NEP Group and Aurora Media Worldwide deliver visceral sound for Extreme E
First taking place in drought-struck AlUla, Saudi Arabia, then the sea-threatened Lac Rose area in Senegal, the next race will be in August on sandbars in front of the retreating Russell Glacier near Kangerlussuaq in Greenland.
Bringing the audio of the races and these threatened environments to life is a team of audio experts from NEP Group, working with host broadcasters Aurora Media Worldwide and North One both onsite and at the NEP Production Centre – London. The audio is stereo on site with extra mics sent back separately to enable 5.1 production in London.
Rob Jackson, senior sound engineer and supervisor for NEP, is responsible for the sound on the ground and is also the designer of the audio system that supports the ‘race cut’ for Extreme E, along with Mike Bull, sound guarantee engineer at NEP. The pair mix this on site and transfer it over satellite using an NEP flypack specially designed for Extreme E.
“The whole system and load had to be designed to fit in a very specific container space and is all IP based around Arista switches,” says Jackson.
With sign off in September last year and a hard deadline for the kit to be shipped in the first week of January, another race was on to spec and build an audio system that would withstand the rigours of these extreme environments. This was during COVID lockdown and the dearth of normal supply chains made things even more difficult.
“Flight cases were the biggest nightmare because all the big players had most of their employees on furlough. We got hold of NSP Cases in Kent and they were amazing,” says Jackson. “Everything is custom made and they couldn’t have been better.”
“This project was always conceived as only having limited people on site to reduce the environmental impact,” adds Jackson. “We’re working in tents rather than portacabins and have been on sand for the first two races. Just the physicality of moving around, rigging, building production gallery tents and moving boxes is very difficult.”
“We’re working in tents rather than portacabins and have been on sand for the first two races. Just the physicality of moving around, rigging, building production gallery tents and moving boxes is very difficult”
To cover the race sites for the RF links and the radio talkback, the handful of production crew members have had to put up 17 Clark Masts in the sands of each location. “They’re six metre masts specifically designed for use on unstable ground and each one weighs 100kg,” says Jackson. “Each day, because of the charging [regime] of the cars, there’s one race at nine in the morning and then the rest of the races are at three in the afternoon. So you’re up early to be on site for sunrise, which is when it’s safe to go and work on the course. Then you have a couple of hours to make sure that the cameras and the mics are all out before the first round starts.”
“There are no riggers or utilities on this job, we all pull cable, load palettes and do the hard work,” he continues. “We’re a very close-knit team on Extreme E, everybody shares the workflow and we all share roles, so there’s continuity if anybody falls ill.”
Wired for sound
Sound was a key consideration right from the start, but mounting the mics and how to use them required some planning.
“We were a little bit restricted on where to put mics as everything has to be attached to an RF link and camera,” Jackson explains. “Also, it’s not like normal motorsport where you’ve got a loud car and you’ve got a camera every 300 metres. Here you have to consider the big gaps between the camera positions and so I used onboard mics.”
The mics on the course are as close to the action as they can possibly be. “Some of them have almost been sacrificed already due to how close they are to their cars as they go past. We really want to make sure that there’s a good perspective noise, because the cars are running on rough ground and there’s a lot more banging of stones and suspension noise. You get a lot more from it than you would get from a track sport.”
“It’s not like normal motorsport where you’ve got a loud car and you’ve got a camera every 300 metres. Here you have to consider the big gaps between the camera positions and so I used onboard mics”
“As we knew that the onboard car audio is going to be important, we spent quite a bit of time working with Vislink to make sure that we could get good quality mics working down the links,” he adds. “Aurora requested that the in-car footage and the in-car audio go directly back to London via ASI streams, so we needed to pick up the in-car intercom from the cars.
“The normal Vislink links only come with onboard microphones built into the link, whereas we’ve wired them all to have external microphones. I’m using AT899 omni condenser mics.”
Jackson built the wiring looms himself during his Christmas break to be able to install the mics in the cars.
The rest of the production also uses microphones from Audio-Technica. “We’ve got 16 Audio-Technica 4029 mics and 15 AT897 mics,” says Jackson. “We use lots of Bubblebee [windbubbles] and Rycote jammers for wind jamming, which is quite important because it’s obviously very exposed in all the places we’re going to.”
The audio comes back over RF to Jackson’s Calrec Summa 192 DSP desk. “My Summa output goes via Lawo MADI and becomes an IP source,” he explains.
Everything on site is based around Dante networked audio, including the intercom which makes use of the RTS Odin system with Omneo panels. All the talkback on-site uses Kenwood base stations and digital radios.
