DTV Audio Group Zoom Seminar Revisits ‘Enhanced’ Crowd Sound

Discussion indicates how attitudes on the concept have evolved

The DTV Audio Group Sept. 8 online seminar “Crowd-Less Audio II Sounds From the Bubbles and Beyond” took a second look at the subject of artificial (or “enhanced”) crowd audio pumped into sports venues and on broadcasts, a follow-up to the DTVAG’s Zoom seminar on the topic in May. During that earlier event, participants were generally — sometimes vehemently — opposed to the idea of using prerecorded crowd audio. The September discussion indicated a markedly different attitude.

Said one A1 in the earlier meeting, “The players and us rely on the cheering, especially of the home crowd. And that sounds and feels very different from any fake crowd noise.”

DTAVG seminar participants representing broadcasters and vendors have reversed their attitude toward artificial crowd noise in venues.

Said another, “We’re not making a film. What we’re doing is documenting a live event, and we’re not adding sweetening or sound effects. It needs to be accurate and realistic.”

The more recent event reflected what one participating A1 called a “180-degree shift” in attitudes toward the concept.

The latest event looked at so-called enhanced crowd audio used thus far on MLB, MLS, NBA, NASCAR, NHL, and PGA games, matches, races, and broadcasts, as well as what to expect with NFL coverage.

‘America Likes It’

Participants who had worked on the NBA’s enclosed environment at the Wide World of Sports complex were highly complimentary of its audio quality and the unique design of its infrastructure, which placed a surround-type PA system around the perimeters of the basketball courts to allow the prerecorded crowd sounds — sourced from NBA videogames and archived broadcast games — to follow the action around the field of play, just as actual crowd reactions do. The convergence of the NBA’s restarted season and postseason play in a single, highly controlled venue — the NHL is confined to two locations, but baseball, soccer, and the NFL are using home teams’ own venues for games — was credited with much of the quality of its enhanced sound. Brian Rio, director, sound design, Warner Media Studios, describing himself as initially skeptical of the idea, noted that analysis of social-media comments on the topic suggests that “America likes it.”

ESPN Senior Audio Engineer Scott Pray, another initial skeptic, said, “It’s working and working well. It sounds like a regular NBA game, and that’s success. The controlled environment is an advantage; it makes it believable.”

Comparing the NBA’s bubble to “a mini Olympics arena,” ESPN Associate Director, Remote Production Operations, Henry Rousseau put the NBA’s audio in context: “It augments the situation we’re in now. It doesn’t take the place of fans but gives a sense of what it used to sound like, without over-exaggerating [it].”

Turner Sports/Warner Media Senior Audio Engineer Dave Grundtvig, the engineering architect of the NBA’s under-court contact-microphone arrays that pick up effects sound, emphasized that this is not “fake” sound but rather “enhanced and sweetened, and it’s truly an art what [the crowd-sound mixers] are doing. They’ve embraced and adapted it and have the tools to make it work.”

Those under-floor microphones are apparently gaining fans at the networks. Grundtvig explained that they are picking up some of the crowd sound from the PA speakers in addition to the sneaker squeaks and, when combined with room ambience from high-placed microphones, provide a nicely rounded mix for the RSNs taking the game feeds from ESPN and the league. Some wonder, he noted, if this kind of array could be manufactured for regular use.

“It’s not easy,” he said, “but it’s a great experiment, and we’ll see how to push it forward.”

Hockey

Analyzing the NHL’s implementation of enhanced crowd audio, Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and Olympics, said that league reaction to an early demonstration of a system using Ableton Live and a matrix controller was positive but that the league was unsure whether it wanted to use that audio for the ice only or to also feed it to the broadcast.

Matt Coppedge, senior audio engineer, NBC Sports, and Jeff Kozak, senior audio engineer, Dome Productions, both of whom mix the crowd sounds in Toronto and Edmonton, confirmed that, once players heard the crowd sounds, they wanted more, a trend that has extended to most sports over the summer. Coppedge credited EA Sports with not only sourcing the crowd sounds but also coming up with highly specific ones, such as the sharp intake of collective breath when a player is suddenly injured.

