Rihanna Super Bowl halftime performance: ‘A marvel of engineering’

Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime performance saw the star rely on a Sennheiser Digital 6000 wireless mic system, which has been described by the company’s director of spectrum and innovation, Joe Ciaudelli as a “marvel of engineering”.

Rihanna’s halftime performance was the second-most watched halftime show in Super Bowl history, exceeding the average viewership of the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs football match by five million, according to data from Fox.

A Sennheiser Digital 6000 wireless microphone system and a custom chrome SKM 6000 transmitter with an MD 9235 dynamic cardioid microphone capsule was specified for the performance on account of the Phoenix location and its notoriously challenging environment for coordinating wireless frequencies. Over 2,000 frequencies were coordinated in Phoenix over the Super Bowl weekend as dozens of simultaneous events took place in the area, including the 2023 NFL Honors Awards, various VIP events, outdoor concerts and more.

With this, and the ever-diminishing spectrum available for wireless microphone operators, the audio engineers and frequency coordinators for this year’s broadcast had their work cut out for them.

“Phoenix is a challenging city because it is the only one that officially does not have a vacant UHF TV channel,” said Ciaudelli. “They are all allocated for broadcast, so there is very little spectrum available for wireless mics. To make matters more complicated, although it is an indoor stadium with a retractable roof, the State Farm Arena does not provide much shielding from outside RF signals, making it vulnerable to interference.”

Ciaudelli is an industry veteran and expert on spectrum and wireless system operations. He contributed the chapter on wireless microphones to the Audio Engineering Society (AES) Handbook and is a private sector adviser in the US delegation to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations’ specialized agency on information and communications.

“Thanks to their resourcefulness and diligent planning, the audio engineers and NFL frequency coordinators were able to combat the harsh RF environment this year by leveraging Special Temporary Authorizations (STA) via the FCC, along with some other workarounds,” Ciaudelli recalled. An STA gives licensed wireless microphone operators temporary access to frequency bands that are not permitted for wireless mics. The engineers also leveraged channels occupied by low power or distant TV stations and used strategic placement of directional antennas to further reduce unwanted TV signals, before being picked up by the wireless microphone receivers.

The audio team also had to be meticulous with the choice of wireless microphone system for Rihanna. This was to ensure optimal sound quality, as well as to combat the challenging RF environment and establish a reliable wireless connection.

“Not only is the Digital 6000 with the MD 9235 capsule a great sounding microphone, but it also has such good intermodulation suppression and a clean RF signal,” said Ciaudelli. “This is one tool that would work in an environment where all others might fail – it is a marvel of engineering from both the RF and audio standpoints. I am not surprised that it was used by the star.

“This year’s Super Bowl highlights the challenges of a lack of suitable available spectrum for wireless mics that has led STAs to be a tiresome staple at almost all professional sporting events today. Even though it is called a Special Temporary Authorization, it is becoming so routinely used that they might as well start calling them Standard Temporary Authorizations.”

PHOTO: imago