“There’s a lot of communications going on with the [motorsport comms provider] MRTC on site,” he says. “So we collect a MADI stream from them and we collect all the driver talkback for all the cars and teams and then we send that all onward to London for them to use: all the race announcer, race control and all the team chat.”
“[Starting in Senegal] we also now do commentary on site,” he adds. “The commentators are based in a tent in our compound, watching on a monitor and using two Glensound Inferno boxes. That is then sent back to London and [Aurora] can add that in with their commentators.”
It all goes through the Calrec console and all goes out over the NEP Connect satellite uplink.
Audio over IP
Back in London, NEP UK sound engineer Robin Delwiche heads up the audio team working with Aurora Media Worldwide at the NEP Production Centre on London’s Gray’s Inn Road.
“Aurora has settled on a format of 12 ASI streams, and it comes over as a compressed digital stream,” says Delwiche. “One of the big learning curves has been to encode it at that end, use the satellites and then to decode it as baseband at the other end. Aurora has been doing Formula E but they’ve been getting those feeds [over fibre]. This whole workflow of getting that amount of content over satellite to Gray’s Inn Road and being able to do this kind of production is very different.”
“We had to think ahead about what structure to use to route [the audio] to make sure everybody has it. That was my biggest headache at the beginning, but I relied a lot on network engineer Oliver Quirke who has done an amazing job on the ID infrastructure, along with vision engineer Kathleen Gray,” he adds. “We’re using the Fat Controller system, developed by NEP in Australia as a control system. I can do IP routing, MADI switching and so on very quickly using this controller, which really helps us.”
The London end of the audio production is working on a Calrec Artemis desk and at the moment is using Lawo MADI bridges to connect into the IP infrastructure, but there are plans afoot to switch to a Calrec ImPulse core.
“We have a main and a backup feed, so if we lose the satellite, I can flip that audio straight over using the patchbay of the Hydra network on the Calrec and quickly switch it,” he continues. “I also get in any other audio that’s coming via the pictures direct. If the Gray’s Inn Road production want to cut to the car, even though it’s not part of the mix that’s being done at the far end for whatever reason, we can take that. So we use a mixture of the Fat Controller to do some switching as well as some routing on the Calrec desk to make it all appear in the right format for whoever needs to take it.”
Remote locations and fairly limited comms mean that preparing for the live production is a bit of a juggling act. There are two satellite paths, but limited satellite time.
“We’ve got to work with what they’re giving us in a live environment,” says Delwiche. “It’s very hard to suddenly ask for something at the other end without it being pre-planned. We have three stages, a set up for the pre-race, a set up for the race and the set up for the post-race. Each of those is very clearly defined and so production know what [the focus of the] cameras are going to be at that time.”
Working alongside Delwiche is sound mixer Richard Anstead. “What Rob Jackson does at the other end covers a good 90% of the sound, but Richard has got his work cut out,” says Delwiche. “Even though he’s not having to follow the track around, there is quite a lot of playback and inserts on the day, and he plays in the grams as well. We’re using Trigger as the grams playback device, which has been really flexible and really easy to use, especially when it comes to doing surround sound.
“For example, we have what we call the Defcon grams; there’s an intense build-up as the cars go off towards the start line and so he plays those grams in. Certain grams are also played in when we go to the zoomed-in ‘hit graphics’ which display all the information about what’s happening on the car.”
The ‘race cut’ mix that Jackson sends over is embedded as 16 tracks on a single ASI feed. “Part of this is what we call an effects mix, the idea for which is having different audio when switching outside the car from being inside the car,” Delwiche explains. “For 5.1, Rob also gives me some rear effects as part of the 16 tracks, as well as the in-car chat and the race director announcements.”
Mixing in 5.1 is difficult in a live environment, especially with quick edit turnarounds. “As much as we’d like to have sounds all around and vocals in the middle and all that, we found it was very tricky to monitor levels with that swift a turnaround. So we reverted to upmixing, using the TSL X-1,” says Delwiche. “We also record a special backup version that has clean commentary and clean music and clean effects.”
Go for Greenland
For the upcoming race in Greenland, Jackson and the race team are going out a couple of days early. “We’ve shipped a whole road trunk of extra cleaning products because after spending a week in Senegal, with an onshore salty wind, everything has already started rusting. We’ve got a good couple of days cleaning with WD40 to do,” he says.
“It’s hard work to get everything out, to get everything where it needs to go, but I find it incredibly rewarding. It’s been all our own work that has made it happen, such as doing everything from speccing the microphones to being on site mixing it. We’ve done so much prep and so much pre-configuration, so when we get there and have limited time, we are able to pull off a clean OB.”
Watch Extreme E’s Arctic XPrix in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland on 28 to 29 August 2021