Venue Sound Systems Go Hi-Fi and High-Dollar

The most famous moment for a sports-venue PA system came about on July 4, 1939, when the Yankees’ Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, made his famous farewell speech after the fatal neuromuscular disease ALS had ended his career. It’s tribute to that 70-year-old technology that the emotion of Gehrig’s words came through as clearly as they did, the echoes off the walls of the ballpark only adding to the wallop of his heartbreakingly authentic sentiment that “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

But sports fans today expect a lot more out of venue sound systems: such systems need to intelligibly reproduce not only game-play information but also in-park commercials, live and canned music performances, and an array of other entertainment, municipal, and corporate events that many new stadiums and arenas need to host to pay their nine-figure mortgages.

Fan Expectations
As in other types of venues, many consumers now expect a home-theater–level audio experience. That’s what Mark Graham, design associate at Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW), has discovered at installations at such venues as the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Consol Energy Center, and, most recently, the New York Giants/Jets’ New Meadowlands Stadium, where the distributed audio system required installation of 1,050 JBL speakers in the main bowl and 462 Crown CTS amplifiers to power them.

“That kind of distributed system gets the sound very close to the fan in the stands, and, as it result, it also syncs very well with the video in the stadium, too,” says Graham. But, he adds, distributing a large number of speakers makes for a costly system compared with the point-source approach, with speaker clusters placed usually around the scoreboard and in strategic locations around the stadium. “Point-source is also a good way to go, and it’s more cost-effective because there are fewer devices in the system. But a distributed system is less vulnerable to environmental issues like wind and humidity. It’s more like a near-field [monitoring] experience.”

The Line-Array Approach
Then there is the rise of the line array, like the ones WJHW consulted on for the American Airlines Center renovation in Dallas and the Orlando Magic’s new home. It’s a good-sounding but expensive solution, Graham says, adding that “more and more team owners and building managers are springing for the additional cost because patrons recognize the technology and associate it with touring concert acts.”

All sound-system designs are situationally dependent, of course, and Brian Elwell, senior consultant/VP at systems designer Acoustic Dimensions, which has done venues for the Kansas City Wizards and at the UCLA Bruins’ Pauley Pavilion, says the point-source solution can be the right one for many circumstances. He cited the soon-to-be-completed new facility at Texas Christian University, where architectural esthetics, in the form of fascia boards, would have limited speaker placement in a distributed system.

“The way it’s laid out, the speakers would have been too loud for people closest to them and too quiet for those furthest away,” Elwell explains. In this case, the solution was a JBL Vertec line array suspended in the end zone.

Point-source systems come with their own particular issues, such as delay and video synch. But the bottom line, says Elwell, is to choose the solution that gets the most direct and consistent energy to those seated in the stands. “Fans want more-direct energy, as opposed to reverberant, reflected sound,” he says. “That’s part of the fact that the bar is constantly being raised and fans that are paying upwards of $300 for a seat want more for their money.”

Moving the Digital Signal
Another big change, Graham notes, has been the shift in signal-transport modality that digital audio has brought about. Twisted-pair copper cabling is giving way to fiber-optic cabling that has A-to-D conversions taking place at field level (New Meadowlands being a good example) and going digital to a digital console that typically outputs the audio directly into the DSP processors. CobraNet on 100-MB Ethernet networks often transports the digital audio signal from the DSP processors directly into the amplifiers.

“Now that operators are familiar with working on many of the digital consoles on the market and implemented at front-of-house mix, the signals are moving around the stadiums and arenas in digital form,” says Graham. “It’s become very efficient and often is digital from the microphone input to the amplifier input.”

As venue designs continue to emphasize premium seating, further limiting speaker placement, designers expect to use more DSP and electronically steerable loudspeakers to compensate. This will affect broadcasters as well. As cabling migrates increasingly to fiber, more AV will be embedded, including live sound signals. “As you make the conversions between digital formats, there will be more clocking or sync issues,” says Graham. “Leaving copper cabling behind means fewer issues with tedious things like ground loops and power [conditioning], but digital signals bring their own set of issues.”

One other good thing about digital sound systems, though: in case a team is ever crazy enough to invite Roseanne Barr to sing the national anthem again, it’s nice to know that AutoTune can be used for live sound, too.

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