Live Sound In The House – Sports Venue PA Technology Continues To Evolve

Sports venues are bigger and more sophisticated than ever, and they sound better, too, which is great for fans in the stands but just as nice when the stadium or arena ambient sound is what’s filling up the surround system at home. That’s largely thanks to advances in PA systems technology and design, and the fact that systems design is increasingly influenced by venue architecture.

“Venue design does have an indirect influence on the products and options available for stadiums and arenas,” says Jon Sager, director of market development for installed sound at JBL, which has seen its sound systems installed into venues including the New Meadowlands Stadium and Yankee Stadium. “In distributed systems, for instance, there are often multi-faced enclosures with front-, rear- and down-firing loudspeakers. Designers need to have the ability to configure those enclosures as needed, such as changing the degrees of angle for the baffles, or changing horn coverage patterns. End zone systems, which are usually located around a scoreboard, need additional point-shoot boxes that can be aimed to cover areas the main system can’t ‘see.’ Designers need more options than before.”

After Disney took over the team in the mid-1990s, Angels Stadium in Anaheim was one of the first to be refitted with a distributed sound system that replaced the central cluster design that was common before then. The renaissance in sports venue design that began then kept EAW’s custom shop busy, says company co-founder and VP of strategic engineering Kenton Forsythe, including most recently for the MLS Kansas City Wizards’ new stadium and in the new Florida Marlins stadium. “Customized enclosures are usually in response to architectural designs that might not leave a lot of room for speaker installation or require very specific aiming of loudspeakers,” he explains.

Forsythe believes that the most apparent trend of recent year, though, is the beefing up of low-frequency response in sports venue systems. Citing the revamped Boston Gardens as a prime example, he says that the NBA’s emphasis on entertainment has put it out in front on the bass wars. “Football stadiums tend to place the emphasis on voice, on intelligibility, but many of the newest facilities, especially in the NBA, have added much heavier low-frequency capability,” he says. “The NBA has gone to very entertainment-heavy presentations and the bass has gone up with that.”

Line arrays have become more common in sports venues, though asking a system developed primarily for music to handle all of an arena’s audio needs can stretch its capabilities. “We’ve definitely seen more use of line arrays in sports venues in recent years and part of that is the perception that a lot of venue owners have that they can attract more touring performance acts to use the facility,” Forsythe says. “We’re happy to support that because they’ll spend twice as much on a line array but the reality is that a line array is often not adequate to cover that kind of application. You often need a lot of fill speakers to fully cover the space.”

In fact, adds JBL’s Sager, some promoters may feel that choosing a venue with a line array system will reduce their production costs. “But the reality is that most touring artists are not going to use the house PA system; they’ll bring their own,” he says.

College venues are getting more sophisticated in terms of their PA systems. John Monitto, director of technical support for Meyer Labs, notes that the ongoing renovation of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium will use the company’s new Column Array Loudspeaker (CAL) 96 system, which will debut this year and positions 96 powered and highly steerable elements in each enclosure. The systems at the Berkeley venue, designed by WHJW, will be mounted along the top rail of the stadium. The high directionality of the elements allow a relatively smooth and consistent sound level (with less than 5 dB variation from top to bottom) and in the process eliminate the existing PA system, in which enclosures are pole-mounted between the stands and the field, obstructing fans’ views.

“Colleges are budget conscious, and they don’t have the same [advertising] opportunities found in the major leagues to help underwrite the cost of advanced PA systems,” Monitto says. “But they also realize that they needs full-range systems that can handle music as well as speech. That’s a market that will be looking for innovation.”