The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) approached Dolby Laboratories in early 2017 to explore what value immersive audio might bring to the NHRA’s television broadcasts.
After site visits, audio capture, video production analysis and production tests, a hybrid production strategy leveraging conventional live and cinematic post production methodologies using both the static placement of objects and the dynamic panning of audio objects in the immersive space and in real time was employed.
This approach took advantage of the relatively predictable nature of each NHRA drag race to enable the use of live, dynamically panned audio objects combined with statically panned objects like ambience and crowd paired with substantial use of audio scene changes.
This hybrid live/post approach to the creation of live Dolby Atmos immersive audio experiences could be used as a model for other sports, and exposes opportunities for a measure of automated audio production control through the capture and use of telemetry data from spider-cams, jib-cams and the participants themselves.
Understanding the Challenges - The Importance of Audio to the NHRA
The NHRA produces 24 live events each season held at race tracks around the United States during a season that lasts roughly 10 months. Each three-day live event (Friday through Sunday) involves several rounds of qualifying and elimination races and attracts thousands of fans over the course of the weekend, who come to enjoy what some call a “full body experience.”
One of the main highlights for these race fans are the “Top Fuel” vehicle classification that burn a concoction known as nitromethane, and are separated into two categories: “Funny Cars” and “Top Fuel Dragsters.”
These supercharged vehicles output more than 10,000 horsepower each, which translates into a sound pressure level of more than 160dB. In fact, in a 2007 experiment with a single 7,000 horsepower vehicle (state of the art at that time), the launch of the vehicle registered 2.3 on the Richter Scale1.
NHRA fans at these events crowd around the retaining fence at the vehicle staging and launch area, about 50 feet from the starting line, where the cars perform a routine which includes a tire burn-out and last minute mechanical adjustments prior to the line-up and launch.
When the cars launch down the track, the fans experience a physical shock strong enough to knock them back and even distort their vision. Fans find this sensation to be addictive. Each NHRA event is broadcast either live or same-day time-shifted in the US mainly on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), a channel delivered via subscription services like cable, satellite or IP, but also occasionally on the main FOX flagship broadcast channel. In 2015, the NHRA live production team transitioned from stereo program production to 5.1.
Still, the televised product was no match for the live experience to which drag race fans had come to expect, and the NHRA looked to Dolby to help them create a more representative televised experience that better matched the live experience, with the expressed intention of growing their fan base.
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