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Some Olympic Sounds Are Fake

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 20, 2012 11:32 AM

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Watching sports on TV is amazing nowadays -- between HD, surround sound, and the "Planet Earth"-style editing, you feel like you're right there in the stadium. How do they do it? Very creatively, it turns out. As Peregrine Andrews, a sound engineer and audio producer, explains in the pro audio journal Fast and Wide, many of the sounds that make TV sports come alive are heavily manipulated. Sometimes they're even fake.


Sounds suspiciously like a herd of buffalo, doesn't it? (Photo: Race Time.)

If you were just to set up a microphone at the Olympics and press "record," Andrews writes, you wouldn't hear much of anything besides the roar of the crowd. In order to capture the actual sounds of athletic competition, audio engineers have to fill the field with hundreds of tiny microphones, creating the aural equivalent of a telephoto lens. Dennis Baxter, who has been the Olympics' full-time sound designer since 1992, tells Andrews that they'll use around 4,000 microphones to record this year's Games.

A lot of the magic happens through "close-miking": By pinning a microphone to an athlete's clothing, for example, you can give viewers a taste of on-the-field drama. (Some sports, like curling, are only "broadcast-able" because of close-miking.) In other cases, the microphones can open up a "hidden world." Contact microphones attached directly to the balance beam, for instance, let you hear sounds from "inside the beam," like "the creaks as it stresses under the gymnast's weight," which you couldn't hear even if you were standing right next to it. In archery, a tiny microphone placed between the arrow and the target lets you hear the "whoosh" of the arrow -- a sound which is impossible to hear in person. (The idea for that microphone, Baxter says, was inspired by the movie "Robin Hood," in which a similar sound is used to great effect.)

At times, Andrews writes, the quest for hyper-reality leads engineers to use fake sounds. During Olympic cross-country skiing, it's simply impossible to record the sound of the skis -- so, to fill in the blanks, engineers load skiing sounds onto a sampler, and then play them back in real time over the broadcast, like musicians. At NASCAR races, the sound of the engines drowns out the crowd, so engineers mix in pre-recorded crowd noise. And when you watch horse racing on TV, the sound of the hooves is often pre-recorded: in fact, Andrews writes, the standard "galloping horses loop" is "actually a slowed-down buffalo charge."

Is all this sound mixing dishonest? It depends how you look at it. It’s true that there's a certain amount of deception involved -- but, Andrews suggests, "if by using theatrical enhancement, even a bit of trickery, [engineers] get closer to expressing through those very compromising loudspeakers how it really feels to be a player or a spectator, then, surely, that is getting closer to some kind of truth." Read the rest of Andrews' essay at Fast and Wide -- complete with sound samples!

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