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A look back at Moscow

I’m writing this blog about my trip to Moscow a week after returning from the World Champs in Athletics. It’s been a week of recovery after what was an incredibly challenging project. Every time I work on the world champs the boss always says “pace yourselves, you’re here to work long hours for 10 days”.

We broadcast a live stream on the IAAF website that covered pretty much all of the athletics action in Moscow. Most days this would mean breakfast at 7, transport at 8 and preparation ready to be live at 9. There were morning and afternoon sessions and we’d try our best to pop back to the hotel for a sleep around lunchtime. Then we’d be back on the bus at 5 for an evening session that ran typically from 7 until 10.

When I cover athletics for IAAF I’m in a very privileged position in that I have a desk in the stadium that allows me to enjoy the atmosphere and watch all of the action on the track or the field. This is something that you can take for granted until you’re reminded of how lucky you are when you return to the production offices at the end of the day. The video editors and producers rarely see any light all day.

The sad fact though is that I actually invest a lot of time and effort in to blocking out the stadium sounds in my ears. I tend to wear two pairs of headphones – one set that are like ear plugs – the sort that pop artists wear on stage. And then a headset on top to block out even more sound. In the brief moment of silence before a transmission starts it’s quite an eerie feeling to be sitting in a packed stadium, enjoying almost absolute silence. That said you can still feel the vibrations of the PA around you and there’s always a little bit of cheering that seeps though.

On the bus back to the hotel each night the commentators would always enthuse about the performances they’d seen that evening. It’s a sad reality that, despite my wonderful view, I would have missed pretty much everything that had happened. With the exception of maybe seeing Usain Bolt crossing the line I would spend the night staring at two of three computer screens.

I promised a description of the technical set-up in Moscow in a previous blog. If you don’t find this stuff interesting you have my full permission to skip to the final paragraph. This is the first live broadcast I have ever done that hasn’t involved having a mixing desk in front of me. Normally I would have anything between 12 and 24 faders that would allow me to control the sound level of all of the sources needed to make a programme: four for the commentators, one for the “mixed zone” reporter, two for the sound effects microphones, one for the sound of the guy saying “on your marks”, etc etc. The problem with this setup is that it requires a heavy mixing desk with lots of cables – something that leads to expensive excess baggage charges.

When I started covering athletics in 2007 I built my own commentary boxes that offered unique facilities like “off air” communication amongst the team and connections over bog-standard cat-5 cable. These instantly reduced weight and installation time.

After the World Champs in Berlin 2009 I designed a system that would use an iPad to act as a control surface to a small digital mixing unit. Back then the technology wasn’t quite ready and I was forced to wait until March this year when all of the pieces fell in to place.

Two months before my flight to Moscow I built a mock-up of the commentary positions and installed my new iPad controlled system. I then left it running for days – fixing little bugs and finding work-arounds as problems presented themselves. By the time I landed in Moscow I had a perfectly configured system that simply needed to be connected to the systems and cables that had been installed by the host broadcaster.

As we went on air I didn’t want to make too much of a big deal about how much the set-up had changed from previous championships. One of your key jobs as a producer on site is to keep your presenters and commentators calm despite any uncertainty or panic that may be occurring in your field of view. The reality though is that everything performed as expected. The iPad never once stumbled and the digital mixing unit routed and controlled audio continuously for all 13 days on site. Someone asked me halfway through the championships “you must have been really nervous the first time you used the iPad on a job like this?”. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that this WAS the first time I was using the iPad on a job like this.

Now the planning is already starting for the world champs in 2015. I have a vision of the whole operation being conducted on three tablets. One to link us to London for streaming, one to edit and play back audio and one to mix the audio sources. I also see a tablet for each commentator allowing them to control their own microphones, see when they’re live and to allow greater communication between the team. There’s no technology that allows this to work yet so I guess I need to get inventing.

All in all Moscow was a huge success. We were able to broadcast non-stop coverage of 10 days of exhilarating competition on the IAAF website. We generated over 200 interviews that were distributed to radio stations around the world. We worked well as a team of both old and new faces and I firmly believe that we have a product that will see us well in to Beijing 2015 and London 2017.

Micky ‘MC’ Curling