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Portable affordable

Portable affordable

Jul 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Chris Wygal

Non-commercial, medium market and small staff; These are the ingredients for a sports broadcast crew that must keep the bells and whistles to a minimum. And it’s the case at WRVL, the 50,000W flagship station of the Flames Sports Network, a broadcast service of Liberty University. The voice of the Flames, Jerry Edwards, has taken his small broadcast crew across the country since 1981 with frequency extender and headsets in hand, making NCAA Division I football and basketball available to listeners in the Lynchburg and Roanoke, VA, markets.

In May 2002 I came to WRVL to take on studio engineering and programming. We wanted to improve the overall sound of the football broadcasts, so Edwards’ trusty frequency extender was put away, and the need for new equipment reared its expensive head. My goals were to improve the home-crowd ambience, put a pre-game crew on the concourse of the stadium and make our sideline reports easy to hook up. I also wanted to get the game in stereo back to the station. But how do we do this with a budget that leaves little room for sports broadcasting? It comes by doing a lot with little, even if you have to make it yourself.

Photo Courtesy of Liberty University

The equipment set up and ready for the game.

The flying snake uses CAT-5 cable and a run of Belden 9451.

The stereo shotgun mics are pointed at the 20-yard lines at each end of the field.

The homemade snake uses a PVC electrical box.

Right away I knew that we would need more mics. The Liberty University football team draws a home crowd of about 10,000 into A.L. Williams Stadium, and I wanted listeners to hear that ambience. At most large football venues, you’ll find microphones placed on the sidelines, in front of the crowd and on TV cameras to create an effects mix. With this in mind, I picked up two Audio-Technica AT815b shotgun mics and positioned them together on top of the press box, pointing them at each 20-yard line. Not using the typical X-Y miking pattern isn’t a problem in this situation because of the distance of the source. Any potential errors in phase are minimal. At $300 for each AT815b, I’ve captured a great effects mix for only $600. Of course in the future, having a guy on the sidelines with a parabolic set-up is a must.

We use Beyer DT190 headsets for the play-by-play announcer, color commentator and statistician, and I use a set as well for talkback. These older units had always been in the arsenal, so I didn’t have to purchase new headsets. They work extraordinarily well and when purchased they sold for about $300. Our color commentator is on the sidelines, and making sure he is clean and clear for the entire game is key. I decided to go wireless with the Sennheiser EM100 UHF receiver system and a SKP100 UHF wireless plug-on transmitter. The transmitter easily snaps onto a headset mic cable. We sometimes set up in stadiums where the booth is a good distance from the sidelines, so I picked up the Sennheiser directional yagi antennas to go along with the wireless rig. Wireless audio is an all-or-nothing case as far as quality is concerned, and a good solid system that can handle long distances is vital. The complete wireless system cost about $660.

The three headsets and the pre-game feed are processed on two Behringer MDX1400 Autocom Pro units that provide great level control and good full sound on four channels, and for only $138. Two other Autocom Pro units are used in the signal chain back to the station, but I’ll talk about that later.

Each member of the broadcast team hears a different mix in his headset. This is accomplished through a Behringer HA4600 headphone amp. It has four separate amps, sending a program feed and an aux mix to either ear in the headsets. With this feature, I can cue and talk to individuals, or everybody at once. The HA4600 offers tons of versatility and only costs $88.

The booth headsets connect through a homemade snake. I hated the idea of purchasing a pre-fab snake that would have had too many or too few of the features I needed. So I headed to the home improvement store and picked up a PVC electrical workbox on which I mounted the appropriate XLR and �” jacks. The jacks came out of an old mixing console. From the box, I ran six-channel Gepco snake cable and fanned the other end with XLR and �” plugs. The colorful fanned end connects to a homemade panel that holds XLR and �” jacks on the back of the equipment rack. This facilitates locating the headphone amp separately from the mixing board. The headphones and their mics are split from the back of the panel, to the headphone amp and mixing board respectively. The cable was $40, the chassis mount jacks were free, the box was $7, and a wire connector was $2. This is a great 30-foot headset snake for just under $50 and it’s as rugged as anything you’d get in a catalog. There’s nothing wrong with being frugal, and becoming a friend of local electronics suppliers is a must in the frugality department. Getting parts and accessories at cost will obviously save dollars. Never throw away a console without first stripping it of valuable parts.

