Entertainment Events Help Converge U.S., UK Venue Sound Development
Music-tour bookings spur need for sophisticated audio systems
Over the years, venue sound systems in the U.S. and UK have been designed to meet different considerations. Today, though, the systems’ sophistication and quality in the two countries have moved toward converging.
Live sound in sports stadiums in the U.S. has been driven largely by economics. Pre COVID, the need to better leverage the billion-dollar stadiums (and arenas that seem to getting close to that number) increasingly made them into concert and live-event venues; during the pandemic, the venues have housed virus-testing and vaccine-distribution centers.
In the UK, however, sound quality seemed driven by tragedy, most notably by the infamous 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 spectators were fatally crushed during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest FCs at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.
“That was a tipping point,” recalls Stephen Hogg, director, stadium and sports venues, d&b audiotechnik, a Germany-based audio-systems manufacturer. Speech intelligibility, measured by the Speech Transmission Index (STI) metric, and its importance to life safety, he notes, became vividly recognized as a necessity for modern sports-venue design. Even then, though, the metrics of that criterion were clinical and didn’t reflect larger, more subjective sonic-quality issues.
“It was still about the sporting event,” says Hogg, who works from Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. “Measurements like STI don’t have [sound]-quality components attached to them. The bowl still wasn’t a place where production-quality audio was deemed essential.”
But the benchmark sound of NFL stadiums, where concert-grade line arrays are now de rigueur, has had its effect on UK stadium design, with the brands that have come to be regarded as “rider-ready” — that is, conforming to the requirements of contracts for top-tier music-touring acts — moving to the fore in design and installation, for both new and retrofit venue projects.
“The NFL stadium and its extended low-frequency energy has certainly led stadia here to recognize the noise value of entertainment, along with the need for big video screens,” says Hogg, referencing the £1 billion Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which opened in 2019 and is designed to accommodate NFL games and which most agree was an inflection point in sports-venue AV in the UK. (In the UK, d&b has a system installed at Derby County FC’s Pride Park Stadium.)
However, certain aspects of football make sound systems and their designs for UK and European venues somewhat restricted. First and foremost are size — a typical football pitch is about half again as large as an NFL gridiron — and roof lines, which, Hogg points out, are designed to keep rain off seats and not to support thousands of pounds of line arrays.
“Weight loading along the edge of a corrugated-metal roof line isn’t designed to support distributed sound systems in most cases,” he says. “And there’s really no acoustical treatment there to reduce reverberation, which could interfere with meeting STI requirements.”
Another consideration for outdoor sound systems in Northern Europe in general is weather. As more sophisticated sound systems find their way into open-topped stadiums, more emphasis is placed on the IP Code (ingress protection), a two-digit metric that assesses the degree of protection provided by mechanical casings and electrical enclosures against intrusion of grit and moisture. (The broad standard is the IEC 60529; the UK references the European EN 60529 standard.)
More Music Requires Better Sound
Nick Screen, director, business development, sports and transportation, Harman Professional, whose JBL brand was used extensively throughout the Tottenham Hotspur venue as well as venues including Stade de Metz in France and Bloomfield Stadium in Israel, also cites disasters at sports and transportation venues in the UK in the 1980s as turning points for large-scale venue sound. He also acknowledges football-stadium form factors — particularly, roof lines unable to support distributed line arrays, compelling the use of endfiring point-source systems — as potentially hindering integration of more-advanced sound systems.
Screen, who works from Harman’s Hemel-Hempstead office just outside London, also notes a divergence in the ownership models of large sports venues between the U.S. and Europe as part of the reason that the venues have evolved differently in terms of their primary uses.
“Most stadiums in the UK are owned by the teams that use them,” he says, rather than by municipalities, counties, or states that often partner with corporations to construct large venues in the U.S., where pressure has been growing to make those venues pay their own way. As a result, UK football stadiums have less impetus to seek alternative revenue streams.
That’s changing, however, with UK and European venues starting to actively seek music-touring and other entertainment-related revenue streams. For instance, in December, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium opened the Dare Skyway, a glass walkway nearly 47 meters above the football pitch.
According to Dan Palmer, business development manager, sports facilities, USA and Canada, L-Acoustics, other European football stadiums have been upgrading their sound. He cites major upgrades at the 75,000-seat Allianz Arena in Munich and the 67,000-seat Olympique de Marseille Orange Velodrome. However, he acknowledges that adapting modern sound systems to the sport’s traditional venue designs can be challenging.
“Stadiums are largely open-air, which utilize canopy architecture over the audience-seating area [as] the primary rigging point for sound,” he says. That, he adds, has led to greater demand for smaller, lighter sound systems that can still achieve higher SPL and full-range frequency response for music reproduction.
Palmer cites the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park, where a lightweight KIVA II/SB18 system is distributed in 18 arrays across the two canopies and meets all structural, weatherization, and performance criteria. Those lighter systems are being actively marketed to European venues.
The Atlantic Ocean remains a gulf between sports-venue cultures. According to Ryan Knox, senior consultant, Idibri, a Texas-based audio consultancy that has designed and specified systems for dozens of U.S. sports venues as well as facilities in Oman and Macao, audio and video tend to follow the larger architectural designs of venues, and the tendency in the UK and Europe thus far has been largely towards the traditional, along with its restrictions on flown sound systems.
“Even soccer in the U.S. has been moving towards bigger sound systems and more entertainment,” he says. “It’s a matter of the architects pushing the boundaries of the venues themselves. The AV tends to follow that.”
Even with music touring essentially shut down due to the pandemic, music is increasingly integrated into the sports experience for football, and that’s compelling venues to invest in better, fuller-range sound systems. That’s becoming even more compelling with both Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium slated to be used for more NFL games in the future.
However, that’s bringing with it issues that have become common in the U.S.: notably, noise escaping the bounds of stadiums and impacting surrounding residential areas.
“Noise pollution is becoming more of a problem in the UK and Europe, [where] stadiums are closer to city center because population density is greater in Europe than in the States,” Screen explains. “The technical ability of modern sound systems to be able to direct sound where you want it, at the fans, and keep it in the bowl is absolutely critical not just to prevent noise break out but also for clarity and intelligibility. But it can sometimes be more challenging in Europe because many of the football stadiums are designed almost like amphitheatres, with the fans very close to the pitch. This can present challenges for the sound-system designer.”
It may also spur the building of more indoor venues designed to handle a wider range of sports and entertainment offerings and to be able to accommodate more-sophisticated sound systems by virtue of their robust rigging infrastructure. One such project, the Co-op Live arena approved last September by the Manchester City Council that would put a new £350-million, 23,500-capacity arena on the same campus as the Premier League’s Manchester City FC. It’s intended to draw a wide range of sports events that could include basketball and hockey — sports that, like the NFL, are seeking global expansion.
(The new venue’s backer, the U.S.-based Oak View Group, also owns arena- and stadium-oriented trade publications Pollstar and Venues Today, which focus on live music and touring, and venue technology, respectively. The implication is that the forthcoming venue’s audio and video systems will likely not be wanting.)
In fact, some attribute all this to the “NFL-ization” of football and rugby, with a greater emphasis on games as entertainment and their stadiums as entertainment destinations. But the convergence of sports and entertainment appears inexorable, and venue sound systems will be on the front lines of that phenomenon.
“Fans expect an elevated experience when they attend sports now,” says Screen. “Music is now a big part of that, and the sound has to match their expectations.”