After quite a complicated road of connections through various media, I finally had a chance to interview with perhaps the most fascinating motorsports production crew on television – ESPN’s NHRA drag racing crew. Tim “Toast” Record is the man in charge and also the man answering my questions. I’ll let him take it away.
TR: Let me preface this whole thing by telling you straight off that we in the audio department are working under serious budgetary constraints on these NHRA shows. I have a fabulous team in Mason Armstrong as the A2 in the field, cabling, placing and maintaining microphones. He is a one-man show. I have no idea how he does it. He seems to be in several places at one time and has done this for years. Rusty Roark does the track submix for me, and he is a rock. He is innovative and cooperative. We are continually evolving, adapting and changing, bouncing ideas off of each other. They are the best. These two guys pull herds of rabbits out of hats every weekend making this happen with no budget to speak of.
TTA: Let’s talk about the technical stuff first. What sorts of microphones do you use, how are they spaced along the track, and how do you handle the extreme SPL from the Top Fuel cars?
TR: We use Sennheiser MKH-416 shotguns (almost exclusively). They sound great, and in many situations have been the only microphones that can stand up to the high SPL of the fuelers. We have tried several different microphones over the years only to witness them being rattled to pieces. We have measured sound pressure levels (A weighting) in excess of 180 dB. Outside of this range there are shock waves from 20Hz to nearly DC that our measuring devices don’t even understand, which have shredded several different large diaphragm dynamic microphones. We use a pair of Sennheiser e609 microphones – these are commonly used for guitar amplifiers – we use them between the tree and the water box to pick up the extreme low end of these cars idling as they stage. In the shutdown zone we need a wider pattern to pickup the more subtle sounds of the cars shutting down, chute popping, bouncing, braking, rattling… so we use omni electret microphones, specifically Sony ECM77’s, mostly because that is what has been consistently available to us.
As with any racing event, it is important for the sound to match picture. For example, if you are seeing a pair of cars coming down the track from a wide shot at the top end of the track, you don’t want to hear it blowing by track-side microphones. In the same spirit, if the director is on a POV cut where you see the cars blowing by track-side cameras, it is important to hear the shocking violence of 10,000 horse power at 8,000 RPM slamming past at 300 mph. So basically we have microphones set to give camera perspective sound. The only real exception to this is the previously mentioned shut down zone. Another exception is general crowd and ambiance. We have a combination of wired and wireless microphones set to gather stereo and surround fields in an attempt to place the viewer at the track. We have front field microphones hard panned left and right to create a wide open sound. We also have discrete surround left and surround right microphones to attain that beautiful fuzzy ball on the DK scope with no phase nonsense or image collisions. We also have three RF cameras roaming the pits and the grounds. Each of those cameras has a wireless shotgun microphone. In total, not including announcer microphones and microphones for communication, we use 54 microphones. This includes track-side, in-car, crowd, pits and ambiance. One of the hardest things to record is an explosion. The shock wave that hits your body is a very important element contributing to the apparent sound made by an explosion, whether it is a gun or a top fuel motor exploding. We use a Shure PG52 in the vicinity of the 750 foot mark along the track and isolate that microphone to some unused back tracks in the EVS machines with the expressed goal of capturing and recording the sound of these crazy machines exploding. It has worked now and then … we are still tweaking. It is a never ending process.
TTA: How do you handle quarter-mile long cable runs?
TR: That is a great question. It is a miracle that we are able to gather incredibly specialized sound from an area that spans more than 3000 feet, not to mention getting all that copper from track-side to the TV compound, which is often an additional 500 to 1000 feet… it’s crazy. With all that copper and line capacitance we definitely have losses in gain, frequency response and dynamic range, not to mention a tremendous amount of physical labor. My undying gratitude to Mason Armstrong to make that happen week after week, race after race. I have been lobbying hard to start using Ether Sound technology on a fiber network. We experimented with it at the Brainerd race and it was fabulous. Our submix is done on a Yamaha M7CL which is completely compatible with the Ether Sound system.
TTA: Let’s talk a bit about what happens when the audio hits the compound. Watching the broadcast I can hear transitioning from the mics by the tree and then a sort of crossfade to a mic further down the track. Is this automated or done manually? With some sports (i.e. Olympics) it’s common to record audio on the practice days when there’s less ambient noise. Is this something necessary for motorsport sound? Given the immense speed of the top fuel cars, does Doppler shift make mixing difficult?
TR: The mix is all done by a human – Rusty Roark, specifically. He is fabulous. Every car down the track is an individual performance by him, like a musician. Keep in mind that every pass is not cut the same way. Sometimes it is the track-side POV cameras, sometimes it is cut straight from a camera on top of the tower to the finish line high and wide to the camera at the top end, sometimes an in-car camera is thrown into that mix… every run is individual and he follows those cuts with split second precision. Every run is so vastly different, there is no such thing as running pre-recorded runs for sweetening. Rusty’s mixes also include a complicated matrix of front and rear mixes for real 5.1 sound that faithfully follows the line cut. We also simultaneously do a generic ISO mix that does not follow the camera cut. This mix is isolated to track 3 and 4 under cameras in the router so we can mix the individual camera angles on the fly during replays. Our clean mixes that get recorded are DTS encoded so that in the future replays and highlights are 5.1 compatible. Doppler has no effect on what we do, that is an interesting question that has never occurred to me. I guess when the cars reach 762 mph we will need to deal with the whole sonic boom thing…
TTA: I notice that during the broadcast, there occasionally is some onboard footage mixed in. How is the on-board audio captured?
