(Ed Johnson relies on his AKG K181 DJ headphones)
Ed Johnson’s life could be the envy of any extreme sports fan. As the audio designer for ESPN’s X Games for the last 16 years and, for nearly as long, having worked a year-round schedule of Red Bull live sports events, Ed has witnessed every conceivable sport stunt and thrives on providing great live sound to keep audiences hyped, engaged and informed across multiple events and venues.
The annual Summer X Games, with its heart-stopping skateboard, bicycle and motorcycle events, typically spends three years in a location before moving to another part of the country. June 2–5, 2016 was the swansong of the X Games’ Austin, Texas stint and proved to be the trickiest. Bouts of torrential rain, lightening, fierce winds and extreme heat (even for Texas) complicated the games for competitors, attendees and crews alike. But Ed has seen it all and simply takes it in stride.
We recently spoke with Ed about the four-day Austin adrenaline fest to find out how he preps for the games and operates during the events. “Most of my work is done prior to the event,” said Ed. “Maybe a month in advance, I’ve worked out the audio design, the layout of the various event sites and speaker plans, then changing them, as needed, due to budget constraints. Then I hand my paperwork over to On Stage Audio who has an excellent crew. They’ve been doing the show with me for about six years now, and we have a really great relationship.”
By the time Ed arrived in Austin, four days before the first event, his crew had been onsite for three days. “When I walked in, everything was in place up to a certain point. The first thing I always do is look over my documentation and confirm all of the gear and placement. Then our Live Event Producer, Sharon Bauer, Technical Director, Sheri Sternberg and I interface with the TV crew to make sure that our intercom systems are on track and that we’re all onboard with how we’re attacking the various venues, combining resources whenever possible,” he said.
“Next, I moved on to talking to Phil Reynolds, my lead networking expert, who built what I believe must be one of the largest plans to date. Given all the locations, we had a total of 12 fiber optic cables. The shortest was 1,200 feet and the longest was a mile and a half. All of them needed to work simultaneously between two console positions with video departments, announce packages and everything that goes with them, so that it could all be mixed through one or both consoles or split in half, as needed.”
One of Ed’s key considerations at every show is finding a workable balance between his output and the television microphones. “A major part of my job is to keep the crowd pumped by really capturing the action. But, the show also has to work for the television audience,” said Ed. “What we really have is a show inside of a show. Standing in my work area or sitting in the grandstand, you would hear my commentators, experts in the field, athletes who know all the scripts, and flips and back flips. Even if a contender improvises something, they know what it’s called. Those are the people who sit in my chairs and call our shows to the live event crowd.”
“If you’re watching the games on ESPN, you’ll hear the ambient of my show—the music and possibly ramblings of my announcers. But TV also has its own announcers, and overall, the challenge is always figuring out what TV can and can’t handle.
With up to four inches of rain falling in an hour, the Austin X Games’ most volatile obstacle turned out to be the weather and, for safety’s sake, the competition had to intermittently be put on hold. “We just had to deal with it. We had to figure out, minute by minute, what we could set up and what we couldn’t due to climate constraints. A lot of equipment needed to be repeatedly tarped and untarped because of the rain – and then lightening would move into the area, and we would have to stop and then recover.
“It was pretty dramatic at times, having to pour water out of the JBL VRX932 and then pick up the PRX712s that got blown over by the wind. What can you do? You put them up, see what works and do your best to replace whatever you have to with the extra gear you bring along. Overall, we did very well with maintaining the audio being heard. Everyone was notified of storm warnings and stuff like that. We had a plan, and it worked perfectly. The audience had a great time.”
After all these years with the best seats in the house, we wondered if Ed still feels the exhilaration of the athletic events.
“I’m very passionate about it,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would build little ramps and do jumps on my bicycle—coincidentally, that was in the back of the JBL factory, which was right near where I grew up in Northridge, California. To be an adult and make a living off of something that I did back then has been incredible. I never expected life to go in this direction and always enjoy watching what people bring to the sport—the new inventions and the new craziness that happens. It’s all part of a California lifestyle that I grew up in during the 70s that somehow just bloomed into my being part of this show. I’m very lucky; action sports have been really good to me.”
Along with his live sports work, Ed is also approaching his 18th year of mixing award show and key event sound for the National Association of Broadcasters at the NAB Show in Las Vegas.
Many thanks to Ed Johnson for sharing his story. Have you worked at an extreme sports event or in severe weather? Share your story about the technical challenges you faced—and how you overcame them—in the comments.