If anyone out there is following my twitter account (@tracktimeaudio) then you’ve probably noticed that I have most of the Formula 1 drivers in my following list. I also have as many SPEED F1 folks as I could come across. Oddly enough, I found Justin Kircher’s page through Will Buxton’s. If you watch F1 on SPEED you know doubt know who Will is; for those who don’t, Will is the reporter on site at every race, interviewing with the crews and doing specials on race developments. Anyway, I decided to ask Justin if he’d be willing to do an interview not expecting an answer at all. Much to my surprise, 10 minutes later I was hashing out questions!
jK: Thanks for interviewing me for your blog. As a confession up front, I’m not a gearhead nor tech savvy. But don’t worry, as I’ve recruited our main audio engineer Bill Pickup to help out with some of your specific questions. We’ll also be hearing from none other than “Statman” Sean Kelly who provides our great statistical information and factoids throughout the weekend.
TTA: So, down to business. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of automotive sporting, at least in most of the world’s eyes. Do you find this adds pressure to make the broadcast as perfect as possible?
jK: Absolutely! Formula One as a whole demands the best out of everybody no matter if they are a driver or a press officer or in our TV terms an announcer or a production assistant. For us to be the home of F1 coverage for the States is a big honor, but we continue to perform as if our broadcasting rights could go away at any moment by continuing to try and prove that we will present it in the best way possible with the respect and honor the sport deserves. I think Statman can add to this question as well…
Stat: You should always feel pressure in Formula 1, for the reasons you mentioned in the question. Anyone who doesn’t feel that pressure really shouldn’t be in the sport. I’ve always said that F1 should have the best people for every job, be you a driver or a road sweeper. If mediocrity is tolerated, then it isn’t F1 anymore – that especially applies in my job, as there are millions of very knowledgeable fans out there who will correct you at a moment’s notice, or worse still, point out things you haven’t considered if you don’t do your research properly. I know this is true because I used to be that guy!
TTA: From what I understand, most of the camera shots (and I assume the corresponding audio) is controlled by the FIA. Occasionally, the commentators will say that they have no control over the pictures/replays. Could you explain a little about the procedure for receiving the signal from the FIA, and then adding SPEED’s info over top of it?
jK: This is true. Anything you see from the circuit while we’re live is courtesy of Formula One Management (FOM). They provide a world feed to all contracted TV stations except for the Monaco and Japan race weekends which are produced by local TV crews. It’s usually during those weekends when we become most frustrated as those directors have different styles to what we’re accustomed to and may also miss some crucial action. For example, when we want to see Fernando Alonso on track during Monaco qualifying and instead we get footage of the Ferrari team looking at their garage monitors also hoping to see their man on track, that’s when our announcers will provide a friendly reminder that SPEED doesn’t control what you’re seeing and/or it’s not the normal FOM crew working the cameras.
In any case, we use a fiber line that connects SPEED’s headquarters in Charlotte, NC to Washington, D.C. where they take a fiber feed from Geneva, Switzerland. This is a change from our procedure of a few years ago when we would take in a satellite feed. (Thanks to Kevin Walter in our operations department for helping me fill in the blanks for that question!) This feed is the input for the studio and basically we add our announcers’ voices, Will Buxton who is reporting on site and our graphics along with any elements like the show opens, features or replays we’d like to show again. That becomes our studio output and that’s what you see at home.
TTA: How do you combat latency with Will being on location but the other announcers remaining here in the states?
jK: I can already feel like I’m on shaky ground with this question, so I’m going to let our audio engineer Bill Pickup take it from here…
Bill: Other than doing the gridwalk during the preshow race (when he’s on-camera), Will’s two way communication is via an ISDN line through our Telos Zephyr. With this config there is no more latency than you would have during a normal phone conversation.
When he is on-camera for the gridwalk, we still communicate with him via the ISDN line, but we take his mic from the satellite path attached to the video. As you can expect, there is a delay associated with this and our producer/director usually times the delay in our rehearsal and then is able to jump the cue to Will to make it tight, thus avoiding the awkward silence often seen in satellite videos.
TTA: Speaking of Will, his interviews are often in or near the pits, a very loud place indeed. Do you apply any processing to keep Will’s speaking heard while reducing the ambient sound, or is it all down to microphone selection/placement?
Bill: There’s little we can do to isolate Will from the noisy environment he is in, other than moving him to a different location, away from pit lane. The amount of noise into his mic is in direct relation to how aggressive he’s being to get near the action – which provides better analysis. So, noise into his mic is an inevitable part of him doing his job correctly. Other than standard compression to maintain broadcast levels, we don’t use any processing on the mic or noise cancellation devices such as an Izotope. When we toss to Will, I will often back off the world feed nats [natural or ambient sounds] to lessen the competition in the mix, allowing his voice to cut through.
