup he uses today, which includes 25 effects mics.
Jerry Steinberg, Fox Sports VP of technical operations, is still amazed by the innovations that have come around just since Fox started broadcasting baseball in 1996. “Listen, when we got the contract five years ago, if I had told people we were going to mic some coaches and managers, we were going to put mics in the bases and on the outfield walls, they would have called 911 and carted me off to Bellevue,” he says with a laugh.
Fox Sports mixer Peteris Saltans faces the challenge of corralling sound from 31 on-field microphones (and twice that number during the postseason) that are scattered around the outfield, infield bases, behind the plate and on foul poles. “We're trying to put the viewer closer,” says Saltans. “We've put microphones everywhere. We've even put up gimmick mics that cater to each stadium specifically. Like in Cleveland, they have this big drum out in left field, so you see it but you don't hear it. We put an RF mic out there to enhance the actual picture.” Fox Sports has also placed microphones on peanut vendors, ball boys, fans and celebrities.
The Fox broadcast philosophy is simple: If you can see it, then you want to hear it. “That's why we put so many microphones out there, to capture as much as we can,” explains Saltans. “Even-tually, something is going to hit near a microphone. Sometimes, the philosophy of less is more may not work in this application. You've got to go with the odds.”
ESPN, which has been broadcasting Major League Baseball for 12 years, is just as aggressive in finding new and innovative places to drop microphones. It was ESPN that convinced Major League Baseball it would be a nifty idea to put microphones in the bases. At the beginning of the season, the ESPN team receives three sets of bases, and Shannon modifies them with Sennheiser MKE-2 lavalier microphones and Sennheiser SK-250 miniature, tunable bodypack transmitters. The bases go with the ESPN crew wherever they travel. “Those provide us with some great replay action or even some live action if somebody is stealing second base and sliding in,” says Wendell Grigely, director of remote operations for ESPN. “It gives a little bit of an extra feel, and it's an added attraction.”
Tim Scanlan, ESPN's coordinating producer for remote baseball productions, thinks the base mics are a bonus for a simple reason. “People have [called] baseball a slow-moving game, but when you actually hear them turning second and going to third, it takes a very exciting game and lifts it,” he says.
The Fox Sports team also uses Sennheiser MKE-2 microphones and SK-250 transmitters in the bases. The MKE-2s also get work in the outfield, because the ESPN team places them in Crystal Partners Big Ear parabolic dishes and locates them in right, center and left-center fields. “Exactly where they go depends on what you have for a stadium,” Grigely points out. Most of the time, the parabolics are manned so the microphone can move with the action. The exception is the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston. “You can't put a guy on top of that with a parabolic,” Grigely admits with a laugh. “So, we will place a mic probably in two separate locations on the Green Monster. If a ball happens to hit off the scoreboard, it resonates a little bit out there, too.” Typically, he explains, mics are placed off the foul pole and on the center field side of the Green Monster.
Fox Baseball will run between 12 and 16 microphones throughout the outfield, ranging from Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphones to DPA 4061s with Crystal Partners Big Ear parabolic microphones to Crown Audio PCC160 plate microphones. “We'll probably put a shotgun on the foul pole,” explains Saltans. “We may even augment that with a contact microphone on the actual foul pole to get a real good gong if that ball hits the foul pole. It's pretty shattering.” Outfield mic placement is geared to suit each stadium, he adds. “Some stadiums may have better places to mount a PCC microphone vs. a parabolic, or there might be Plexiglas out in the outfield that we might put a PCC on there as well to capture a ball hitting into the glass or a player making a jump into the padding.”
Fox also puts two PCC160 microphones at the tarps in foul territory to capture game sounds. “A lot of times, a ball gets hit into a foul area, and you get fans who are reaching over for a ball and there's a player trying to catch a ball,” Saltans says. “The fans love it, and it gives the viewers the sensation of being there.”
In addition to the base microphones, both ESPN and Fox have manned parabolic microphones at first base and third base. The goal there is to catch pick-off throws, foul-territory plays and even shallow outfield action. Each of the sound teams recently put microphones in the bullpens in order to pick up the catcher and pitcher mitt pops.
The microphones scattered around the infield and outfield are crucial for capturing game sounds, but home plate is the main attraction. “I like hearing the crack of the bat and mitt sounds, and any reaction going on around home plate,” says Saltans. ESPN's Shannon agrees. “I like a good, solid bat crack,” he says. “That's a good basis to tell where the ball is going to go, how hard he hit the ball. It's a great start to a sequence of events, if you get an idea of how hard that ball was smacked or you can hear the difference between a hit and a broken bat. There's subtle differences to everything.”
ESPN's approach is similar to Fox Sports': two parabolics behind the plate set at 45∞ angles to left and right, and a third parabolic set up straight behind the umpire. ESPN again turns to the MKE-2s, though they are wired. Fox uses DPA 4061s with Crystal Partners Big Ear parabs. “I can capture all the bat sounds and the throw backs to the pitcher with a center parab right behind home plate, and the other two parabs are somewhere left and right of home plate, depending on stadium and placement,” Saltans says.
Shannon also uses a stereo Crown SASS-P for general crowd sounds. Saltans uses the PCC160 and a Sennheiser 416.
