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Back to Baku: audio for the European Games

A new sporting spectacular for the calendar!

June 2015 saw the inauguration of a major new quadrennial sporting event, the European Games, which took place in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The flamboyant opening and closing ceremonies arguably rivalled the spectacle of any Olympic Games.

Sound designer Scott Willsallen – a veteran of many high profile events including several Olympics and Commonwealth Games – was tasked with designing both the live and broadcast audio systems for the flamboyant ceremonies, which took place in Baku’s brand new, 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.

“There’s a bit of a travelling family for most big sporting events,” he says. “It’s a group of people who are very experienced in their own roles and at working together. I’m lucky enough to be part of it.”

From past experience, Willsallen knows that planning the sound for such events tends to follow a similar pattern. “Around 90% of it can be designed on paper,” he says. “The live audience audio system is simply based on the stadium’s geometry, so as long as I’ve got CAD drawings of the venue I can create a model and work out the best control system without knowing much about the shows themselves in advance.”

This makes it sound deceptively easy, but he needed to ensure that both the stadium and broadcast audiences enjoyed a high quality soundtrack to the ceremonies, whilst creating atmosphere for the broadcast.

“These events are primarily about the television pictures,” Willsallen explains. “But, as they take place in the round, the audience is in the background of most camera shots, so the more engaged and enthusiastic they are, the more interesting it is for the viewers at home.”

A key requirement of a stadium event is that the audience looks at the right place at the right time. “We can work on achieving this as soon as the creative details start to become clear,” he says. “For example, during the Baku opening ceremony one of the cultural segments began with a soloist on a stage at the Southern end of the performance area. To support the intimacy of this scene, and to immediately indicate the location of the soloist for the live audience, we added a 12-element KARA ground stack either side of the stage just for this moment. The solo section ended with a long, reverberant tail which the main orchestration played over. We placed the orchestration in the main system and the transition of the sound and the action from the soloist to the mass cast on the main stage was a strong theatrical moment.

Audio equipment was supplied by Italian rental giant Agorà, with Willsallen choosing a system similar to the one he had designed for the Sochi Winter Olympics, primarily comprising L-Acoustics K2 variable curvature line source cabinets.

The system consisted of 24 ground stacks of K2 distributed around an oval layout, arranged in an alternating left/right configuration that, as Willsallen says, “allowed for a bit of space in the mix.” Twelve stacks of seven K2 each covered the stadium’s east and west sides and 12 more of six K2 each covered the north and south ends, where there was slightly less vertical coverage requirement. Each stack had three L-Acoustics SB28 subs on each side, while delays of K2 and K1-SB covered the upper tier on the east and west sides. 8XTs and 12XTs were used for localised fills, with the entire system driven by a total of 210 LA8 amplifiers.

“Generally, we have to sit the PA between the front row of the audience and the edge of the performance area, so there isn’t much opportunity to hang anything. This means there’s always a restriction on how tall the loudspeaker stacks can be. In Baku, we needed to cover up to 63m from the PA to the back row of the audience seating. It’s a long distance for a ground stack, but the stages were around three metres tall, which gave three metres of height, rather than the usual 1.3m.

“K2 is my preferred system for this kind of project because it allows for consistent horizontal pattern control, which is really important. It is the most consistent system to a lower frequency than other competing products and the form factor of the cabinets also really suits this kind of arrangement.”

Monitoring for the cast was principally in-ear. “Every member of cast had an IEM receiver, the mass cast using low-cost FM receivers and the professional, or featured, cast (who are more likely to have camera time) were provided with Sennheiser G3 systems,” says Willsallen. “We also provided further L-Acoustics 12XTs and 115HiQs for coverage of the mass movement areas. However these were only activated if we saw interference on any of the IEM transmit channels or if we had a transmit hardware failure.”

Mixing consoles comprised pairs of DiGiCo SD7s at FOH and monitors, plus an additional pair of SD11s at monitors. A further SD7 was employed in the closing ceremony rehearsal venue, allowing the show file to be saved and loaded into the stadium consoles when required.

“In the stadium, we had two completely independent control systems, the consoles acting as mirrored pairs,” says Willsallen. “The primary system used a traditional Optocore network, with 24 network devices scattered around the stadium. There were eight Optocore ‘nodes’ located around the field of play and four in the roof, in each of which nearby inputs – such as crowd microphones or local wireless receivers – were gathered and mix outputs were fed to LA racks for the PA.”