In regard to announcers competing with nats, I employ music mixing techniques with eq synonymous to a mix where a female singer is in the same frequency range with an electric guitar. You have to carve holes in the soundfield to allow everything to exist with clarity.
TTA: On that same line of thought, Will often does little “side-films” that are shown during the pre show. Are these written and produced by himself, or do you employ a writer?
jK: Will and our producer Dan Shutte will have a conference call early in the week to discuss the logistics and the storylines for the upcoming race weekend. A majority of our features involve Will gathering interviews on a Thursday or Friday of a race weekend and then doing an on-camera intro and end to the piece based on something just in his head or that he’s previously written. If Will provides a voice over for a feature, then the script becomes a collaborative effort between him and Dan Shutte, or our senior associate producer Jason Goldenberg, or me. It just depends on who is working on that project.
Will is the only SPEED person in the paddock (except in rare instances). FOM provides us with a camera and a cameraman during the Thursday media day at the circuit and for post-practice, qualifying and race interview opportunities. Therefore, Will is producing his own pieces with help from whichever cameraman we have that weekend.
TTA: With F1 coming to Austin next year, are there any plans to do on-site broadcasting? Does SPEED plan to do any special or unique coverage for the event?
jK: Well, I can only speak to my experience during the 2007 United States Grand Prix weekend at Indianapolis, IN. As many of us American fans know, this was the last grand prix held in the US. This was also my first F1 race in-person. For a while I thought it would be my last, but the crew and I get to look forward to next year in Austin, TX. It will be great to get the full race weekend experience again.
I don’t know exactly what’s in the playbook for our coverage next year, but in 2007 SPEED covered every F1 session live including Practice Sessions 1 & 3 which are currently only available as streaming feeds on our website. Because we were at the track, Steve Matchett was able to do some great technical features with some teams and we also had some fun features including David Hobbs vs. Steve Matchett in karting (if you feel confident in your YouTube searching skills, I recommend you look for it).
With a big help from Bridgestone (lone tire supplier at the time), we were able to do a stage show on Thursday of the race week where our announcers interviewed every team’s driver pairing. That was one of the best broadcasts I’ve ever been associated with. Not only because we were perhaps the only country to have a show with that many drivers on as guests, but we had a ton of enthusiastic fans that we were able to interact with and they were able to ask the drivers questions.
Again, I don’t know about specifics for next year but I would imagine live coverage of every session will occur and we’ll see if we can top the amount of coverage of a few seasons ago.
TTA: How many SPEED employees end up going on-site for an event? How large of a crew is dedicated to the studio? Of those, how many work in audio?
jK: As I said before, Will is our only employee on site. Besides his work for us, he is the world feed commentator for the GP2 and GP3 Series. Our crew only travels to US races, so next year we should get to travel to the circuit for the Austin race weekend. If not, I think I’m *cough* starting to feel ill already and I may be “mysteriously” sick that weekend!
We have a relatively small crew of 15 – 20 people (and I’m including catering!). Our three announcers are joined in the studio by the stage manager, while Bill is in the audio booth next to our control room of around 10 people and our file play out room has an EVS operator (think sophisticated TiVo replay machine) and our video file operator plus there’s our technical engineer who has to be ready to help out any one of us with any problem. This number does go up on Fridays when we record our Formula One Debrief studio show. Then you need to factor in three cameramen, a lighting technician and a make-up artist.
As for our production team, there are only three of us. Our producer Dan Shutte, senior associate producer Jason Goldenberg, and I. We are responsible for the elements that you see on our broadcasts.
TTA: The sound of F1 via broadcast is often heard either from the little on-board mics, or from the mics on the side of the track that I assume are very near the camera locations. How accurate is the broadcasted sound compared to the real thing? Does SPEED have any control over the sound, or is it locked in by the FIA?
jK: I’ll have Bill answer this more thoroughly, but I can tell you that much like the video we receive from site that we have no control over it. Television rarely captures exactly what it’s like to be at a live event. So the sound will not match what you’re able to experience at the track. I think that goes the same for the video too. Only when you walk by the spare front wings laid outside of the McLaren garage can you really see how shiny that chrome livery is and how bright a hue of red the Vodafone sections really are.
As for the noise, I’ve been to an Indy 500 (2006 – yeah, the one where Sam Hornish beat Marco Andretti), a number of NASCAR races and a few NHRA events. Only the Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars can really leave more of an impression on you than the noise of a Formula One car driven in anger. NHRA machines will shake some of your organs around and I recommend everyone go to an event at least once because it might be the best fan experience in auto racing (every ticket is a garage pass too). F1 cars just have great pitch to them and when you throw in the number of gear shifts you hear and the high rev sections where the engine sounds like it’s trying to tear itself apart; it’s just the best noise in motorsports. I’ve only experienced this for about 5 minutes once when our Coordinating Producer Frank Wilson let me sneak out of the truck during one of the practice sessions at Indianapolis.
