Leagues’ Approaches to Augmented Crowd Sound Offer Variety of Lessons

From the NBA ‘bubble’ to fan-free venues, the experiment has been a success

With four months of artificial crowd sounds under its collective belt, televised sports looks back at what has been a largely successful experiment under the pressure of a pandemic-driven lockdown.

The NBA was the first U.S. league to deploy a significant crowd-sound system: a multi-speaker PA focused on the courts at the Wide World of Sports complex in Walt Disney World near Orlando. The crew had the advantage of a highly controllable environment, a “bubble” that brought 22 teams to a single location to keep COVID out, which meant that the sound inside could be fine-tuned on an almost daily basis.

For a truncated season, the NBA created crowd noise from virtual fans inside a bubble at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando.

Nonetheless, says Mark Dittmar, VP, Firehouse Productions, which designed and implemented the system there, it could have been taken even further.

“If and when we do this next time, we would make changes to the speaker design,” he explains. “A line array such as the one we used is designed to make everything sound the same everywhere in the room, but that’s not how the human voice and crowd dynamics work. We’d shape the arrays so that they would drop off naturally and smoothly at the ends of the room.”

The sounds used were an amalgamation of audio tracks from previous NBA games and tracks that Firehouse had amassed from its productions of the NBA All-Star event (some audio from Sega Sports’ NBA 2K videogame was tried early on but was quickly discarded), and they drew praise for their authenticity. But the execution of “playing” those sounds — by up to three crowd-sound mixers, many of whom had never mixed for television before, and by audio producers who had to balance the right choices and intensities of a variety of audio files ranging from muted annoyance at a missed free throw to a winning 3-pointer at the buzzer — left room for improvement.

Dittmar attributes that to the novelty of the use of artificial crowd sounds and the fact that the system was developed and implemented in barely four months.

The most important element, he says, is excellent-sounding content, in the form of clean and highly authentic sound files: “The PA systems now are so good and accurate that, if something does sound bad, there’s nowhere to hide it. It’s out there.”

Aside from specific issues, he adds, the main lesson of this unique and strange situation was that the folks mixing the crowd sounds must be able to tell the story of the game, just as the rest of the television production needs to.

“It’s all about the story, telling the narrative,” he says. “We had our [NBA] game directors acting like audio directors, setting up the mixers for what was coming next so they could be on it: ‘If this next bucket goes, it’s gonna be huge!’ And, even if the game is boring — if it’s a lopsided score and the crowds are leaving before the end of the game — you have to tell that story, too.”

Changing Sounds Midseason

Although all the major leagues began their season restarts with some type of self-developed crowd-sound solutions — the NBA contracted with Firehouse Productions for its system; the NFL built its own in-house, relying on NFL Films’ stock of team- and venue-specific audio tracks — other solutions appeared in the interim.

UK-based Salsa Sound, which had been providing broadcast crowd sound for the English Premier League, did the same for CBS’s NWSL Challenge Cup broadcast, as well as several MSL and USL games, using its vCROWD hardware and software. CBS also deployed that system for several college football games where no fans were allowed at all. According to Salsa Sound CEO Rob Oldfield, vCROWD will be used for basketball games on Big Ten Network.

Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field was the first MLB stadium to experiment with fake crowd noise.

SonoFans, which had pitched itself to baseball in the middle of the season and to the NFL ahead of its first games, ended up as the MLB’s vendor for the service during postseason play; the league had begun its restart with a self-developed system using sound files from videogame developer San Diego Studios, a branch of Sony Interactive Entertainment. Fox Sports chose to use SonoFans for broadcasts of NFL games, while other networks continued to use the NFL-supplied crowd sounds.

SonoFans CEO Fred Vogler says the leagues wanted some standardization for crowd-sound systems, one that would work both for the limited number of venues that baseball’s postseason used and for NFL games played in teams’ own venues.