A Behringer UB2222FX mixing board is the heart of the setup. This board features eight mic inputs and four stereo line-level inputs. It provides three auxiliary outputs and two sub-outputs, allowing for separate headphone mixes and submixes to send to the PA system and the speaker system out on the concourse. It is also equipped with pre-fader listen on each channel, which gives us the opportunity to chat during breaks. Effects and processors can be inserted on channels one through eight. Because of this feature, I designed a talkback button using a small Radio Shack project box and switch. When I plug the switch into the insertion point on channel eight (my headset mic) I can leave the channel on, and simply push-to-talk when I need to speak to someone. The UB2222FX costs about $289.

On-site playback

For game elements playback, I use a Tascam MD-301mkII Minidisc deck, which sells for $375. For quick clips and instant replays, I use a 360 Systems Instant Replay unit, which costs $2,700. For off-air monitoring, I bring a Shurwood FM/AM receiver from home.

I work in the Flames Sports Network home radio booth behind the play-by-play announcer and statistician, and our pre-game and halftime crew works from a setup on the concourse in the stadium. This idea came about when we decided the broadcast needed some face-to-face exposure with the fans. The pre-game guys use a Mackie 1202-VLZ mixer that picks up an IFB feed from me for their headsets. They use Audio-Technica ATM31R hand-held mics (which has been replaced by the ATM31a), and basic Sennheiser headphones bought as a five-pack for $89. I set up two powered Behringer B300 loudspeakers so the nearby concourse crowd can hear the entire broadcast live. Both speakers and stands cost $778. The Mackie board goes for about $400. Comparable ATM31a mics cost about $140 each.

Sending the pre-game and halftime material from the concourse to the booth was a challenge when the idea was first conceived. The guys needed an IFB feed, the loudspeakers needed a complete broadcast mix and their program material needed to get to the booth. They also needed computer network drops for two laptops. I constructed a snake with three CAT-5 and one Belden 9451 run, attached it to some nylon rope, and flew it overhead from the press box to a light pole that is adjacent to the concourse pre-game setup. This prevents fans from tripping on or damaging the cables. It’s truly an ugly combination of cabling, but it was an inexpensive route for data and audio. The IFB and loudspeaker feeds are sent through one CAT-5, using three pairs for unshielded, balanced audio. One pair is split and used for pin one in both feeds. I put six-pin XLRs on both ends of the CAT-5 and built adapters to fan out to the headsets and loudspeakers. I wanted a shield on the program material coming from the concourse, so I sent it through the Belden 9451. The other two CAT-5s carry the network links out to the laptops. The audio to and from the concourse across the flying snake is clean. I’m a firm believer that CAT-5 cable is a cheap and effective means for carrying analog audio.

The backhaul

So how do we get all of this home game material back to the studio in stereo? Through cooperation with the folks at the campus PBX, I secured two dry copper pairs from our press box to the control room back at the studios. We’re lucky in that respect, in that the lines are free, and our studios are on the same campus as the stadium. However, the line-level audio runs across nearly two miles of unshielded copper wire. There’s a lot of uncharted territory in sending audio over that much cable, and the complications are endless. My theory is that signals leak into the unshielded copper at countless points along the line, and ridding the inherent sizzle and hum is nearly impossible. However, to overcome the noise and buzz on the lines, I use the Behringer Autocom Pro MDX1400 on both ends. The stadium unit spits our program material out at nearly +20dB. The studio unit pulls the signal back down to a usable +0dB, and through some compression, gives us a punchy game sound, even before the station processing. Thus, I’ve worked the S/N ratio to our favor. This is somewhat an unconventional approach, but the line is clean and sounds great at game time.

All of the equipment is connected using standard microphone cables and other pre-fabricated cabling or self-built adapters. Because random cabling needs happen during every project, budgeting these accessories is difficult. When equipment purchases come along, I usually throw in some XLRs and other things on every requisition.

During a period of four years, The Flames Sports Network spent just under $10,000 to achieve a football broadcast sound that could have cost thousands more. By building my own cabling when possible and buying solid equipment, we have achieved a great on-air product. The more expensive, well-known equipment is always preferable, and if the funds exist, then by all means, get it. We’ve found however, that custom-built equipment and a little creativity go a long way, and can save the checkbook in the process.

Wygal is studio engineer and on-air programmer for WRVL at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.