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Tropicana Field, home to Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays since 1998. Up until last season, an overstuffed analog patchbay struggled valiantly to direct audio signals to over 30 different zones.

Interoperable Flexibility: Audio At Tropicana Field In Florida Moves Into The Digital Realm

Detailing an ongoing upgrade at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg that’s bringing in a digital front-end and networking to improve sound quality and end audio distribution problems that have built up since the Tampa Bay Rays moved into the stadium nearly 25 years ago.

Randy Arozarena of the Tampa Bay Rays made Major League Baseball history at Tropicana Field this past October by becoming the first player to both hit a moonshot home run and steal home plate in a postseason game.

Equally compelling – albeit on a different level this year – was another milestone in the ballpark’s history that few saw happening but everyone heard: An upgrade made to the St. Petersburg, FL venue’s sonic footprint that brought in a digital front-end designed to improve sound quality and end audio distribution problems that had built-up since the Rays moved in back in 1998, the team’s inaugural year.

“Bringing the digital front-end to the stadium this spring represents the completion of the first phase among planned upgrades that will eventually have all audio operations here residing squarely in the digital realm,” says Manny Sanchez of Clearwater, FL-based Tone 40 Productions. “Going forward, the goal is to have game day sound just keep getting better and better, and operations more streamlined and efficient.”

Manny Sanchez of Tone 40 Productions.

Sanchez, who is serving as the upgrade’s consultant and designer, was enlisted for the project by The Tech 123, a systems integration/contracting firm in Orlando headed by Brian Ross. Along with the audio upgrades, the stadium’s AV capabilities are being refurbished as needed as well, with Sunshine Audio Video (Homestead, FL) providing its best efforts under the direction of Jaime Gurevich.

Growing Problems

Opened on March 3, 1990, Tropicana Field – or “The Trop” as it’s widely known locally – has a capacity of 42,735 and is currently the only non-retractable domed stadium in MLB. Originally known as the Florida Suncoast Dome, the stadium became Tropicana Field in October of 1996 when fruit juice company Tropicana Products in nearby Bradenton signed a 30-year naming rights deal.

“When I first arrived onsite,” Sanchez recalls, “I was greeted by an area of coverage divided into 30-plus zones that needed different signals. To accommodate these zones, an aging analog patch bay was in place that had been growing in size steadily over the years just like the suburban sprawl around Phoenix.

The Trop’s main control room, home of the upgraded system’s Yamaha TF3 console.

“Problems within the distribution scheme grew proportionately as well and were ultimately compounded by sound quality issues brought about by an inability to provide adequate control of the inputs, which ranged from music, play-by-play announcements, live radio feeds, audio embedded within video, and the sometimes complex needs brought in by a revolving cast of broadcast trucks moving in and out of the parking lot outside on game days.”

For Sanchez, there was but one solution to bring audio operations back to center: Go digital. “My goal was to provide one-click capabilities everywhere that would allow system operators to use a single control screen to place any input or output anywhere across the entire systems blueprint, and to build scenes that offered the same one-click capacity for quickly configuring the entire system for pregame functions, the singing of the national anthem, and audio heard during the game itself all the way from in the bowl throughout the concourses and even the most remote locations.

At left, a rear panel view of the rack housing the system upgrade’s 32-channel TASCAM ML-32D analog/Dante converters; at right, audio inputs and outputs coming and going from broadcast trucks outside in the parking lot as well The Trop’s own video world were served by the ML-16D Dante/analog converters seen at the top of this rack.

“There was no other way to do all of this without going digital. Analog isn’t that precise, and as testimony to that fact all you had to do was look at the reticulated rat’s nest that the patch bays had become.”

Within his plan, a Dante network became the upgrade’s chosen cornerstone, with software, hardware, and network protocols provided by the technology’s creator, Audinate, delivering uncompressed, multi-channel, low-latency digital audio over a standard Ethernet network using Layer 3 IP packets.

Effectively taming a sum number of 294 outputs and 262 inputs, beyond bringing the one-click simplicity and solid performance Sanchez was seeking for the ballpark’s audio distribution, Dante’s presence additionally put an end to signal degradation due to electromagnetic interference, high-frequency attenuation, and voltage drop over the legacy cable runs still in use. It also ushered in an era of native gigabit support and automatic configuration.

View from the top: Crew member Cesar Maique gives a thumbs-up from inside the ceiling while pulling cable.

Blending Old With New

Mixing within the new digital realm Sanchez created was provided by a Yamaha TF3 console primed and ready with its own Dante card. Five 32-channel TASCAM ML-32D analog/Dante converters that Sanchez notes “are now fairly full” receive input from a collection of components that were for the most part already in place prior to the upgrade.