So if you scoff at Bernie Ecclestone being concerned about what the new F1 engines will sound like in a few years, there’s good reason for that. The noise is a great part of the show. If you’ve ever watched the GP3 Series, the cars are so muffled that it sounds as if the track mics are faded all the way down. Engine noise is a big part of the appeal, but I think it can only truly be appreciated if it’s not there or severely altered. It’s good that Mr. E is looking into this matter now before it’s too late!
Bill: I have never been to an F1 race, so I have no comparison to the live event. However, if I dare use NASCAR as a comparison, nothing on the broadcast will ever compare to the sound and experience of actually being on-site.
The only changes we can make to the inbound audio are the individual levels for the 5.1 mix. I have a four-fader surround spill (LR, C, LFE, LsRs) on my Calrec Omega console and I can control the surround mix. We take what they give us and hope it’s correct. I do notice a difference from practice to race day and for the GP2 series. Clearly there are different on-site audio operators throughout the weekend.
TTA: Could you please roughly outline what sort of audio inputs you receive for the broadcast? (I assume you are receiving a stereo and surround mix, plus event radio transmission over a separate channel, plus announcer channels?)
Bill: I am sure a stereo mix is available, however we take the surround feed from them. We route nothing into channel 3, the center. This is where we obviously add our announcers. Outside of our building, a stereo down-mix of SPEED’s 5.1 mix is created for those not listening in 5.1. We have no control over this down-mix and it is based on a percentage algorithm merging all 6 channels to 2.
As far as the radio transmissions, they come to us on channels 1, 2, and 3. Being that we don’t know when they’re happening and we only have a few seconds’ notice when the graphic pops up on the screen before we hear the audio, it goes to air on all 3 channels. In those few seconds, our announcers either see the graphic or are told in their IFB to layout; FOM fades the nats and the radio transmission is all you hear. When the graphic appears I send the world feed audio to Will’s IFB on the fly; if it were sending all the time, he would be overwhelmed with nats in his IFB. By doing this he can hear the radio transmission in order to comment on the subject matter.
How we handle the radio transmissions works fine in all cases except when we might be headed to break when we are adding our own graphics and music and the radio graphic appears. In this case we dip all world feed nats until the radio is clear.
TTA: What’s your favorite sounding car? (doesn’t have to be F1)
Stat: The 1991 Mclaren-Honda V12. I wasn’t a Senna fan, but that car was big, angry, sexy, scary looking, and it had the sound to match it. Exponentially better than the V10 that preceded it. Formula 1 cars need to make a menacing noise….it should give the impression that the driver is metaphorically taming a lion rather than stroking a cat.
jK: Again, I don’t know much about the inner workings of cars, but my specific noise would be from Ayrton Senna’s 1990 on-board lap at Monaco. That did feature the Honda V10 and I will trust Sean that the V12 is the better sounding engine but that on-board just gives me goose bumps. Not only watching Senna work his magic in those tight quarters while shifting and driving with one hand (oh yeah, I am a Senna fan if you couldn’t tell), but the whaling from that engine reverberating off the Armco barriers and the tunnel is just fantastic.
In a more generic sense, my other favorite sound is from the low angle camera at the entrance to Eau Rouge in Spa, Belgium. They pick the car up in frame on the straight then it screams past and as the car travels tails away, you watch it climb the elevation of that famous corner. That may be my favorite shot in F1.
TTA: What’s your least-favorite sounding car?
Stat: Any Buick ever made, road or race – including the ones that raced in the Indy 500!
jK: I’m going to say when the car isn’t running! Specifically, Lewis Hamilton’s beaching in the pit road gravel during the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix. As a Hamilton fan hearing the tires and floor crunching the gravel to the desperate blips of the throttle to break free, then the inevitable sound of the engine powered off and finally only the radio feedback audible as he hopped out of the car is a painful memory indeed.
TTA: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you during a broadcast?
jK: It’s tough to remember specifics because normally every show we’ll have something very funny happen in the control room. We are serious and tuned into the action but we do laugh a lot even while we’re on the air. A majority of the jokes are very inside or just funny observations, so I won’t try to explain those. Luckily I can do a fair impression of our three announcers and some of the paddock personalities, so if I’m making a wise comment I have that in my bag. Outside of the control room, the real Hobbs and Matchett do a fine job cracking us up.