Where do all these mic inputs go? The chief mixers' job is made easier by a sub-mix engineer, typically situated next to the broadcast booth. Alex Gavula, who handles the submix responsibilities at ESPN, takes care of the field effects with a Yamaha 01V digital 16-input board. More than anything, Gavula works as Shannon's on-field eyes. “He's as big a part of this as I am,” Shannon says. “We keep an open channel between us, so we're talking back and forth between the entire game. He'll spot for me; because he's got that position upstairs, he can really see where the ball is going, so he can get to those particular microphones.”
Gavula sends two mix components, one from the outfield and one from the infield, to the truck where Shannon is stationed. “I treat those pretty much as two inputs, so I'll open them when I need them or I'll keep them cracked when I need them,” Shannon explains. “He handles the mix on them.” It's a team project for sure. “Absolutely,” Shannon says. “There's four of us on the crew, including the two audio assistants who do all the work on the field. It's really a group effort. When I started out in 1980, it was just me — boy, do I appreciate the help now!”
Saltans relies on Joe Carpenter, who uses a Mackie 1604 VLZ for submixing the outfield and infield microphones. Much like Gavula, Carpenter serves as Saltans' eyes in the stadium. “If the director takes the picture of the ball going into the foul area, and if he's ready with one of those tarp mics, he's right on it. Or if there's a fly ball in the outfield, he's able to see the trajectory of the ball going to a certain point of the outfield,” Saltans says. “If he has a microphone in that area, he will be ready to open that up or supplement another microphone in that area to capture the sound of that player catching the ball or running into the padding.” In addition to Carpenter, Saltans' crew includes technical producer Dave Hill and three audio assistants.
As for his own board, Saltans uses a SSL 8000 Series GB. The board's recall feature comes in handy when they return to a park, because much time is spent programming the board during the first broadcast. “A lot of time is saved when you come back to that particular venue and your whole console set up is stored and ready to go,” says Saltans. “I still have all my EQ settings; all my aux feeds are left intact from the previous show. From that aspect, it's been great, and the sound quality has been amazing. The flexibility of having a digital console is amazing.”
Shannon relies on a Calrec Q2 analog console, though he's curious about the new digital boards on the market. “It's like a guy buying a car and picking between Ford and Chrysler,” he explains. “They're both great pieces of equipment, it just happens what you're most comfortable with. I've mixed on both of them. I'm happiest with what I have now.”
Thanks to his experience in just about every Major League ballpark and his habit of watching broadcasts from around the League, Shannon has a good idea of how his show should sound. As for specific EQ settings, he'll sit down during batting practice and twist knobs until he finds what he likes. “I tend to try to accentuate some of the high end,” he reports. “A lot of times in humid air, especially during the summer, you can get the actual sound of the ball coming through the air. I'm not sure it translates across the satellite into your home, but I can sure hear it in the truck at times. It's almost the right combination of moon, sun, stars, tides. If the guy is throwing heat, a good 97-mile-an-hour fastball, you'll start hearing it.”
Saltans uses EQ sparingly to eliminate some crowd and wind noise. “Sometimes you want to boost some things on-the-fly, because when you're doing something live, you don't have the option of moving the microphone to the right place,” he says.
Fox has been broadcasting in surround since the first season of Fox Sports broadcasting the NFL in 1994. ESPN has remained in stereo. “I think the fans demand [surround] now with the amount of home theater systems that are sold throughout the country,” Saltans says. “Why not deliver that with television?”
The ESPN crew isn't so sure, though they've been discussing the surround possibility. “I think it's been talked about with the whole digital convergence and whether or not we're at a point where we should do surround,” Grigely says. “So it has been talked about, but we haven't gotten into it. What we've found is that in nine times out of 10, people at home were probably listening to the stuff in mono. Our stereo setup is a good one.”
Not all of the networks' sonic advances have worked out great, however. For example, none of those involved is completely sold on the idea of putting microphones on managers or coaches. “The goal there is to bring strategy and insight to the telecast, and I think there's a reticence by a lot of the managers to wear that or [if they do] to say anything meaningful,” says ESPN's Scanlan. “Sometimes, you have a coach wearing a microphone and you're just not getting much enhancement — they're just not saying anything that's worth putting on the air.”
Yet that isn't stopping both ESPN and Fox on pushing for umpire microphones and even players wearing microphones during a game. “Placing mics on the players would be amazing,” says Saltans. “That way, you could bring the sound and the intimacy of the game right there.”
Currently, players are wearing lav mics during batting practice, and Scanlan thinks that brings an interesting angle to the broadcast. “It brings some of what happens around the game to life, and [you can] hear the communication and camaraderie before a game,” he says. “The next step is in-game. We have managers and coaches miked during the game. We feel like that is only going to go forward.” He thinks that miking players may begin within five years.
Grigely admits that not a lot of people are ready for the umpire mics, but he is optimistic. “I wouldn't say never, but right now there are some issues the umpires have, and rightfully so,” he says. “In other sports, there have been issues, too. In the NHL, we gave them on/off switches. One step at a time.”
David John Farinella is a San Francisco Bay Area-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Mix.