Coping with Sound in Sports: How the Pandemic is changing Sports Telecasts
Sound in Sports: How the Pandemic is changing the way we hear sound in sports telecasts, and how we’re coping as players and fans
For the first time in history, there are a lot of things we aren’t hearing that we normally would while watching USA’s team sports broadcasts – like the deafening sounds of the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB’s die-hard screaming fans, the habitual loving and encouraging chants when a period or quarter has started or ended, when a goal has been scored, when overtime begins and other exciting “community”sounds that makes watching team sports for a human being feel like we are “part of the team”. Listen to an example of a real crowd screaming in 3D audio, put your headphones on and check out this video of the MLB’s Chicago Cubs winning a game – recorded in binaural, 3D audio, with the Hooke Verse.
Also, for the first time in history, we can watch a team sports telecast and hear things we normally wouldn’t hear as well because they are usually covered up, or mixed in with the sound of the crowd. Strange things, like dead silence after a baseball has been loudly cracked by a bat, or really being able to hear the actual sound of the hockey puck cutting and sliding across the ice. We’ll probably be hearing a lot more of things that were previously kept out of the audio mix; like all of the violent noises of hockey players fighting, cursing expletives and angrily slamming each other up against the sides of the rink.
But what are these changes in vibrational sounds while watching team sports doing to our psyche individually, or as a society? How is it making us feel as a fan or as a teammate?
We would think that the sports world would be well positioned to adapt to this new reality. Millions of enthusiastic sports fans never attend games in person; for most people, a soccer, hockey, football or basketball game is something they would only ever watch on TV.
Players’ performance is one thing that is positively and/or negatively affected by loud crowd sounds. Any basketball player sending off free-throw shots can attest to having their basketballs swish perfectly into the basket while practicing in a near-silent gym (and in the game of basketball, thirty-five percent of the points come from free-throw shots).
Not only that but players could not previously communicate with one another over the crowd noise before the pandemic. For example, in hockey, players would use signals, body gestures and stick-tapping to communicate over the crowd, but now they can openly shout and hear one another on the rink.
The ecosystem of the player and the fan supporting each other has been disrupted by the pandemic. The heroic players bring screams of adoration from the faithful fans; and the screams of adoration inspire the heroic players to push ever forward.
Will our expectations for hearing players’ sounds in game broadcasts become higher?
Will it be the new normal to hear players’ grunts, chants, and shouts as the main part of the broadcast mix? It’s not hard to imagine that in the immediate future, audio mixers will put a microphone on every team member and mix that in with the game’s announcers. This is due to the fact that when an audio mix is subjective and intense, fans appreciate it more, and affects how we “feel” a game. Because everyone at home, whether they know about audio mixing or not, can appreciate the perfect sound of a bat cracking a home run.
How are we going to make up for the sounds we are missing? How can we find a system that will work for an entire game to be silent and still build the intensity needed to continue watching until the end?
So far in 2020, the NHL and the NBA are already using crowd sounds that were previously recorded and mixed for video games as the “real” sounds for their broadcasts. We spoke to a 40-year veteran ice hockey player and tattoo artist, Aaron Morgan, and asked him what he thought about watching the NHL playoffs in 2020 with the pre-recorded video game sounds added in, how it affects him as a fan and how it might be affecting the team’s performance. As someone we could describe as a dedicated “superfan” of the sport and the Tampa Bay Lightning, he said, “Hockey is noisy both on and off the ice, with unruly fans. During the playoff season – the stadium is usually erupting! But now it’s like watching two teams practice in an empty arena.”
“Fake crowd noise is not the same as cheering – it affects the players probably more than anyone. If you have an immense amount of crowd noise encouraging you on your home game, receiving goal horns and music, it affects the way you play. But now there’s no home crowd screaming at every thing you do. It’s affected some players adversely – a goalie ended up quitting on his team. He decided he wanted to go home to his family and he used the absence of crowd noise as the excuse.”
“Playoff hockey is super loud and intense…but the game is the same. People complain because the crowd sounds are not intuitive, but if you turned off the volume you wouldn’t have any idea. It’s better than nothing. You feel less anxious watching it, but just as excited. It’s the difference between going to a real game and watching it at home; huge difference. You still wouldn’t get the same vibe watching the game on TV anyway – even with the secondary sounds, it’s not the same as being there.”
When asked about playing video games for NBA and NHL, and how the sounds compare to the live broadcast versions, Aaron said, “The truth is – video games have never hit the level of insanity of the sounds they’ve needed for the playoff atmosphere. Playoff games don’t really sound or feel that much different from the regular games. They would need to add tremendous roars, and the occasional asshole yelling for a beer, and a LOT more to get it to sound like the real thing.”
How could we make the sounds more intuitive for sports telecasts without any fans in the audience? Introducing binaural audio samples into the mix would be a great way to bring the overall “feel” back to the live sports cast.
Until the pandemic of 2020 is over, it would be a good idea to hire a dedicated sound designer to record 3D audio samples for all of the teams’ specific community sounds. Then hire a DJ, or audio personnel for both teams to be present at games, with MIDI controllers triggering those binaural audio samples at the right times during the games. We could also have those sounds playing binaurally over the loud speakers in the arena, and present in the audio mix for the telecast. Then, the DJ could trigger the 3D sounds of the ooh’s into the crowd mix when someone gets nailed on the ice with a hockey stick during a game, and also have all of the samples we would ever need for each team’s home game horns and community chants playing at the right times, on the right sides. The audio mixer of the game’s broadcast could also add a constant, 3d audio recorded, low gravel of normal crowd noise into the overall audio mix to be played over the speakers (and in the broadcast feed).
If it’s only one person operating the MIDI controller at a game, then that person would have to know the difference between the ooh’s and the ahh’s for the home team versus the visiting team – and have to be on point with cheers, jeers, and chants. At least then the sports fans watching the telecasts at home might not complain…but for now, like Aaron said, “It’s better than nothing.”