The Sound of Sports

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.”

  1. jeremy keens

    The greatest sound if sport story has to be test cricket in Australia in 1938. There was no audio link but the test was live broadcast. Cables in a summary code were sent with atmosphere and action. The commentators at this end read them and extrapolated the mood, action etc. there were tapes of crowd noise and the commentators tapped a pencil on a wood disk to create the shot. People listened and believed.

    1. Hi Jeremy, I’d love to know more about that 1938 story. Could you possibly direct me to any sources? Many thanks. What a fabulous programme.

  2. will

    This podcast answered a lot of questions for me. As an audio engineer I’m always critiquing audio in movies, TV, etc. This was one of those rare podcasts that spoke directly to a hobby of mine. I’ve notice the fairly recent addition of the mic on the bill of the umpire’s cap in the NFL which gives you a much better experience down on the field at the line of scrimmage. I wonder if there are samples used anywhere in American football? Great work.

  3. Daron

    This is a wonderful, beautiful show. It is always so amazing to know what happens in the background. This is the type of show that makes an audio presentation worthwhile. No visual to muddle the effects.

    Thank you for giving us this gift.

  4. I just discovered your podcast last week (thanks to a friend referring me to the episode on “duplitecture”), and this fascinating documentary was the payoff: instant gratification. Thanks a lot!

  5. 419er

    This is perhaps the first episode of 99pi I couldn’t finish. Normally i find the topics fascination even if they are out if the mainstream. Thus one, however, went in and on and on and on and on and on. I finally had to give up running and pull out my iphone and do two things. One: skip to the next podcast in my playlist. Two: leave this comment while resuming my run.

    Summary: tl;dl.

  6. Dave Hurley

    I’d have to say that this Falling Tree piece is one of the best produced and most engaging audio documentaries Ive ever had the pleasure of listening to. The editing, use of music, nat sound, mixing, etc. was completely worthy of the subject, which was… high-end audio editing/mixing and nat sound. Wow. Kudos to Peregrine Andrews!

    Additionally, I found the mix of the coxes in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race urging on the rowers to be just astonishing.

    Masterful work.

  7. Justin

    I really enjoyed listening to the boat race. Does anyone know where I could find more audio clips of a rowing team? I found the coxes to be incredibly motivating. I would love to listen to that while running/biking.


    I loved this episode sooo much. Thanks for always providing the most interesting stories.

  9. Great to get this feedback!

    Music in the dive section is “Prologue” from Tour de France Soundtracks by Kraftwerk.

    Justin, I’ll put a longer boat race cox section on my soundcloud/pezzatronic



  10. This was a great podcast, the topic was interesting, and i loved that this was longer than your usual episode (i like long podcasts. They are great for background noise when i do stuff, like drawing or painting :D)

  11. ViperX83

    Just found this thanks to Podmass over at AVClub. I’m an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster and it was incredible to hear how the pros really bring out the sound of a sporting event, fantastic episode!

  12. Sound of sports

    I just discovered your fantastic podcast and I am now working my way back in your archives. This is my favorite episode so far! Thank you!

  13. Bret C

    I rarely watch sports on a screen, but I found this episode fascinating! Thank you for sharing the rest of the story!

  14. Piotr

    I also am obsessed with the female cox shouting around 35th minute. Gives me goosebumps :)
    Fantastic audio documentary, btw.

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