EA Goes to the Source for Madden NFL 12 Sound

With Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL 12 videogame title released last week, a prelude to this week’s NFL season start. the line between the set-top box and the game console gets slimmer, thanks to the Sports Audio group at EA’s Tiburon, FL, skunk works.

“We’re like the black-ops team for EA,” quips Jesse Allen, audio director of the team, which includes audio artists Dale Stump, Rob Warren, and Pete Lehman and commentary presentation designer Ronnie Morales. The same team does the audio design for EA’s other sports titles, such as NBA Elite, NHL 12, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour.

Allen says the NFL is notoriously strict when it comes to letting out its own media assets, so EA’s audio techs go out in the field to get their own.

The crowd-ambience sound on Madden 12 was culled from such sources as the local Jacksonville Panthers games and a number of NCAA contests. (EA’s NCAA title includes some audio assets provided by ESPN, which has an ongoing collaboration with EA Sports, but no ESPN audio appears on the Madden NFL series.) What you hear on Madden NFL 12 comes from a total of about 50 hours of interactive audio files programmed to engage depending on the play.

“The crowd levels and nature change based on situation,” says Allen, “such as whether it’s a rivalry game or the Super Bowl, where the crowd sound gets huge, or a lopsided blowout, where half the crowd has left halfway through the game.”

The audio also follows the play around the field, with general crowd noise turning into more specific yells and hoots as the POV moves from the stands to the field. Logic programming takes all the circumstances into account and pulls and plays the appropriate files, as well as putting more information (i.e. volume) into the left or right channel as the player POV moves side to side the across the field.

Watson Wu (left) and Chris Latham pick up sound for EA Sports’ Madden NFL 12 at the Florida Gators’ Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a Crown SASS-P stereo PZM

All of that audio was gathered by a crew of freelancers, including Watson Wu and Chris Latham, who record stadiums in quadrants for 15-20 minutes at a time, using some gear that would be familiar to their broadcast counterparts and some that might not. Allen says his favorite microphone for crowd ambience is the Crown SASS-P stereo PZM microphone, which is pole-mounted and faced into the stands.

“It records the audio across a very wide spectrum,” Allen explains, “and it really sounds very natural.”

More-detailed crowd sound comes from a set of Audio-Technica BP4029 stereo shotgun mics on pistol grips. Both near and far crowd sound has been most recently recorded to a Zoom H4n palm-sized digital recorder, using the device’s onboard X/Y stereo condenser mics to create a left/right image and plugging the shotguns or PZM in to create the rear 5.1 channels.

“We used to use a Sound Devices 788T [multitrack digital recorder with timecode], and we still do on occasion, but the H4n is small and durable,” he says. “That’s important when we’re down there literally with the photographers and we have to move fast when something comes charging over the sidelines.”

Allen says that Madden NFL 12 audio technicians set out to accomplish the same goal that broadcast audio mixers do for each game: put the fan in the seat in the stadium. Effects are critical for that, but, while the home viewer is getting field sounds from the sideline parabolic microphones and the occasional use of the on-field mic (the new collective-bargaining agreement between the teams and the NFLPA calls for the centers of each team, as well as the umpire, to be wired for sound this season), Madden NFL 12 uses Foley sound effects recorded in a studio.

But they’re plenty authentic: actual helmets, shoulder pads, and uniforms are used and knocked into each other to simulate the sounds of hits and fabric rips. In what Allen refers to as a sound-combiner program, 20 or so individual samples of helmet hits, shoulder-pad collisions, grunts, and other effects are loaded into their own category banks. When the game calls for a tackle, one randomly chosen sound from each bank plays, with a random delay offset between them to create a combined tackle sound.

“With so many combinations available, you will rarely, if ever, hear the exact same ‘hit’ sound twice,” he says. “That used to be the plague of a videogame’s sound. These tackles and rushes are all different and built on the fly.”

EA Sports has a small theater on the premises where the teams watch and analyzes recordings of broadcast games. ESPN has also provided show elements that Allen says have been helpful in achieving realistic points of view, mainly from NCAA games and including animation audio to get the college “swishes” right.

“We have sit-downs where we take notes on all the big games, listening to what makes them exciting and intense,” he says. “I wish everyone could hear a game at field level. It’s a totally different experience.”