“[Both leagues] liked our approach to that and felt that that was what we could provide them,” he says, adding that SonoFans was also able to provide its services either onsite at games or remotely from studios in Los Angeles.

A1s Speak

For broadcast A1s, fake crowd noise in a fan-less stadium has been bit of a head-shaker. Some voiced concerns about having to balance the augmented crowd-sound mix coming into their consoles, in some cases directly and in others through open microphones in the venue. Phil Adler, who has mixed NFL on CBS for two decades, says the experience was similar to having to adapt to the league’s control over the quarterback microphone when it was introduced in 2012.

“That took a while for everyone to get used to, too,” he says. “We have no control over that. With the crowd sound, what we get is just what we get.”

Compounding that, he adds, is that the crowd-sound mixers haven’t found a consistent location on games from which to work: “In Cincinnati, they were on the loading dock behind the truck; in Houston, they were in the crew catering room. It’s just so new.”

Dittmar notes, “The jury is still out on whether the [mixers] should be in the room with the game or in a remote place. The latter location is causing some latency between what the mixers see and their reactions with the appropriate sounds, which exacerbate some of the natural lag in the mixers’ reaction time. We’re still discussing where the best place for them is.”

Wendel Stevens, who mixes the NFL for NBC Sports, realized that he’d have to ride enhanced–crowd-sound levels along with other audio elements of the game.

At the NFL opener at Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, crowd-sound mixers and broadcast A1s augmented the noise from the relatively sparse audience of 16,000.

“Every play, you ask yourself mentally, what would the crowd do here?” he said during a recent DTV Audio Group webinar on the topic. “I realized in the first quarter of the first game that I would have to manipulate the levels up and down. If a pass got dropped, I would pull the level back 10 dB to make it sound natural. You know, after doing this a long time, what feels right, but, when [it doesn’t], when it feels unnatural, you turn your head and squint a little and fix it. It wears me out.”

Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports, believes that, this year, A1s have been presented as unique a challenge as the crowd-sound systems developers and mixers have faced, at a time when the crowd-sound phenomenon has made audio in general a front-burner issue for sports networks.

“I think it’s really interesting to see how the different networks and A1s have approached their individual mixes,” he says, “from MLS and US Open tennis with no or little enhanced crowd to NBA, NHL, and NFL with [their] different levels of enhanced crowd audio.

“It’s a unique time in audio,” he continues, “when front-desk production teams, who may not normally have had much interest or input into the audio, now have some fairly strong opinions on how the mix should sound. You see that, even [within] networks, the mixes have been different. I think we have, as audio engineers and designers, risen to the challenge of enhancing the field-of-play sound and also enhancing the overall broadcast sound with additional crowd [noise] to deliver what we are referring to as ‘normalizing’ the experience. It’s important to take the opportunity to push for new mic placements and access at this time.”

A Future for Crowd Sound

Although no plans have been announced about the future use of augmented crowd sounds, Vogler believes there will be a place for the service as sports’ second COVID-marked seasons commence early next year.

“As seasons progressed, we saw some venues allow some fans in and others not, and those who were in the seats were masked and socially distanced, which wasn’t conducive to the kind of enthusiasm that makes for a great-sounding crowd,” he points out. “That tells us that sports is likely going to want to augment crowd sounds for at least part of the next season. At least until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.”

Although at least one fan got his say during the largely fan-less sports season, augmented crowd-sound audio is very much on the table for the future. Once the NFL finishes its planned full season on Jan. 3, after each of the league’s 32 teams have played a 16-game schedule, the sports cycle will start over again, albeit significantly delayed and possibly again truncated. The start of NBA’s 2020-21 regular season will be delayed until Dec. 22, instead of its usual mid-October start. The NHL is targeting January for its next-season start.

At this point, no one knows if or to what extent fans will be allowed back into venues, which means that broadcast sports will likely again have to rely on enhanced crowd sound to make games feel real. But when those leagues do begin play again, unlike last time, there will be a solution ready to cheer.

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