TR: We have RF in-car cameras with two audio paths. We have a microphone in the engine compartment that is padded so it does not distort with the high SPL and a microphone that is not padded in the cockpit to capture the human sounds; celebration, Velcro gloves, frustration. The third channel of ISO recorded with the in-car cameras is an LFE channel. This is something we just started to do this weekend. I will let you know how it works out (or just listen for yourself and let me know what you think.) [TTA: Verdict = success!] I also isolate the in-car radio. This goes to the fourth and final channel of the router associated with those cameras. Something new we just started doing in-car, as of the two races ago: Buttkicker 4D Sports has added sensors in the cars to send actual tactical signal to a transducer mounted to your couch or easy chair at home. The rumble of the cars idling as they stage and launch down the track are brought directly to your seat. It’s wild. More on that to come as we figure the best ways to implement it.
TTA: Is it just you, Mason, and Rusty for the audio crew, or do you have extra help? How early into the weekend does the setup process begin? What else is involved besides setting up microphones and cable runs?
TR: As surprising as it will seem, the entire audio crew from set-up, mixing, sound design, editing, music supervision etc. etc. etc. is just us three guys. Mason Armstrong is the technician in the field that does all the hard physical labor (beginning on Thursday), setting up the microphones, running miles and miles of copper, maintaining, repair and battery changes throughout the weekend and many other things too numerous to list here. Rusty Roark is the submixer. He sets up much of the TV compound, sets up the booth where our announcers call the races from, interfaces with the other facilities such as the BSI truck which supplies all wireless microphones, IFB and intercom including roving reporters, in-car, crowd mics, hand held camera microphones, and track wide communications systems. Then there are feeds to and from the up-link truck, master control and edit truck, robotics control room, and of course several feeds between Rusty’s control room and the ‘A’ unit. Throughout the weekend (as described above) Rusty mixes the sound of everything that goes down the track. And then there is me, Tim Record… everyone in the industry knows me by my professional nickname “Toast”. In fact there aren’t very many people across the country that know my real name. I am in charge and to blame for all things audio including the final mix with announcers, track sounds, replay and playback, music, pit reporters, driver radios, sounds for graphics and transition effects, in studio and phone guests. I also do all communications, transmission and telephone interfaces, surround sound encoding. I edit and playback all the music for the show. There are several other things that go along with this job that involve things outside of the control room. The final mix is done through a Calrec Sigma Bluefin console. I use 117 inputs on the show… as I write this I realize how much is involved in doing sound for NHRA drag racing. We have barely scratched the surface.
TTA: What is it about drag racing that inspires or motivates you guys to keep up the good work?
TR: We are motivated by the challenge of capturing the extreme sounds of these cars and the extreme contrast in the different sounds associated with drag racing. For example there is a huge difference between the sound of a top fuel dragster and a pro-stock motorcycle. the gain, EQ and dynamic range is worlds apart, and we must make the adjustments in minutes. Not to mention the subtle human sounds, a sigh, a laugh, a cry. Yahooing and Velcro ripping. we are surrounded with extremes in dynamic range. We continue to innovate and evolve the sound of our show, and the three of us really work well together. We are fans of drag racing. Mason has been involved in the sport for many years beginning as a kid with his dad. He came to the TV side from the pits, where he worked with a couple different race teams. I have been a fan of drag racing and sprint car racing since I was a kid.
TTA: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during a broadcast/weekend?
TR: There isn’t a particular funny thing that comes to mind, but the whole crew gets along. We do a lot of fun things together; wine tasting in Sonoma, chicken wings in Kansas City, Blues jamming in Dallas, pub crawls in Manhattan, mountain biking out west and bowling in New Jersey.
TTA: …and the scariest?
TR: Anytime there is a bad crash it is scary. We have had a couple scary moments in pro-mod recently. Tim Tindle at the US Nationals in Indy…
…and Adam Flamholc just 10 days ago in St. Louis are lucky to be alive.
Scary turns into a whole different stomach turning thing when someone is killed. That very thing has happened 5 times at events that I have been working since 1996.
TTA: What do you drive?
TR: I have two cool cars that are not daily drivers. I have a 2010 Camaro that puts 630 hp to the ground on a hot day. I get to take it out about a dozen times a year. I race it at the local strip. It is a street legal 10 second car. I love to DRIVE it to the track, put slicks and skinnies on it and whoop some trailer-queen ass and then drive it home. I also have a 1991 Mazda Miata powered by an LS1 V8 from a 2001 Trans Am… that car is a lot of fun.
TTA: What’s your favorite sounding car?
TR: I think my favorite sounding cars are 1968 to 1972 American muscle with a cam, headers and glass packs.
TTA: Lastly, if readers wanted to ask more questions, what’s the best way to get ahold of you?
TR: It’s best to just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been an honor and a joy to have Toast here,and I hope you appreciated his insight as much as I did. As of the publishing date there’s only two events left in the 2013 season, so be sure to catch them on ESPN!