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Boom! How Formula E used shotgun mics to maintain social distancing

24/09/2020

Doreen Greaton discovers how shotgun microphones and in-ear monitors helped Formula Es sound team make sure everything was crystal clear

By Contributor

Published: September 24, 2020

Doreen Greaton discovers how shotgun microphones and in-ear monitors helped Formula E's sound team make sure everything was crystal clear

target=_blank title=Share on LinkedIn class=share-linkedin> Doreen Greaton discovers how shotgun microphones and in-ear monitors helped Formula E's sound team make sure everything was crystal clear

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As live sports return to TV screens, the industry is making a massive effort to ensure people stay safe and protected from Covid-19. Many new protocols have been introduced that extend right across the board, covering everyone from talent and presenters to behind the scenes crews and technicians. Working in bubbles is the new norm, with crews often isolating for days before the start of a project just to ensure everyone is virus-free.

From the viewers' point of view, there have also been changes. The lack of fans and crowd noise at sports venues, for example, has taken a bit of getting used to, and some programmes look quite different with pundits sitting far apart in studios or only participating through video links. But for the most part audiences have been very accommodating because everyone understands the constraints imposed by this strange new world.

One change many viewers have noticed is the prevalence of the boom microphone, which are now visible in places where they were never allowed before. In pre-Covid times getting a boom in shot was a major blooper, but these days safety dictates that they are much better suited to certain situations and therefore compromises have to be made.

The sound recordists responsible for delivering this year's ABB FIA Formula E coverage are among those who have embraced boom mics, particularly for behind the scenes interviews.

Like so many sports, Formula E faced challenges because the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to scupper its 2019/2020 season. Normally Formula E's fully electric, single seater cars race around major city centres, but because of the high population density in these locations the usual format was deemed unsafe. After months of deliberation a novel solution was found - namely to complete the season by holding six races over nine days, behind closed doors, at Berlin's iconic Templehoff airport. Live TV coverage was provided by host broadcasters Aurora Media Worldwide and North One TV, known as Formula E TV, who supply the world feed to channels such as the BBC, Eurosport and Mediaset.

Formula E TV's sound supervisor Paul Halstead heads a dedicated crew of sound engineers, many with extensive live broadcast experience. Paul, who has been involved in Formula E since its first season six years ago, says: We work as a team but we have very distinct roles. My colleague Scott Morton looks after ENG crews and is involved with the live presentation element, while I handle mic allocation around the track and mixing the international feed, along with any additional race support presentation.

For the Berlin races, Scott and Paul had to contend with the German government's social distancing rules, which meant making changes to how the audio was captured. Handheld microphones shared between interviewers and drivers were obviously out, so they switched to boom microphones and used Bubblebee Industries' Spacer Bubble to get the right balance between wind protection and audio transparency.

Switching to boom mics was a major safety protocol and we used them for more than 80 per cent of our ENG and live presentation audio, Scott Morton explains. In this new landscape, presenters can't get close enough to the drivers to share a handheld mic, and our sound engineers are not allowed to touch the talent so we can't easily fit lavaliers. Our solution was to give presenters their own stick mic and couple them with a sound engineer who would use a boom mic to capture the interviewee's responses.

Morton adds that the three piece Spacer Bubble windshield system proved a real winner during the event because it could be adapted to suit the weather and ambient noise levels.

Unlike other systems that are full on fur or nothing, Spacer Bubble's modular nature allowed us to get variations in the shielding and adapt more quickly to changing weather conditions, he says. We used them with various R de and Sennheiser shotgun microphones and got excellent results. As so much of the audio for the Berlin event was captured on boom mics, we didn't worry about them being in shot during interviews because there was very little we could do about it.

Since its inception, Formula E broadcasters have had various audio challenges to overcome - not least the fact that electric cars don't sound anything like a Formula 1 sports car, something that viewers initially found disconcerting.

For the first two seasons, our sound department was under the microscope because we couldn't make the races sound like Formula 1, Halstead says. People often asked why we didn't add pre-recorded sounds but that wasn't the solution because you can't lie to the public. The cars sound how they sound and it is up to us to capture that as realistically as possible. Fans have now got used to it and accept that Formula E simply sounds different.

Another challenge - at least in a normal season - are the race venues. Because Formula E is held on public roads, the sound crew has to leave it until the 11th hour to position microphones to capture the sound of the cars.

On a public road you can't leave anything in place before the race or it may
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