Creative Audio - Dolby Atmos With Josh Daniels

If you are going to try and convey the bone-rattling power of nitro-fueled cars drag racing down a quarter-mile track to viewers at home, what better way than to mix it in Dolby Atmos?

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In 2017, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) approached Dolby Laboratories to explore what an immersive broadcast mix might bring to the sport. In interviews at the time, NHRA technology executive Mike Rokosa revealed that he had experienced a soccer game in Dolby Atmos and wondered how that might translate to his organization’s events. In 2018, drag racing became the first sport in the United States to produce every event on its calendar in Dolby Atmos. (The games of the 2018 Winter Olympics were the first live sports events to be available in Atmos in the U.S., according to Dolby.)

This year’s NHRA Championship Drag Racing schedule begins in February in Pomona, California, followed by 20 more four-day events around the U.S. before the Auto Club NHRA Finals at the same track in November.

Mixing the NHRA show for broadcast on FOX Sports is a two-man job. At the staging area, as the cars do their pre-start burnouts, back up and then take their places for the start, a jib camera swoops around and above them. The job of replicating the movements of that camera’s microphone in the Atmos soundfield falls to Russell “Rusty” Roark, who submixes all of the microphones on the course and on the crowds in the stands and feeds them to A1 Josh Daniels.

“He’s the one that does the magic,” says Daniels, who combines the mics with the commentators, replay machines and other sources into the production mix. “A lot of it is his skill with being able to fly this around in real time. We worked very hard together on this. Because, how do you get it to go from the 5.1 plane up into the overheads and back in real time?”

It would be easier in a post-produced show where you can make repeated attempts, he says. “But here, we’ve got one shot, and it has to be as accurate as possible.”

From the start, Mike Babbitt, Dolby’s solutions engineering director, advised on the Dolby Atmos workflow and technical setup. While the NHRA negotiated with the MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) to set up distribution for the immersive mix, the audio team recorded the Dolby Atmos production as proof of concept while also getting to grips with the format.

Daniels and Roark work out of Game Creek Video’s remote truck units Nitro A, which is equipped with a Calrec Artemis desk, and Nitro B, which features a Calrec Brio. One immediate challenge was that the consoles don’t offer a dedicated 5.1.4 bus. “In the Calrec world, you don’t have a 10-channel bus, you have to use two 5.1-buses,” Daniels says, with the front and rear left and right channels of the second surround bus feeding the four overhead speakers. In Nitro B, Roark is able to steer the jib-cam microphone around one 5.1 plane with a finger on his Brio’s touchscreen while moving the sound between the two 5.1 buses with his other hand on a fader.

The mix team’s setup has continued to evolve. “Rusty added a second microphone to the jib camera, so now he has a forward- and a rear-facing microphone. That way, as it spins, the whole sound moves with it. Over time, he’s developed it into an entire sphere of sound,” Daniels reports.

The two desks share a DSP core, he also reports. “As far as the Artemis core, it was a little tricky, because all of our tape machines had to become 16-channel playback machines, so that I could track the 10 Atmos channels [plus the 5.1 mix]. That was probably the most difficult part of my room, trying to figure out how you track 16 tape machines at 16 channels apiece.”

Roark’s A2 typically puts out about three dozen microphones to cover the start, the track and the crowd. “It’s a lot of different microphones in different positions to get different sounds,” Daniels says. “We went through about two years of testing, just to make sure that we had it to where we were happy with it. So much of the testing was making sure that the sound that Rusty was getting was appropriate to him. He does a great job with the mic placement.”

Most of the microphones are positioned around the staging and start line island, including on a variety of cameras. “That’s where most of the action takes place,” he says. “The bulk of the time that the car is somewhere is in that position.”

Adding to the challenges, the cars’ motors typically generate over 10,000 horsepower and the cars have been metered at sound pressure levels in excess of 160 dB as they rip down the quarter-mile track, reaching speeds of 300-plus miles per hour in about four seconds. “The sound pressure around that island is just incredible. We had to do a lot of testing with the microphones to find something that could pick up the natural sound of these motors.”

Unlike many other sports events, says Daniels, who has also mixed ice hockey, baseball, basketball and football as well as horse, motorcycle and Formula 1 racing events, the action at a drag racing track is repetitive and therefore predictable. “That gives us a little advantage over some other sports,” he says. “We know where the cars are going to be and how everything is going to go, so we have the ability to set up for things to happen.”

For instance, he continues, “We have handheld cameras at the starting line, getting inside the cars, getting the engine noise. Then they have to step back, turn around and get the teams clapping and cheering. That’s a very dramatic change in the way the sound is going to be presented. So Rusty will bring those microphones into the console twice and he will EQ and gain them for those particular moments.”

Most graphics packages and other sources come to Daniels in 5.1. “I will take them and delay them and add them into the overheads. That way they will have some movement,” he says. “Some are stereo; I can take that stereo source and move it around a little bit more, put it back in and delay it, so that it comes around in time and you feel the movement. I do the same with some of the music. I like to have some in the overheads; that way, you’re feeling the full room.”

He also makes the most of the immersive soundfield with the mics mounted on the low point-of-view cameras at the start line. “When the cars roll back, the sound comes in through the overheads and into the rear speakers,” he explains.

Daniels has been using his console for downmixing and upmixing but is now thinking of re-integrating the Dolby DP590 box. “There are so many more things I can do with it than what we’re doing now. So it’ll be nice when we get back into the season and I get to play around a little bit more,” he says. 

Downmixing the height channels can be tricky because of the engine noise in them, he says. “Those overheads can come through at a pretty high level and you really don’t want it to disappear in your 5.1 mix — or overpower it. It was very difficult to dial that in, but after a couple of runs down the track you get the sound that you like.”

Nitro A’s audio room is little match for the ambient noise. “That was another challenge; it’s just really loud,” Daniels says. “It really makes it tough to mix, because we have to have the truck nearby the track. But over time my ear has developed to know what is coming through the walls, not my speakers.”

Because of the high SPLs, some track microphones are positioned to capture the reflected sound, using the walls to protect them. But sound level is not the only challenge. “We also get these small bits of rubber that fly off the tires, so we bag the microphones and use protective coats on them,” he reports. “We make sure everything is cleaned after every race. If you get a little piece of rubber inside one of these microphones the sound totally changes.”

Like many sports events, drag racing has a PA system for the crowd, but not much makes it into the Atmos mix over the roar of the cars. “Rusty has six crowd mics, three on each side of the track, trying to pull that sound in. He also puts some mics on top of the TV truck for a little extra crowd ambience.”

There are also microphones at 1,000 feet — the finish line for Top Fuel dragsters — and at 1,320 feet — the quarter-mile mark — that allow the mixers to follow the action from camera left to camera right. “We also have some mics on Camera 6 that is all the way down at the end, so Rusty gets the sand trap,” Daniels adds. “I love to hear the cars when they go into the sand.”

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