On this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Jason Waufle of Soundtronics Wireless about their setup and operation of wireless broadcast systems for ESPN’s televised coverage of World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Jason outlines the setup of the Clear-Com Freespeak II communications system and wireless microphones for the event.
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This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor with Jason Waufle of Soundtronics Wireless. We’ve got all the show notes and product links for the podcasts at svconline.com. Go to Podcasts at the top of the page.
The World Series of Poker pits hundreds of the best players and finally whittles it all down to one table. Televising it requires the ultimate in production communications with lots of RF gear. Soundtronics Wireless of Las Vegas made it all happen and Jason Waufle is here to tell us how they got it done. That’s all coming up right now on the SVC Podcast.
Jason, it’s good of you to get with us on the SVC Podcast, I think from Las Vegas. You get around so much I’m not sure where you are. Tell us about Soundtronics Wireless. You have two offices I believe.
Yeah, Bennett. Thanks so much for having me. I am home right now. I’m in Vegas. We do have two offices. We have an office in Burbank, California that opened in 1964, purchased by Dave Bellamy in 1991. And then the Las Vegas office opened in 1991 as well. [Timestamp: 1:15]
OK, so what have you got going on? We know you do the World Series of Poker but I’m sure there are plenty of other big productions that your outfit handles as well.
Yeah. So Soundtronics Wireless is an RF provider for mostly entertainment broadcast and sports broadcast live events, so we handle the U.S. Open, the World Series of Poker, we do some NFL on Fox segments depending on when they take their desk show on the road. We’ve handled – Showtime Boxing has been one of our largest clients for quite a while. That’s all the Las Vegas office. The L.A. office is a little more entertainment-based. They handled a lot of broadcast series from The Voice and American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, up to award shows like the Grammys and the Oscars. All RF packages, RF mics, IFB’s and some PL communications depending on the show. [Timestamp: 2:11]
Well, that’s quite a bit to handle, with so many different shows going on in different places but on the World Series of Poker, I’ve seen a few You Tube videos from that and it’s a huge production. It would be interesting to know how you handle that because that show evolves as it goes on and the coverage would have to evolve along with it.
Yeah, Bennett, it absolutely does. It’s very large. It starts with – I think this year there was over 7,800 players and about a $74 million prize pool. So they start at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Vegas covering four ballrooms. We do about 16 days straight total with three of those days being set-up days where we come in and just get the broadcast team set up. We use 35 RF belt packs, about 45 RF mics, six to eight IFB’s, quite a bit of gear on that show. We get down to obviously nine players at the final table with one champion. We mic all the players at three featured tables, so there’s 27 microphones there. We mic all the dealers and the dealer IFB’s so the dealers can hold for television basically on turns and rivers that are exciting. The communication side of things is pretty extensive. At the beginning when there’s 7,800 players there’s hundreds of poker tables that are having live action. And so the idea or the goal for us is to try to be able to cover all those tables. Obviously that’s a very difficult task, but what we’ve done is we’ve set up what’s called poker spotters; people that know the game really well and know what to look for. And they’re on their own channel and they’re out amongst all these tables looking for exciting hands and looking for hands that could shape the tournament. And what they do is they call in, whenever they see something that’s potentially exciting, to commando crews which are groups of ENG-style shooting crews that we’ve tied into our main communication system with Freespeak so that the commando units can move fluidly through all four of the main ballrooms and to any table at any given time to cover any poker hand at any time throughout this entire tournament. [Timestamp: 4:29]
Yes, and you would need to have a very versatile communication system for that so why was the Clear-Com Freespeak II system chosen for this? Specific features that system has?
Yeah. Freespeak II is specifically chosen for this event for a lot of reasons. First of all its flexibility in coverage and multiple frequency bands in the 2.4 and the 1.9 allows us to get up to that 35-36 belt pack count that we need to get this done. Secondly, it’s got massive included I/O in the cards that you put into the EHX frame. So a lot of other competitors to Clear-Com, their cards are less than 64, which is what Clear-Com is – considerably less. So I get 64 ports of MADI on a single card which is really, to be honest, a lot of bang for the buck and allows us a ton of flexibility. This year we had 62 MADI channels that were bidirectional to and from the truck for PL’s alone. So a lot of IO between the broadcast truck and the floor going on because of the amount of channels and Clear-Com really knocks it out of the park in the element, as well as easy distribution. Clear-Com’s integrated fiber splitters for their Freespeak deployment of antennas makes for really, really easy distribution of RF coverage area. We come in with a pretty extensive fiber plan with the technical manager and the broadcast team to get us fiber dropped in multiple locations so that we can get these Clear-Com fiber splitters in each of the ballrooms, which allows us to distribute transceivers through a very large coverage area over the simple solution of fiber, which is very important. [Timestamp: 6:10]
That’s a whole lot of RF going on in there so there’s got to be some serious RF coordination going on; not just for this show and what’s going on in there but Las Vegas is a very active RF environment. So how do you manage to handle all the RF coordination on it?
