Venues Tackle Sound in Upper-Deck Seating

With more non-sports events booked, facilities turn attention to high-quality audio to the rafters

For decades, the upper-deck seating areas of sports venues were denigrated as cheap-seat, nose-bleed territory for budget-conscious fans who would duck the ushers and migrate to better seats as soon as the score got too lopsided (or in Chavez Ravine, the 6th inning).

Today, with the venues serving as places for concert touring, political rallies, and other events with high-dollar tickets, the upper seats have taken on new importance. And they’re starting to get the sound they deserve.

“When new [sports venues] open, the architects and others think of it as crossing the finish line; instead, we’re often just getting started when it comes to the sound,” says Ted Leamy, GM, Pro Media, the AV-systems integrator on such projects as the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, and Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park (formerly SunTrust Park). “The upper decks of many stadiums just never got the number of speakers they needed to sound as good as the rest of the venue.”

Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium expanded its Electro-Voice sound system to serve a growing concert schedule.

One place where that has changed is AT&T Stadium, whose Electro-Voice sound system, installed in 2009, was expanded last summer ahead of the NFL season. Two arrays, comprising 54 loudspeakers, were added to the 14 XLCi127DVX compact three-way delay systems covering the upper level. They are powered by 20 additional Electro-Voice TG series amplifiers, each equipped with RCM-26 remote-control DSP modules. A NetMax N8000 digital matrix controller was also added. The work was done by Pro Media, working with system designer WJHW and the Cowboys’ own audio-engineering department.

Leamy, a former touring-system sound technician, says the new emphasis on upper-deck sound is driven by a combination of economics and expectations. With the music-touring business at $28 billion annually and expected to hit $38 billion by 2030, according to touring trade publication Pollstar, ticket prices are soaring for all seats in a venue, compelling venue managers to ensure concert-level sound to the buildings’ rafters.

Anything less could darken a venue’s reputation on social media after a single poor experience. Minneapolis’s old Metrodome had such a poor reputation for its acoustics for music that the opening of its replacement, U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, provoked high hopes for improvements. Those hopes, however, were quickly dashed.

“Chances are, the people sitting in the upper decks these days just got out of SUVs that had better sound systems,” observes consultant Kevin Day, associate principal, WJHW, which consulted on the AT&T Stadium sound system. “Great sound at every seat isn’t a luxury anymore; it’s a utility.”

Tough House
But upper-deck seating is probably the toughest nut to crack for stadium sound-system designers.

“The late reflections at that height are so much later,” necessitating more speakers closer to and focused on those seats, Leamy explains. “And the sheer distance even from most line-array speakers is farther than for any other seating in a stadium. So those seats need their own sets of speakers,” along with their own specific processing, which can be adjusted by the venue’s engineering staff for sports or entertainment applications. “DSP allows them to adjust the system optimization for whether the stage is in the middle or at one end of the floor, which affects the arrival time of the sound to those seats.”

The addition of more speakers up high in AT&T Stadium has been beneficial, both for music and for sports, says Gary French, audio engineer in charge, Dallas Cowboys. The added loudspeakers capped a nearly two-year effort to remedy the upper deck’s sound, which included redirecting some existing speakers and some acoustical-bass trapping — tweaks he referred to as “Band-aids” — before the new line arrays were added.

“Upper decks are their own worlds,” he says. “Here, we have three levels of seating, then three levels of suites, and then a small porch before you get to the upper seats. Addressing it took more than just a few adjustments.”

But the outcome was worth it. Audiences have noticed better sound in those seats, which in turn helps the venue attract more and better-selling music shows. And it has also benefited the sound for sports: although AT&T Stadium, the U.S.’s largest-capacity domed stadium, has plenty of inherent low end — its decay time is a lengthy 11.5 seconds at 60 Hz and 7.5 seconds at 1.5 kHz, compelling the house sound to be high-passed above 450 Hz — that low-frequency energy could get mushy at altitude.

French says the new 15-in. speakers covering the upper deck bring better LFE definition to those seats: “We get increased low-end punch for non-music events. That was an unexpected but very welcome benefit.”

Day credits the Cowboys’ ownership, who he says is willing to regularly reevaluate the venue’s sonic performance and capitalize any sound-system improvements deemed necessary as more top-level touring artists pass through the stadium. This year, the lineup includes Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, and Justin Bieber.

In fact, venues like AT&T Stadium now refer to the concerts between sports events as having their own “season.” An arena can generate twice as much net income from a concert as from an NBA or NHL game, according to Oak View Group, an entertainment- and sports-facilities company that also owns Pollstar. The company plans to develop eight new arenas over the next three years, six of which will not host any major-league teams, largely to keep their calendars clear for concerts, according to the Wall Street Journal, underscoring music’s increasing economic importance to sports venues.

However, adds Day, “The architects are still in charge, and football is still what the stadium is all about. Esthetics, not sound, will rule.”

Loudspeakers covering upper-deck seating in the new Rams and Raiders stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, respectively, have not yet been finalized. But, given the trends and the economics, chances are that the high seats there are ultimately going to have as good a sonic experience as any other in the future.