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I’m laughing uncontrollably, but nothing’s funny. I’ve been secured for days behind chain-link fences, surrounded by men in towers with shotguns. Now I’m in a car going 150+ mph, overwhelmed by feelings of terror and freedom.
It sounds like a fast and furious getaway, but the only thing that’s been captured is excitement. The barriers line the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) racetrack, the camera risers are armed with shotgun microphones, and the vehicle is a professionally driven BMW M2 safety car. I’m taking what we’ll call a victory lap to get a final feel for the physical and logistical course that Dorna Sports S.L. productions and Audio-Technica mics navigate as they choreograph an immersive broadcast of the MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas motorcycle race, held April 14-16 outside Austin, Texas.
The partnership between Dorna, the Spain-based commercial-rights holder of MotoGP since 1991, and Audio-Technica, the Tokyo-headquartered microphone services solution provider for the 21 Grands Prix held yearly, is a potent collaboration. “We say it is a love story,” says Sergi Sendra i Vives, Dorna’s head of global technology, praising the meticulous nature of Audio-Technica’s Japanese engineers, who started R&D in 2018 to provide Dorna with components that can withstand the rigors of premier motorsports.
Feeding international distributors from a new location every few weeks, the host-broadcast team can adjust to any venue and every hush or rush—from the telemetry crosstalk of the pit to the rapid pitch shifts of 220 mph straightaways to the ramping giggles of a tech journalist who normally would only push his Honda CR-V 10 miles over the limit if he’s feeling reckless. It takes over 200 microphones, more than 160 cameras, tens of tons of mobile command center, nearly 300 people, and several imported espresso machines to communicate a cohesive narrative (Dorna being European means an on-demand Café Solo or Cortado is crucial). And the result—thanks to tightly coordinated efforts and a newly developed eight-element mic—brings viewers worldwide into an experience that includes hundreds of thousands of cheering fans and 20 laps of high-performance, high-SPL prototype bikes.
Defining a sport’s spirit
Wandering 1,500 acres of paddock, plazas, grandstands, and observation decks bordering 3.4 miles of winding asphalt gives you plenty of space and time for reflection—both mental and sonic. Out at the track, you notice the oscillations, the changing notes of the engines. What are tailpipes but a brass section? As the motorcycles approach, you’re first hit by the broadband unity of 115dB acceleration—enough hot nasty speed to make an Apple Watch blush and warnings blare. The closer you listen, however, the more you pick up on the range of high notes in the pummeling bliss. And every tight corner and embankment, any transition from gravel to grass, changes the acoustics and challenges of accurately representing the peaks and valleys of soundwaves and elevation.
It’s a symphony of angry hornets, of RPM breaking points. It’s transients that racing simulators find difficult to recreate as game sounds often come from bike-embedded microphones that can’t fully capture the impact of wind, humidity, and other environmental contamination. And it’s breathable frequencies, how different landscapes reverberate, that Audio-Technica mics are deployed to help reproduce—trusted to render the tonal variance of raceways worldwide to those watching from afar. My first tour of COTA, along the service road at a far slower pace than in the safety car, reveals the many essential arrays for track audio acquisition.
Nine stereo pairs of BP28 shotgun mics are set up along the perimeter, in 90-degree X/Y configurations on corners and with 110-degree separation on straightaways. This compensates for dropouts as cameras pan, stabilizing the approach and departure imaging of rapidly moving sound sources (aka the Doppler effect). Aiding this are BP4027 and BP4029 stereo shotgun mics with independent line-cardioid and figure-of-eight elements for wide, narrow, or discrete signals, as well as BP28L large-diaphragm condenser mics mounted on 12 cameras for highly directional, low-noise sync with video.
There’s something in the air
Leaving the flash zone for the finish line, we look up and see the BP3600s—satellite-shaped near-coincident assemblies deployed on telescopic poles. Designed to provide the diffuse soundbed of action sports—but quickly being adopted for churches, orchestral recordings, and other creative forums—each $5,140 BP3600 is eight phantom-powered 12mm hypercardioid capsules with discrete analog outputs via LEMO-to-XLRM breakout cable. With a frequency response of 40 – 20,000 Hz, each channel can be independently assigned to mirror the position of a 5.1.4 setup, simplifying routing/decoding for real-time spatial mixing without proprietary processing. There are hammers, and then there are air guns; both drive nails, but one is faster, more accurate, more efficient.
“Because immersive is a fairly new technology, and there are still competing formats, we wanted to make sure that what we did was compatible,” says Gary Dixon, Audio-Technica’s director of broadcast business development. “So, we chose an analog out on this mic because it’s very agnostic to what’s going on; there’s no one interface you have to have to get what you need. At the end of the day, the microphone is analog; it’s taking a physical sound wave and creating electrical energy, and then what happens in the chain is the preference of the director.”
Math determines the enclosure angles and response curves needed in a mic; art ensures the mic remains linear without losing its musicality. Audio-Technica’s “8.0 Microphone Concept” debuted at a sweltering Spanish MotoGP Grand Prix, the first of many proving grounds for sensitivity at various air pressures and durability under duress. Prototyped over multiple seasons, the weatherproofed, easily repairable BP3600—like a high-headroom hedgehog in its windshield—features stable transducers born from the dynamics and drama of dropped gears and carbon-ceramic discs.
“A lot of times you say, okay, we’re going to do this product because we believe there is a niche in the market that needs to be fulfilled, and we hope we can design for any issues, but the BP3600 was actually the other way around,” says Rodrigo Thomaz, Audio-Technica’s project manager of broadcast partnerships. “We knew the needs and demand because we had the expertise of real action broadcasters; they were telling us everything that can possibly go wrong so no one would have to back-engineer solutions.”
Decoding sonic signatures
All these timbral nuances throughout COTA’s 20 corners get coupled to the video feed and make it to the production compound digitally over 30 miles of custom fiber optic cable, each mic anchored to a Lawo Audio-over-IP node in a ruggedized Pelican case. Located behind the paddock, the media village is a labyrinth of modular control rooms masquerading as expandable shipping containers, very Suez Canal chic. It’s a flowchart of workflow—the audio box feeds to the video box, the RF management box a branch of the sequence off to the side, etc.
Most of the production, 70 to 80 percent, is always the same, says Sendra i Vives, and the rest adapts to the conditions at each event in a sprint (adopting the language of Agile project management). If the camera misses something in the first practice lap or the distinct tonality of a newly calibrated engine sound off, the Dorna crew in these temperature-controlled nerve clusters must correct for that part of the circuit immediately because they may not be back until next year.
Along with the track audio, de-embedded from the video feed in the audio control room’s Lawo mc256 console, Dorna’s engineers mix in wireless feeds from custom bike-mounted heat-tolerant Audio-Technica BP899 low-profile lavalier omnidirectional condenser microphones, as well as discreet wall- and ceiling-mounted U851R unipoint cardioid condenser boundary microphones in the pit boxes. Audio-Technica even provides the mics, in-ear monitors, and headphones for race control and ENG (electronic news gathering) teams. Altogether, upwards of 300 audio channels combine to round out the activity for home viewers saturated in even more rumble and roar than they could be from the stands.
Stereo and surround mixes are fed to the master control room in Barcelona simultaneously; the only thing holding you back from the visceral thrill of the chase and the crashes may be your TV, AV receiver and/or surround sound system, soundbar, or headphones. Pioneering how to consistently capture unpredictability, Dorna Sports and Audio-Technica will pack and transport the flight cases to ensure every MotoGP broadcast gives your tweeters and adrenaline a workout. Nervous chuckling optional.