Sport is never silent. The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the "oof!" of a tennis pro connecting with the ball help us feel present -- even if, like the millions of us watching on TV, we're not. Yet even when we're at the event, we don't hear it all. In stadium sports, the cries of fans drown out the sounds on the field. At rowing events, the creak of oars and the gurgle of water, are muffled by distance or drowned by the noise of camera-copters. Viewers of this year's televised Olympics, though, will hear far more of it. At many events they'll be immersed in sounds that bring home the reality of sport as never before -- sounds never heard by live spectators and sometimes not even by participants.
Producing sound of Olympic proportions
A recent article in The Atlantic lays bare the magic behind creating the sound you hear from your television speakers during Olympic broadcasts.
"The television broadcasts from the Olympics aren't merely an act of capturing reality, but an act of creation." says Alexis Madrigal in "How the Gorgeous, Sometimes Fictional Sound of the Olympics Gets Made." "TV sporting events are something we make, and they have a tension at their core: On the one hand, we want to feel as if we watched from the stands, but on the other, we want a fidelity and intimacy that is better than any in-person spectating could be. Our desire is for the presentation of real life to actually be better than real life."
"This is most apparent on the soundtrack," adds Madrigal, "where dozens of just barely detectable decisions are made to manipulate your experience." Audio engineer Dennis Baxter, a 20-year Olympic veteran, is the man behind a lot of those decisions, and one who clearly will do whatever it takes to provide the best experience to viewers at home. "I truly believe that whatever tool it takes to deliver a high quality entertaining soundscape, it's all fair game," he says in the BBC documentary, The Sound of Sport, produced by Peregrine Andrews.
For Baxter, it's not enough to capture the sound of an archer shooting or the thud of the arrow striking its target--so he developed a recording technique that places a boundary-layer microphone (designed to be used on a surface instead of in free space) on the ground below the arrow's path to capture the faint sound of its flight -- something most spectators would otherwise never hear. Likewise for diving, Baxter places microphones above and below the water, and in the handrails the divers use as they walk up. As the divers reach the water, the sound mixers fade to the underwater microphones to bring the audience into the diver's isolated world.
For some sports, sonic reality involves some reality-based fakery. In Olympic rowing, for example, "Helicopters and chase boats, which provide the visual coverage, completely wash out the sound of the boats, says Peregrine Andrews, writing about the sound of sport on Fastandwide.com. "If you heard nothing but the chase boats and helicopters, which you actually don't see on your TV, you would think that was wrong. So Dennis went out before the event and recorded clean oar sounds which he played in from a sampler over the shots of the competition. Real, no. Expected? Yes." (Andrews' essay includes some sonic examples.)
As involving as these sounds can be, U.S. listeners, at least, won't hear most of them over the announcers' incessant chatter and analysis. But hearing even some of them helps make this year's Olympic broadcasts more real than ever -- even if some of that reality is virtual.