Bowling, Boxing Deploy Enhanced Crowd Audio

Crowd-sound provider SonoFans adds PBA and PBC to its client list

Bowling and boxing are the latest sports to embrace enhanced crowd audio, and, with the addition of Professional Bowling Association (PBA) and Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), recently launched crowd-sound provider SonoFans is extending its rapidly expanding portfolio beyond on the MLB Postseason and the NFL on Fox Sports.

The PBA restarted its pandemic-interrupted regular season on Sept. 26, at Bowlero, in Centreville, VA, with pro bowlers quarantining at a nearby hotel for several weeks and competing in an altered version of team bowling. The lanes are restricted to the team participants, but the bowlers are aurally enveloped in an enthusiastic environment, cheered on by crowd sounds provided by SonoFans through six L-Acoustics X-12 speakers placed on stands in the venue.

The content was sourced from previous broadcasts, provided by the PBA. Subtractive EQ techniques are used to edit and clean the audio to remove sounds that are too specific. The workflow uses the same components that SonoFans has been deploying for MLB and NFL games: Ableton Live is the software engine, and Akai triggering pads let two-person audio teams access the content from the Apple Mac Mini computers and an array of hard drives.

The audio is sent as a separate feed to broadcast. League broadcast partner FS1 can also pick up the sound through open microphones placed in the venue, re-creating the noise of the typical audience of 150-200 people. This year’s league has 12 teams competing over a two-week period.

SonoFans owner Fred Vogler says the audio structure also is similar to that for MLB and NFL games: an operator chooses the reaction sounds that are laid atop crowd-sound beds and blended by a mixer. In addition to the sounds derived from previous bowling matches provided by the PBA, Vogler sources original sound, often by donning a binaural DPA microphone connected to his smartphone and walking through some of the few areas of congregation still available during the pandemic, such as markets, and collecting those sounds.

“One of the things about bowling is that you’ll hear individual voices stick out from the crowd here and there, cheering a bowler on,” he says. “I’ll use some of what I collect through the headset mic to get those kinds of elements.”

The system has worked well where it has been deployed. However, Vogler acknowledges one hiccup that took time to figure out: each installation has to use different models of the triggering pads; otherwise, the software can’t differentiate between input devices.

“That was easily enough resolved,” he reports. “We can use Akai devices, as long as they’re different models going into the same computer.”

The Sound of a Punch

Vogler is doing the same for PBC matches, for which SonoFans is providing crowd sounds, also on FS1. (He notes that he has to look specifically for female voices to record for those events. “A lot of women go to boxing matches and can get pretty vocally aggressive. I wasn’t anticipating that.”)

Unlike with the PBA, where the SonoFans operator and mixer are onsite, the company works from Fox studios in Los Angeles for boxing matches at the Microsoft Theater on the LA Live campus. The crowd sounds used are derived from previously recorded eight- and 12-round matches, provided by PBC. As with other spots using enhanced crowd audio, these highly controllable audio tracks are mixed with what are often extremely clear and in-depth actual-sound effects — punches landing solidly, boxers grunting, cornermen shouting instructions — adding up to a kind of hyper-reality.

“The reason these additional sports have come to us, and why we’re having success with the NFL and baseball, is that our operators and mixers both love the sports and are experienced when it comes to mixing live sound,” says Vogler, adding that MSL and college basketball are likely the next sports the technology will be applied to.

The team includes Jim Ebdon, who mixes live sound for Maroon 5 and Sam Smith; Kevin Madigan, tour-sound mixer for Santana and CSN&Y; and Anthony King, who has mixed Depeche Mode on tour.

“I try to mix and match [team members] to the sports they like the most,” says Vogler. “But all of them are at the top of the industry when it comes to mixing live sound. They understand how to read an audience in real time. They’ve mixed thousands of concerts with tens of thousands of people responding to the music. That gives them an edge when it comes to anticipating how a crowd will react.”

Ebdon, at Dodger Stadium preparing to mix crowd sound for Game 1 of the NLDS on Turner Sports, said this was his first time mixing at a venue, instead of mixing remotely from the network’s studios. “Being able to see the game, the entire field from up here” — in the stadium’s fifth-level press box — “will make it even easier to anticipate crowd reactions.”

Ebdon, a London native and EPL Chelsea FC fan (“through and through”) would have been on tour in Europe with crooner Sam Smith right now but for COVID. Fortunately, he has also been a baseball fan since his son started playing the game a dozen years ago, and he has mixed some crowd sound for MLS this year.

“I’m looking forward to this,” he said. “Dodger Stadium has a brand-new L-Acoustics K2 PA system, and we’ll be putting our crowd sound through that. But we’ve also brought in five stacks of Clair Brothers C012 speakers and double-18 subs, which will be facing the field and used to amp up the athletes. It’s how we envisioned this system’s being used originally.”

Vogler notes that SonoFans is working the MLB Postseason: at Petco Park and Dodger Stadium for the ALDS and ALCS; remotely from Los Angeles for the NLDS at Minute Maid Park in Houston and Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX; and at Globe Life Field for the World Series.


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