5 Ways Alpha Has Transformed Churchill Downs’ Audio Infrastructure
An upgrade worthy of the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2024.
Each year, upwards of 170,000 people gather at Churchill Downs Racetrack for the Kentucky Derby, America’s longest continually held sporting event and perhaps the most prestigious horse race in the world.
In preparation for the Derby’s sesquicentennial in 2024, Alpha was asked to deliver a massive upgrade of Churchill Down’s PA system – no small task for an audio network dispersed across 60 locations covering 147 acres.
Adding to the difficulty: a patchwork of additions and repairs performed over the decades, an aging, mostly copper cabling infrastructure, and a lack of technical documentation left by previous vendors.
Beginning in January of 2022, Alpha worked back-end to front-end, explains Fred Street, senior broadcast design engineer at Alpha. “There are two principal keys to success in an undertaking like this,” says Street. “Alpha brings the requisite technology expertise to large-scale projects, and we complement it with top-flight project management.
“We literally plan for success by breaking down the project into phases and tackling them methodically.”
Sr. Broadcast Design Engineer, Frederick G. Street, CTS-D
1. Installing a winning platform.
After a thorough technical review, QSC’s Q-SYS platform galloped to the head of the pack. The software-based, cloud-managed system for audio, video and control provided the mix of capability, reliability and flexibility needed for an ever-evolving racing environment. In partnership with the Q-SYS Professional Services division, Alpha’s team, led by Street, replaced almost 800 amplifier channels and dozens of different processors managing 650 amplifier loads.
The result was a unified control system for the half-mile-long property, condensed into roughly 100 Class D 8-channel amps, augmented by a pair of redundant Q-SYS processors, over a networked fiber system with Q-LAN and Dante signal transport.
2. Making new connections
Across the new audio infrastructure, Alpha updated connections to the main system. As an example, the Pagoda, home to the famed Churchill Downs bugler, connects via a Yamaha Rio box. In the track announcer’s booth, a Studio Technologies Model 214 announcer console ensures every word is heard and understood. Both connect over Dante.
The track’s upgraded PA system continues to share a split from the front-of-house mixer to the broadcast compound, the site of NBC’s production-truck contingent. The Derby’s broadcaster since 2001, NBC Sports has since extended its contract with Churchill Downs through 2025.
3. Upgrading the performance of existing assets
Churchill Downs’ audio infrastructure includes hundreds of loudspeakers from manufacturers including Danley, Community, Renkus-Heinz, QSC, JBL, Bose and others. To optimize system performance across the array, Alpha accessed the system profile for each manufacturer and each speaker model, including impedance, frequency response and Q – a damping/resonance performance metric. By entering that data directly into the amplifiers that power the respective speakers, Alpha was able to reduce the processing load on the QSC DSP units.
The beauty of the integration, adds Street, is that “without changing a single loudspeaker, the upgrade in amplification, processing and cabling has drastically improved audio performance.”
4. Improving access and control
One of Street’s principal objectives was to simplify end-user controls with customized interfaces. They include user-friendly map-based navigation that allowed authorized users – even those without specialized AV expertise – to select any zone across the network and adjust volume and routing on the fly. Remote control is also enabled via a wirelessly connected iPad, which gives audio managers the ability to hear and tune the system directly from any part of the venue.
In addition, the team modernized Churchill Downs’ life-safety system so that any authorized staff member, anywhere in the facility, can override other audio to initiate a critical page. “Before, the track announcer would be the one to make any life-safety or other emergency announcements,” explains Street. “That’s up on the seventh floor; it’s got a great view of the track, but it’s not the place you want to be if there’s a fire.”
5. Enhancing the guest experience
Alpha partnered closely with Q-SYS Professional Services to ensure the audio infrastructure provided the same attendee experience across the nearly one million square foot facility, from banquet spaces, bars and restaurants to the grandstands and infield. At the heart of the upgrade is a mapped control system that allows any designated user with iPad or wall panel access to tailor the audio environment to the precise needs of the space and the moment.
“We had a team of Alpha and Q-SYS engineers, tuning and testing throughout the facility,” says Street. The results were dramatic – “like night and day,” according to Randy Garrett, Director of Broadcast Engineering at Churchill Downs. “We could walk from one end of the venue to the other and the audio level was balanced.”
Street concurred: “Once we got the legacy stuff out of the signal path, it made all the difference in enhancing the fan experience at the track.”
Cherishing the past, while racing to the future
Attendees at every race enjoy the benefits of Churchill Downs’ upgraded audio infrastructure, but Street and his team are particularly excited for the upcoming 150th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2024 when the audio infrastructure will be exercised to its full capacity. For the majority of races, the system is throttled to back-of-house areas, with most infield and grandstand speakers turned off. “The big test is the Kentucky Derby. That’s when the track’s sound is heard by the greatest number of people. With this upgrade, Churchill Downs has an audio system ready for its 150th anniversary and what’s likely to be the track’s largest crowd in history.”
Keith Wetzler, senior director/executive producer of Churchill Downs Broadcasting also looks forward to 2024 – and beyond. “[Alpha and QSC] translated our ambitions into a successful Kentucky Derby and helped create a standardized foundation that we are confident will continue to reliably scale as our needs evolve.”
If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your audio systems, take a look at some more of Alpha’s sound integration projects.
What were the goals in improving Churchill Downs’ audio infrastructure?
Churchill Downs can accommodate upwards of 170,000 spectators. At high-profile races like the Kentucky Derby, it’s critically important that all attendees can hear music, video playback and announcements, both so that they can enjoy the day’s events to the fullest and for the purposes of public safety. In addition, Churchill Downs wanted a system that would operate more efficiently and easily, with greater reliability than the patchwork of audio solutions it had relied upon in decades past.
What is the best way to approach audio upgrades for large sporting facilities like Churchill Downs?
Close client communication is essential, as is an in-depth discovery, planning, and documentation process to fully understand the client’s vision and make it possible. In-depth planning is all the more important in an era of chronic supply chain shortages that can lead to long lead times for key products. In a complex, highly networked environment, a single missing component can bring an entire project to a halt. It is also important for the facility’s technology partner to have the end-to-end capabilities necessary to see a project to its conclusion and assure its proper functioning via a strong service and support infrastructure.
Why did Alpha partner with Q-SYS Professional Services to provide the control platform for Churchill Downs’ audio infrastructure upgrade?
QSC’s Q-SYS platform is a software-based, cloud-managed system for audio, video and control. It is recognized for its versatility, adaptability and reliability in complex integrations such as Alpha created for Churchill Downs. In addition, Q-SYS has not faced supply chain challenges to the degree that many legacy manufacturers have experienced.
What are the key features of the upgrade to Churchill Downs’ audio infrastructure?
The sonic quality of Churchill Downs’ audio infrastructure has been improved by upgrades to amplification, processing, cabling, and loudspeakers. The goal of any integration of this nature is to clear a path for the signal so that it can travel from source to listener with minimal degradation. For this reason, it’s important to consider every step of the signal’s journey, and how to optimize the transmission of audio all along the way. Also, the huge improvement in unified system control, along with a simplified user interface, makes a complex system easy for the end user to monitor and control.