Another reason why we choose Freespeak is because it’s up in the gigahertz range, which has allowed us a lot more space down the UHF spectrum for our microphones, our IFB’s. So that’s obviously the first reason and the thing that we do. The second thing is we go about a month ahead of time and do a site survey scan with the spectrum analyzer. We also touch base with any of the local theaters that are inside the Rio and make sure to update our list of their current active frequencies and what they’re currently using. We get in touch with Rio hotel and security. We get in touch with their events. We build a master list for pretty much the entire casino, and shout out to the Rio for being as cooperative as they are because we couldn’t do it without that. And then we start to work into what we’re going to add to that, and luckily we have a pretty large inventory of wireless devices and ranges that allow us to pick the lowest noise floor TV channels that we can, start to coordinate frequencies a couple weeks ahead of time, and build the system out to give us the best possibility of success in the areas that we have found to be the cleanest. So it is quite a job. We are based in Vegas, so we know the Vegas spectrum really well. Our office is about, I don’t know, 10 blocks from the Rio so we’ve got an antenna on the rooftop of our office that we actively scan for new DTV stations or new noise in the valley. So it’s nice that the show is in our backyard, but it’s definitely a challenge. We use intermodulation analysis software from Professional Wireless to coordinate intermods, thirds, fifths, and to manage our frequencies. And that’s pretty much our coordination effort. [Timestamp: 8:07]
And in addition to all the RF intercom you’ve got a lot of IFBs and mics out there on the floor on the videos I saw and those have got to all work the first time. What type of RF mics do you use?
For that show it’s actually entirely Shure products. This last year we used Shure Axient Digitals for all the player mics; 27 Axient digital player mics – plus or minus a couple spares – for the three main tables that are featured, nine players per table. We use Axient Digitals for the dealer mics as well, so there’s another three mics there. And they actually double out so dealers have changes, I think it’s every 45 minutes. So we mic Dealer A with one mic and we mic Dealer B with the second mic across all three tables. The dealers also wear Shure PSM 1000 in-ear monitors as IFB’s. We just find the range and the diversity receiver that Shure has come up with to be more reliable. And then we use Shure Axient analog stick mics for our standup hosts, mainly for their frequency diversity and their agile and frequency-hopping that makes them essentially bulletproof. The reason we went with all Shure devices on this show was it’s really, really convenient when you’re working poker for 17 days in a row to have Wireless Workbench networked to all of these receivers. And we bring like a 22-inch monitor that we connect to the computer and we put all our receivers and transmitters up on Wireless Workbench in there and it gives us a really central monitoring location to be able to quickly look at battery levels, signal strength, audio input metering, control frequencies, control the Axient mics remotely with the access points they give. So Shure really knocked it out of the park for us as well to be able to streamline that much RF into one management software. It works really well for us. [Timestamp: 10:01]
That’s an enormous amount of wireless gear to look after and a very mobile and changing operation as the competition continues and the players are knocked off. It’s fascinating the way you pull this off behind the scenes. In watching the videos I almost forgot about the tech side even though that’s why I was watching it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the goal, right? The main goal is to make sure that the broadcast is seamless and nobody knows what’s going on behind the scenes. But you’re absolutely right. With the amount of tables that are shifting and we get to the point where we start to lose entire ballrooms. Earlier I said we start with four ballrooms, and as that happens who individuals need to talk to and listen to change. There’s a couple of producers for the outside tables – the main tables – and a couple of producers for the inside main table. So Clear-Com has allowed us to give users two options. You can either give the end user on the belt pack what’s called a scroll list which allows them to manipulate by themselves what channels are on their belt pack in any heat of the moment, which is really, really handy for those savvy users that move a lot and understand how that works. And it’s pretty easy to teach. With a click of a menu button and a scroll you can change whatever PL channels are attached to your belt pack. And the EHX configuration software allows me to build those scroll lists, customize them, for individual users. So effectively you can have, I think it’s 64 PLs that are on one belt pack. They say it’s a four-channel belt pack, but you can layer those buttons with multiple channels underneath. So as tables move and players change and the poker tournament evolves as does who certain people need to talk to. The biggest example I can think of is when we go down from three main tables and we get down to, say, 18 players, now you’re down to two tables, right? So all of the production staff that was on table three – the three camera operators, the jib operator, the stage manager, the A2 – they’re all now moving to work on the inside table or one of the outer tables that’s left. So they either can change their belt pack themselves if we’ve given them that functionality, or I can quickly go into EHX configuration software and update their belt pack live in a matter of seconds to allow their belt pack to switch over to whatever they need to be hearing and who they need to be talking to, and it makes for a really quick smooth transition. And my favorite part is nobody’s ever waiting on me, you know? If somebody needs their PL changed it happens quick and Clear-Com allows that to happen. And that makes sure they can do their job and makes sure no one is waiting on them. And then nobody’s waiting on production and now you get a clean and effective broadcast and that’s really the goal. [Timestamp: 12:38]
Takes a lot of careful planning. Very nice to hear how it all comes together. I want to hear more about the specifics on the setup in Part 2. We’ve been talking to Jason Waufle of Soundtronics Wireless in the Las Vegas office there and the World Series of Poker. Great having a look behind the curtain and we’ll hear more about it in Part 2.
Hey, it’s been a pleasure, Bennett. Thanks for having me. Talk to you soon.
The World Series of Poker broadcast got just what it needed on wireless communication gear from Soundtronics Wireless of Las Vegas. Next week Jason will be back to talk about running cabling for transceivers and operating specifics on the Clear-Com Freespeak II belt packs. Get with us for that on the next SVC Podcast.