The secondary set of consoles all had SD-Racks located in a patch room. The field inputs were patched into a passive splitter, with one output going to the Optocore mic preamp for the primary system and a second output to a mic preamp with fixed stepped gain. A 25-pair Cat-5 cable ran between each Optocore node and the patch room for analogue connectivity. From there it was routed to a punch-down panel and an active splitter that allowed it to be split to the backup FOH, monitor and broadcast consoles.

“Using mirrored FOH mixing consoles feeding both signal transport networks meant that the mix arriving at the amplifiers via Optocore sounded exactly the same as the mix on the analogue cable,” Willsallen continues. “We switched between the two based on AES sync, so if that failed the nodes automatically switched. If there was a failure on the primary consoles, we switched to analogue by hitting a button, then switched back when the primary network was running again. To test it, we switched systems a few times during the dress rehearsals and nobody noticed, which was very satisfying.”

All microphones were Shure Axient, with handhelds using the dual transmit feature and all lapel, lavalier or headset mics having double packs. There were multiple receive stations scattered around the field ensuring every microphone would be picked up in several places at the same time.

The other main audio source was a Fairlight replay system, featuring primary and secondary AB-roll systems. “It meant we had four replay systems available to us, allowing the AB-roll within the primary link to be one MADI stream that we distributed to all the consoles,” says Willsallen. “Any required click or guide tracks for the live bands were also provided via the Fairlight system, delivered to the monitor consoles via MADI.

“These events are divided up into music cues that correspond with a segment of movement or action in the performance area. Each one is called by the show caller and the console operators recall a snapshot for each specific music cue. Overall levels and featured instruments are then mixed on the fly. The live acts – including Lady Gaga, Clean Bandit, John Newman, as well as the live speeches – were all operated in the same fashion.”

The broadcast mix was handled by two DiGiCo SD7Bs and two SD11Bs, again working as mirrored pairs. Integrated with the stadium system, all the crowd microphones were plugged into the Optocore nodes, which were fed to the Delta Media 3 broadcast truck, sub hired by Agora.

Delta Sound’s Griff Hewis was the systems engineer and mixed the atmosphere microphones. He was assisted by two Agorà broadcast engineers.

“We took a MADI stream from the replay systems into the SD7Bs and the crowd microphones were fed into the SD11Bs. They provided a 5.1 atmosphere buss into the SD7Bs and we then used the Optocore loop to provide the highway between us and International Sports Broadcasting (ISB), the host broadcaster,” says Willsallen.

“None of the rights holders took 5.1 for this event, so we provided a stereo mix of the events plus crowd and a crowd-only mix.”

Once the systems were settled, Willsallen and Andy Rose (broadcast sound supervisor) watched all the camera cuts and made sure that the audio broadcast during each shot made sense.

“The people watching on television are the biggest audience, so making the broadcast sound work is really important. Andy and I tried to pick up every little bit of detail, so that the audio and the vision matched perfectly. The aim is always to make the broadcast sound as detailed as it looks,” says Willsallen.

“It’s also about balancing how it sounds in the stadium, so there’s not too much PA getting into the atmosphere mics. Being responsible for both the PA and the location of the crowd mics meant we were in the best position to get the best sound.”

With such an experienced team at the helm, the key concerns were about those elements that were out of their control, such as wireless interference and wind.

“We were prepared for wireless issues, but the local regulator did a great job of keeping things under control,” says Willsallen. “Baku is subject to regular high winds, which did concern us for the live performances and speeches. We mitigated as much risk as possible with drapes, barriers and windshields, but ultimately wind speeds during both ceremonies were low, so it wasn’t an issue.

“Our entire system is always on uninterruptible power supplies and, while the amount of redundancy may seem excessive, it means a lot has to go wrong for us to be screwed. At a past event power was lost to one quadrant, but the only problem anyone noticed was that that a quarter of the lighting stopped working – it didn’t affect the sound at all.

“The stadium system performed superbly and exactly as our SOUNDVISION modelling process predicted. With the ground stacked arrays being the primary sound source for so much of the audience the benefits of localising the sound to the action were clearly evident.”

Contractor – Agorà
Design – Auditoria Pty Ltd, Australia

Auditoria team
Scott Willsallen
Audio technical manager – Justin Arthur (senior patch engineer for the job)
FOH – Richard Sharratt
Replay – Steve Logan and Lewis Miranda
Broadcast – Andy Rose and Griff Hewis
RF technician – Andrea Tesini, Agorà