“The TASCAM ML-32D boxes each have four D-Sub inputs and four D-Sub outputs,” he explains. “They can easily be connected to virtually any device that uses D-Sub connectors such as microphone preamps, our new Yamaha TF3 console, audio interfaces, power amps, and so forth. As The Trop’s needs evolve, the units will grow with us as well, allowing us to add Dante’s Domain Manager in the next phase of the upgrade, which, among many other things, will provide the support for SMPTE ST-2110-30, a protocol that could enhance the structuring of our broadcast operations with smooth IP transmission of PCM digital audio.”

Front view of the ML-32D rack, which also houses the system’s DaVinci software used within the field zones.

Sometimes things can work out better than one plans, as was the case this time out, when microphone input was able to be provided within the upgrade by an existing collection of Axient digital wireless systems from Shure that were already Dante ready.

With an Axient four-channel AD4Q wireless receiver receiving signals from an ADX2 transmitter, Shure’s AXT600 wireless spectrum manager was also a piece Sanchez inherited from The Trop’s past that was put to use within the new digital realm.

Power within the system is provided by four Crown two-channel CTs 600 amplifiers, a single two-channel Crown CTs 1200, an A-724 amp from TOA’s 700 Series, and a trio of NX Series amps from Ashly including a pair of two-channel nX8002s and a single four-channel nX8004s.

“All of the inputs and outputs found in the old patch bays were given over to the five 32-channel Tascam ML-32D analog/Dante converters,” Sanchez notes. “These include the inputs from the announcer’s booth in both English and Spanish, all kinds of visitor and home broadcast feeds and inputs for radio and TV, inputs from the field, dugouts, and more. There are eight inputs and outputs in both dugouts, remote areas have 16 inputs and 16 outputs. Some broadcast elements go directly into the concourses without passing through the Yamaha TF3 console.

Amplification includes contributions from Crown, TOA, and Ashly.

“Building this part of the signal chain was made unbelievably easy with Dante,” he continues. “Being able to build scenes naturally simplified operations as well on a day-to-day basis and was an indispensable feature when it came to the postseason, when we had a complex number of feeds going back-and-forth between the stadium and a considerably expanded presence of broadcast trucks outside. Everything we did for the postseason was saved as a scene, of course, ready for instant use next time.”

Too Loud/Soft To Just Right

One of The Trop’s major sound quality issues in the past revolved around having disparate volume levels in the different zones. Some may have been too loud, while others too soft, a problem that wasn’t easily addressed in the analog world and was rectified as best as possible via the use of a secondary Mackie mixing console, which operators would use to adjust levels before sending their feeds to the amps.

To address this problem, Sanchez enlisted the aid of a pair of Focusrite 16×16 RedNet A16R analog interfaces for Dante. Besides adding a splash of bright color to the equipment racks with their flashy red exterior finishes, the units provided input and output level controls that enable precise adjustment of all I/O levels using Focusrite’s RedNet Control software.

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Focusrite RedNet control is now available right along with The Trop’s Dante control screen.

Capable of being viewed on the system’s main control screen right along with Dante, the software lets operators move anything that needs a level adjustment onto a fader, where it can even be adjusted on the fly during a game. RedNet Control can additionally be used in this application with a tablet to make any adjustments to the system remotely right within any zone needing attention.

With the first phase of The Trop’s upgrade complete and battle-tested during a season and postseason that ultimately led to the Rays’ defeat in game four of their American League Division Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox, Sanchez has regrouped with the rest of the upgrade team, and was found as of this writing out on the field working intently on the next phase of the project, which kicked-off in late October with a thorough examination of the stadium’s PA.

“The rig is ready for some maintenance,” he says from an infield vantage point, craning his neck skyward to better view five of the distributed arrays comprising 12 Renkus-Heinz PN102/LA enclosures each that are so high and towering above the field along catwalks it seems they can give one a nosebleed even from the ground. “Next we’re going to put all of this into the digital world along with four other hangs of four of the same cabinets each that are out by the scoreboard. We brought our switchers into the digital realm with new cabling during the first phase, but not these line array elements.

The Trop’s roof rings, where the Renkus-Heinz line arrays reside in their respective sky-high locations.

“Once we’re done we’re going to have even more precise control over our zones and interoperable flexibility among all our components that will exceed anything imagined when this system was first installed,” he concludes. “The PN102/LAs will still remain very much relevant to the task at hand as we move forward. Their 150-degree dispersion is excellent in here, and with the line arrays hung 80 feet apart the sound is seamless as you walk through each zone. As for the Rays, well, there’s always next year. They’ll be up to meeting all challenges I’m sure, and so will their sound.”

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