One Week In, NFL ‘Crowds’ Are Finding Their Sound Footing
A1s are adapting to a new element in their mixes
The NFL has gotten through Week 1, and the “crowds” at the games seem to like the way it sounds. The league has joined other sports in creating its own crowd-sound system.
In doing so, the NFL took a very different path from the NBA, whose players are the focus of its faux-crowd-sound system. While football players on the gridiron hear a constant buzz of crowd sound played continuously at about 70 dB through the stadium PA systems, intended to provide a semblance of crowd noise, home viewers of NFL games get a constantly changing soundscape intended to dynamically follow the action on the field.
Mixers have five levels of intensity to choose as they follow the action on the field. In addition, they can lay three levels of positive- and negative-reaction crowd sounds atop the ambience tracks.
Like the NBA, the NFL uses a separate mix team for these sounds. The league’s kit for this, developed by consultant Robert Brock and drawing on content collected and edited by NFL Films, uses the Wwise videogame-authoring platform.
New to the A1s
Like the fans at home, NFL A1s encountered the new crowd-sound system for the first time when the league started play on Thursday, Sept. 10. Wendel Stevens, who mixed the season opener for NBC with Super Bowl champs Chiefs vs. the Texans in Kansas City, barely had to touch the faders that would bring the prerecorded crowd sounds into the broadcast mix: thanks to local regulations that allowed nearly 16,000 fans in the seats, there was enough input for his crowd microphones to generate a respectable roar when needed. He used the prerecorded crowd-sound feed, submixed by Jesse Van Der Vyver, just once, for the banner-reveal moment at the beginning of the show.
By Sunday night’s NBC primetime Rams–Cowboys game in Los Angeles, though, crowd-sound mixer Phil Gebhardt had his hands full.
“The NFL-curated sounds were awesome,” says Stevens. “The issue is the dynamics, and getting them to follow the ebb and flow of how a real crowd would react.”
He notes that Gebhardt was able to create a credible crowd dynamic but also had to ride the overall crowd-sound submix to some extent to match what his decades of experience mixing live football told him the crowd swells should be. For instance, the steady-murmur tracks that the NFL system defaults to when the crowd-sound mixer isn’t adding any action-specific reaction elements felt inauthentic to him.
“When an NFL crowd is quiet, they’re quiet,” he says, noting that he sometimes pulled those moments down slightly in the overall mix. “That constant murmur can take away from the realism. Also, it can wear on the ears after a while. That’s why dynamics are so important.”
Working the Bengals-Rams game on Sunday, Phil Adler, a veteran football A1 for CBS, says he was pleasantly surprised, calling it a good experience after some initial hesitancy: “My concern was that I was going to have to coach the [crowd mixer] while mixing my own game. Instead, Aaron Sharpe, who mixed the crowds for my show, understood what he had to do, which was follow the game.”
Adler credits Sharpe, a musician and DJ who lives in the Cincinnati area, with knowing his market — NFL crowd-sound mixers are assigned to a specific team and its stadium — and diligently applying the training materials the NFL provided, keeping the crowds tuned to what the Bengals’ home-crowd reactions would be. He adds that wasn’t the case with a few other games whose highlights he has listened to.
“The strength and the Achilles heel of this system is the operator,” Adler stresses. “That person has to understand how a real crowd acts and has to understand football. It’s dynamic and fluid, and Aaron got it. Not everyone did on Week 1. But, Week 1, everyone gets a pass, because this is so new.”
Adler is impressed with the sonic quality of the NFL’s crowd-sound files. He used the Calrec Artemis’s four-band EQ aboard Game Creek Columbia to notch the files’ overall tone down 2 dB-3 dB at 7 kHz to reduce what he perceived as some harshness in the sounds and to better blend them into the larger broadcast mix and with the four high-up venue ambience microphones he was also mixing in.
Once he had that dialed in, Adler says, he could almost believe there was a crowd in the stands. “I heard the ‘Let’s go, Bengals!’ chant come up, and it caught me off guard. I asked Aaron, was that you? And of course, it was; there was nobody in the seats! It sounded that good.”
