The Sound of Sport

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: If Dennis Baxter and Bill Whiston are doing their job right, you probably don’t notice that they’re doing their job. But they are so good at doing their job, that you probably don’t even know that their job exists at all. They are sound designers for televised sporting events. Their job is to draw the audience into the action and make sports sound as exciting as possible, and this doesn’t mean they put a bunch of microphones on the field. This is Dennis Baxter, sound designer of the Olympics.
Dennis Baxter (DB): There are some sports that you just cannot capture the natural sound. Cross country skiing, biathlon is another one, because of the size of course. And it’s been further complicated because as the camera lenses have gone up 110, 120, 130, 140 to 1, these cameras are able to see half a kilometer, maybe even a kilometer down the course. Now how do you sound, essentially, if you have cameras that are that far apart from each other, you’re putting twenty or thirty microphones to “fill” as the athletes are coming to you. Which is not practical. I am not a purist whatsoever in sound production. I truly believe that whatever the tool takes to deliver a high-quality entertaining soundscape, it’s all fair game. And that has caused some issues because I use samplers. What a sampler is, its a keyboard attached to essentially a digital recorder. When you hit the key on the keyboard, it triggers the sound to playback and with the keyboard it also triggers with sensitivity, meaning that if I hit the key really hard it will have a bit of a harder attack, and you can vary the pitch. If I hit a c note that has a sample and then I hit a d note of the same sample, it will be up a step. So for the skiing, it gives a “sshh, sshh, sshh.”
DB: In Atlanta, one of my biggest problems was rowing. Rowing is a two-kilometer course. They have four chase boats following the rowers, and they have a helicopter. That’s what they need to deliver the visual coverage of it. But the helicopter and the chase boat just completely wash out the sound. So no matter how good the microphones are, you cannot capture, you cannot reach and isolate sound like you do visually. But people have expectations. Ok? If you see the rowers, they have a sound they’re expecting. So what do we do?
DB: That afternoon, I went out on a canoe with a couple of rowers and recorded stereo samples of the type of different effects that would be somewhat typical of an event. And then we loaded those recordings into a sampler and play them back to cover the sounds of the boats.
Bill Whiston (BW): When we do our horse racing, we’re not going to get someone running around the course after the horses. No way. Occasionally you will come across very close-up pictures of the horses of the far side, which is done off one of our roving cameras. But you have engine noise in that case, so, therefore, you wouldn’t want a microphone on that, because all you’d hear is a car revving up and the cameraman cursing. So basically, the way that you cover all that stuff is to run a tape that has the sound of horses hooves galloping, which is actually, if I remember rightly, a slowed-down buffalo charge. That’s pretty much a standard thing. And I think probably the same recording that they’ve used for years.
This piece was produced by Peregrine Andrew for Falling Tree Productions for BBC Radio4. It is an extract from a much longer, and really stunning doc called “The Sound of Sport.”

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