MLB Returns: Baseball Has Its Crowds on an iPad With Artificial Fan Noise

Artificial fan noise will be the soundtrack to a shortened MLB season trying to feel normal

As major league baseball started up for the 2020 season on July 23rd, its broadcast audio began its own new journey, and the maps were drawn by REMI. MLB’s games are being backhauled to its Studio 3 in Secaucus, NJ while west coast games are routed to Fox Sports’ Pico, CA facilities, under their remote-production rubric of Home Run Production (HRP).

A1 Joe Carpenter in Game Creek’s Riverhawk production truck outside MLB Network’s studios

Parked outside the Secaucus studio, A1 Joe Carpenter has set up audio shop in Game Creek’s Riverhawk production truck working on a Calrec Artemis 5.1-capable console with 1,020 channels, 144 12-layer faders, and 128 mic/line I/O. He designed and road-tested the set up last year for Fox Sports during college basketball broadcasts.

“It’s essentially a portable fly pack on site, and we can control up to eight faders remotely from either Secaucus or Pico,” he explains. “We can mix local elements, like IFBs and anything else that needs to be done in real time through the GUI. Then everything else gets muxed back to the studios.”

Announcers will be scattered throughout the country for the games, working from their homes or nearby voice-over studios, across a plethora of video codecs, such as Zoom and WebEx.

“We have EVS machines in people’s houses all over the country right now,” marvels Carpenter, for whom MLB’s restart marks his own return to work — he is the A1 for the Detroit-Cincinnati game on the MLB Network — other than mixing the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament in early July for the Golf Channel, which was also his first time using the enhanced remote system during the pandemic. “We have integrated the comms into these systems to the point where someone calls one person on his [connected] cell phone and the other person answers it on his smartwatch. Things are progressing beyond anything I could ever have imagined a couple years ago. Now, we’re only limited by how many of these remote racks we can deploy and how many studios you have.”

Covid-19 is limiting the total amount of assets broadcasters can deploy at games. MLB has mandated a single television feed per stadium, used by the home broadcaster, with the equivalent of an international feed available for the visitors’ broadcast, with one or two visitors’ cameras — likely robocams — also permitted, depending on the venue.

“The home broadcaster is basically the host broadcaster, similar to how the Olympics works,” says Carpenter. “The visiting team TV will still have feeds of all the cameras, they can cut their own show; they just won’t be controlling and talking to the camera operators.”

The league has OKed prerecorded crowd sound for the shortened season. These are being supplied by San Diego Studios, a branch of Sony Interactive Entertainment, which compiled the audio clips during games over several seasons. The sound files — there are about 75 different effects and reaction cues, according to MLB — are being supplied to stadium sound mixers or someone else designated by the home team who, using an iPad interface for system control, will mix and pump the crowd-sound audio through the venue PA system, with a mixed feed also going to the broadcast mix.

“I’ll be getting an embedded feed from either Fox or MLB for those sounds, and I can mix as little or as much as I want of them on our air,” he says. “I’ll also have my normal PA feeds for walk-up music and the national anthem from the ambient mics around the field, which I’ll also use as a bed for ambient sound around replays and cut-aways, to make it sound more natural, and to put some air around the crowd sounds.”

Ironically, Carpenter reports that after he mixed the 2016 World Series, he was approached by Sony Playstation executives to provide some samples from other games he’d mix the following spring for their MLB The Show video game. Fast forward to the pandemic and Carpenter requested that some of those same crowd-sound samples be included with the audio files being used for the restarted 2020 MLB season.

“At least I’ll be familiar with the crowd sounds,” he quips.

(Carpenter expects to actually mix a game onsite, the Field of Dreams Game between the White Sox and the Cardinals, on Thursday, Aug. 13, on Fox Sports, at a newly constructed 8,000-seat ballpark near the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, IA.)

While some A1s had been thumbs down on using so-called faux crowd sound effects earlier in the pandemic, at least three European soccer leagues have embraced the idea, both in the venues and for broadcasts. The desire to make games sound “normal” seems to be moving sports towards the use of artificial crowd sounds, at least for now. The challenge, it seems, is when and how much to use.

“I think it’s going to really be dictated by the level to which the venue itself is doing it,” Carpenter opines. “I think some people will be doing more, some will be doing less. “That will be reflected in what my crowd mics pick up. This is all a new frontier for everyone.”

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