Stat: A lot of funny things have happened down the years, many have come from the mouth of David Hobbs while at SPEED. I recall Friday practice for the 2005 Belgian GP in torrential rain. I was doing that race for Finnish television, and after 40 minutes of no cars on track (and no commercial breaks to save them), eventually commentators Timo Pulkkinen and Erkki Mustakari said, “Right folks, that’s about as much as we can say for now, we’re going outside for a cigarette break, we’ll be back in 5,” and promptly got off and left, in the middle of a live show!
TTA: What’s the scariest thing that’s happened to you during a broadcast?
jK: Well, of course anytime you screw something up that goes to air it’s scary while it’s taking place and regrettable afterwards. I’ve made mistakes before and will continue to because it’s impossible to get everything right despite being in the robot-like atmosphere of F1. I’ll keep trying to make sure that my last mistake really is my last mistake. But all that really goes into perspective when we watch these drivers strap in those cars and risk more than just failure. These men who pilot and pit those machines are the lifeblood of the sport. Their dedication demands our respect.
With that said, anytime there’s an accident spectacular enough to create a silent control room, that’s the scariest moment. Thankfully I’ve only experienced it a few times while covering F1. During the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix when Robert Kubica’s car disintegrated, 2007 European GP Qualy (Nurburgring) when Hamilton crashed in the tire barrier in Q3, 2008 Spanish Grand Prix when Heikki Kovalainen was buried in the tire wall and most recently when Sergio Perez had his savage crash at Monaco in qualifying this season.
Stat: On-track: Seeing Ernesto Viso flip over the concrete wall in a GP2 race at Magny-Cours in 2007 was very scary, and I also particularly remember how helpless I felt witnessing Ralf Schumacher’s 2004 US GP crash from the commentary box, and not being able to do anything for him.
Off-track: When the realization strikes that I’ve made a mistake and sent it to every network. This job can be exhilarating when you know half the world’s TV audience hears your stats… but when you screw up, you can really feel the heat, because it means I’m single-handedly responsible for making several commentators looking stupid on live television. You always know (quite rightly) that if you don’t do your job properly in F1, there’s thousands of people who will happily replace you. In some senses, you need to feel scared by that; it really focuses you on the job at hand.
TTA: And finally, where should I direct readers who want to get in touch with you? (Your website, twitter, facebook, etc.)
jK: Twitter @jKirch_F1 (I’m usually pretty good with answering questions)
Stat: Twitter @virtualstatman
TTA: Thank you very much for taking the time and bugging your coworkers to answer my questions! I appreciate it very much.
jK: Thanks for having me on your blog. I’m glad Bill and Sean could also participate and help us out with those technical questions. Thanks, guys! We’ve included some short bios on ourselves if anyone’s interested in our backgrounds. Please keep enjoying our F1 and GP2 coverage on SPEED and as always thank all of you for watching!
Freelance Associate Producer for SPEED’s Formula One and GP2 Series coverage
The production side of my job entails writing and editing the qualifying show opens and the Formula One Debrief music video recap of the previous race. During the race weekend, I work on the qualifying and race features for F1 and GP2 with producer Dan Shutte. While we are on the air, I’m working with our font operator for our SPEED graphics. Along with updating information on the graphics together, we make sure that our grid, running order to break, race results and points are correct along with providing fonts for any interviews we may get during the show.
I watched many F1 races during the 1996 season when I was just getting into motorsports (primarily NASCAR and the NHRA), but I didn’t fully comprehend it as much as I do today. Therefore, I’d say my first real viewing of an F1 race was the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix when Jenson Button won his first race in changing conditions, surviving a crazy event. Just a few months later I moved from the news side of SPEED to the Formula One team in 2007 and have been here ever since missing work only once (2008 French GP weekend). F1 instantly became more like a hobby that paid the bills as opposed to a job. I consider myself very lucky.
Freelance audio engineer
Has worked for SPEED since 2004 and started mixing the F1 broadcasts midway through the 2007 SEASON. For SPEED, in addition to F1 and GP2, he mixes Wind Tunnel, NASCAR Racehub, Moto GP, and SPEED Center. Bill lives in Nashville, TN and prior to working with his current television clients (SPEED, ESPN, NASCAR Media Group, Bank of America, MediaComm, ABC, NBC, etc.), his background is in music composition, production (both live and studio), and professional drumming and piano playing – where he still maintains an active interest and vocation.
b July 14 1980, Shrewsbury, England
First race watching F1 – Brazil 1987
Only races missed since then – Portugal 1989, Monaco 1992
First race working in F1 – Australia 2003 (with SPEED)
Networks who now use my statistics – 16 (including SPEED, BBC, Sky Germany, RAI TV, La Sexta, ORF, MTV3, Network Ten)