We’re All Learning
Vince Caputo, VP/supervising sound mixer, NFL Films, who oversees the crowd-sound initiative, says everyone learned more in a single day of actual games than in all the practice sessions conducted using recently archived game videos. The main takeaway, he says, is the need for crowd-sound mixers to better anticipate events on the field and to react to them more the way partisan fans would. This would also make the best use of the crowd-sound audio, which was sourced specifically from each team’s stadium during previous seasons.
“Home fans are always optimistic,” Caputo points out. “They start to cheer before the receiver catches the ball or just as they see the sack coming. If you try to catch up to the action, if you wait to see what happens, you’re too late. And if you’re wrong — if the receiver misses the ball — you can always add the disappointment sound files, the ‘ohhs’ and ‘awws.’”
Another adjustment Caputo recommends is that the crowd-sound mixers let the “fans” keep chattering about plays, no matter how they turn out. “A good moment of any kind in the stadium can linger longer that you think it might. People are reliving some of them immediately. That’s what you hear.”
Easing Into the Process
Across the league, the crowd-sound mixers seemed to start off tentatively, easing the sounds out cautiously. They were performing a task never done before, on live television, with millions of viewers watching and listening. In fact, Caputo notes, as the opening week’s games progressed, league executives asked that the mixers “rip it up some more,” increasing volume and excitement levels.
That may have precipitated some miscues, but Caputo has come to the conclusion that it’s better to err on the side of more crowd sound than less. And, as Week 1’s games progressed, he took lessons from each one and disseminated them through the 64-person crowd-mixer corps via texts and commentary.
“By the time we got to Sunday night, when Phil Gebhardt was working the NBC Rams–Cowboys game in L.A. with Wendel, a lot of what we’d learned from Thursday and Sunday’s earlier games was already being put to good use.”
Caputo acknowledges that each broadcaster is using crowd sounds somewhat differently, putting them higher or lower in the overall mix. What’s important is that all the broadcasts are using the sound elements assembled by NFL Films, which has won numerous Emmy Awards for audio excellence.
“The mix always varies a bit between networks, and it’s always up to the director and the A1,” he says. “But the quality of the [crowd] sounds they’re working with now are uniformly excellent.”
What home fans are also benefiting from is increased sound from the field, with quarterback cadences and scrimmage crunches clearer and more vivid than ever, no longer masked by the sound of huge crowds. In some cases, networks are putting their parabolic-dish operators in the empty stands, giving them an extra few feet above the field and a wider sonic “view” of the action. Adler notes that the thinned-out sidelines at games allow him and his longtime game submixer Gordon Gilliam to push those parabs harder in the mix, bringing more elements into the overall sound.
What has worked perfectly is the technology kit the league is using for the crowd sounds. According to Robert Brock, the consultant who assembled the system, the first week was predictably nerve-wracking, with the systems deployed for the first time on regular-season games for millions to hear.
“We had a lot of confidence in the system, but it’s based on computers, and you know computers,” he says, adding that every unit had a backup laptop as part of its kit. “Also, the NFL’s IT department gave me the ability to remote in to any of the systems over an internet connection. If needed, I can go into any of the computers during a game and make any adjustments needed. If I got a text from one of the mixers, I could be there in minutes and put out any fires.”
What all participants agree on is that the NFL crowd sounds will only get better as the nascent corps of mixers get more comfortable with what is a truly singular mission.
“What we learned in Week 1 will make Week 2 better, and what we learn in Week 2 will make Week 3 even better,” says Caputo. “Unlike the NBA or baseball, which play every day, our [crowd-sound] mixers may get to do this only once every two weeks on-air. That’s why we let them take the kits home to practice on. Everything about what we’re doing is unique.”
As Stevens puts it, “We’re all in beta. This is a part of the game I never had to think about before. I have to use a different part of my brain for this.”