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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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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