Kozak noted that the choice of the controller was important because the matrix arrangement of input buttons allows the very fast reactions required by hockey’s speed. Patrick Castonguay, senior audio engineer, Dome Productions, who mixes NHL games for the network, paid Coppedge and Kozak what he called the highest possible compliment: “It sounds amazing, like a regular hockey game. It sounds good and natural. I like that it’s in the PA system, because it’s more of a live feel. It gives me a good sound bed I can work around.”

A Mixed Bag in Baseball

Baseball has had a less consistent experience with artificial crowd sounds, mainly because of the often wide acoustical and technical variations between MLB stadiums. “Thirty different PA systems [of various vintages, types, and quality] and 30 different editorial-decision makers,” said Glenn Stilwell, senior audio engineering/operations manager, PAC-12 Networks. “It has been a mixed bag, but it’s getting better.”

Athletes often cite how having crowd sounds in the stands helps energize their performance, but Andrew Stoakley, senior audio engineer, Dome Productions, brought up another reason some of them like the idea and why baseball’s competition committee decided to put the sounds into the PA as well as the broadcast.

“Without any noise on the field, certain players could have an edge,” he said. “Batters could hear a catcher shift right or left behind them in the dirt [signaling where a pitch is headed] or a runner on base could hear the shortstop moving in behind him.”

However, Stoakley also pointed out the disparity between stadium PA systems, noting in particular the one at the Triple-A stadium in Buffalo, NY, which is being used as the home park by the Toronto Blue Jays while the Canadian government is barring games at the team’s Rogers Center home stadium during the pandemic. Sahlen Field’s three-decades-old PA system, he pointed out, requires so much volume to get a crowd sound across that it makes it difficult for players to communicate on the field. Stadiums with covered or movable roofs also present challenges, he said: crowd sounds ricochet off a variety of hard, reflective surfaces but cannot escape the bowl, where broadcast microphones pick up the acoustical incoherence that causes.

And Sometimes No Sound at All

Soccer has some opposite challenges. ESPN is broadcasting MLS games without artificial crowd sounds, instead focusing on the game’s natural sounds, which are revealed without the noise of fans in the stands. Florian Brown, senior audio engineer, ESPN, pointed out that viewers can now hear not only player field chatter but also the racket of camera cranes and generators around the field. It’s worth putting up with that, however, for MLS games and for golf, in exchange for hearing goalies grunting and golfers muttering.

“It’s a ton of great sound,” he said, to the point where some producers and directors are asking announcers to lay out more so that viewers can hear more of the athletes. “Soccer in particular sounds completely different than normal.”

ESPN’s Rousseau concurred: “We never considered sweetening soccer. I’m amazed at the sounds that you don’t normally hear, especially the kicks, and how we’re picking up on that.”

The recent US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY, made partial use of enhanced crowd sound: ESPN sent ambient audio as part of the main broadcast feed as well as through its app. It was not sent through the PA systems, which were used for music and announcements as usual. Malone, however, said that kind of light touch is preferable for certain sports like tennis.

“The absolute silence before the serve [is] where you can pick out the city sounds,” he said. “[The Open] conveyed more than any event thus far the isolation of the athletes without the crowd. There was nothing to distract the listener, like yelling coaches or generators or PA. It was the athlete, the field-of-play effects, and the city.”

As good as artificial crowd sounds have gotten in such a short time, no one believes they’ll ever replace actual fans in the stands. And they still present challenges for A1s, who now have to mix a very different and highly variable sound element into their shows. Several participants noted that the new category of “audio sweeteners” responsible for the crowd-sound submixes aren’t always experts on the sports they work; one A1 said the crowd-sound intensity of one routine slide into a base “sounded like they had just won the World Series.” And, for sports that travel to various venues during a season, it would be helpful to establish standards for measuring live-sound levels.

What the enhanced crowd-sound phenomenon has done is help everyone — athletes, fans, broadcasters — get through a historically challenging moment in sports, one that will, hopefully, be over soon.

“I just want to help the fans enjoy the game by providing a sense of normality and then be done with it,” said Malone. “As audio professionals, it wasn’t our choice, but I think we [more than] fulfilled the task and with real creativity and finesse and professionalism. Like everything that is happening to our industry during the pandemic, we have learned quickly, and it has changed our industry.”