This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
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, 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 that doesn’t mean they throw a bunch of microphones on the field. This is Dennis Baxter, sound designer of the Olympics.
There’s some sports that you just cannot capture the natural sound. Cross country skiing, uh, biathlon is another one because of the size of the course. And this has 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 replicate that sound. Essentially, if you’ve got 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, it’s 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, sshh.”
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. If you see the rowers, they have a sound that they’re expecting. So what do we do?
That afternoon, I went out on a canoe with a couple of rowers and recorded stereo samples of the different type of 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.
When we do our horse racing, you’re not going to get someone running around the course after the horses. No way. And 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 sort of stuff is to run a tape which 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 it’s probably the same recording that they’ve used for years.
This episode of 99% Invisible was produced by Peregrine Andrews for Falling Tree Productions and features Dennis Baster and Bill Whiston. It’s an extract from the much longer and really stunning audio documentary called “The Sound of Sport.” 99% Invisible was made possible with support from LUNAR, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To find out more, go to the website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org.