Sound of the crowd: TV sport keeps it real with the faux human league

The crowd roars, but there's no one there, so where is the noise coming from and how does it match the action so perfectly?

These are the existential questions that have hummed in the background since the NRL, AFL and English Premier League resumed their stop-start seasons in the past couple of weeks.

The new reality of TV sport: cardboard fans, piped-in crowd sounds. Credit: Getty Images

If you've been watching, you'll no doubt have formed a view about the use of artificial crowd noise on the broadcast. And if you're like most people, you'll probably have moved past the early outrage and settled into an "I don't mind it, actually" state of acceptance.

"We give our viewers the option to choose to watch the live game without the audio overlay," says Corin Dimopoulos, head of content at Optus Sport. “And about 20 per cent do that because they feel they can hear the players calling to each other, which you sort of can. But the other 80 per cent choose it with the atmospheric over the top, so it's clearly working."

That result may be skewed by the fact the sound-off option is not available in catch-up viewing, which, because of the time difference, is how many EPL fans in Australia consume their soccer. Still, if the experience of Seven's broadcast of the crowdless first round of the AFL season is any indication, the novelty of hearing players' and coaches' voices echoing around an empty stadium might soon wear off anyway.

"It was clear to us after the first game that there were voids we needed to fill, both visually and from a sound experience," says Lewis Martin, managing director of Seven Melbourne, and the man responsible for the network's AFL coverage. "We looked at what was foreign to viewers – and what was foreign was the empty stand and the lack of crowd noise."

If the big men fly but no one is there to hear them land, did they really fly at all? Credit: Getty Images

Within days, Martin and executive producer Gary O'Keefe had begun trawling through the library of game recordings, looking for examples of various stadiums at various crowd sizes, to compile a catalogue of samples for, say, the MCG with 40,000 people or the Gabba with 20,000.

"We spent hours listening to the different stadiums," Martin says. "We would close our eyes for 20 minutes just listening to the crowd. The big thing for us was we didn't want to give people something different – it needed to be comforting and familiar to the audience from decades of watching footy on the telly. And it needed to be repeatable."

Martin is tight-lipped about exactly how the sound is married to the visuals in the heat of the moment, but he describes the result as "the Goldilocks outcome" – not too loud, not too quiet, just right.

In the EPL broadcasts, which come prepackaged from the UK, they are using sound supplied by the computer game company EA Sports. Mixing the game, says Dimopoulos, "is a pretty manual process, with effects for oohs and aahs. They can even add some of the more family friendly chants."

So that’d be about 10 per cent of them then.

"About one per cent," he corrects.

EA has in fact been using stadium audio in its games since 2015, with that audio coming from Sky's broadcasts of real games. In other words, the sound it is supplying to the EPL now actually came from the EPL in the first place.

This circular arrangement hit a bit of a snag though in the EPL's first weekend back, with the management at Watford's game against Leicester opting to pump the EA-supplied artificial crowd noise into the stadium in a bid to motivate the home side; all it achieved was some nasty feedback problems for the sound engineer trying to mix the game live.

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(An even worse glitch afflicted a La Liga game in Spain recently, when the digitally generated crowd image that was supposed to track around the stadium, being mapped onto seats according to which camera was in play, became stuck, with the effect that the crowd was seen to hover well above the seats and even at one point to map onto players on the field. Not so much Goldilocks as Godzilla, a disaster movie with terrible effects.)

No wonder Simon Fordham, executive producer of Nine's NRL coverage, didn't want to rush into the faux crowd sound scenario. "So many times I've seen people try to create a gimmick," he says, "but fans are smart, they spot a rat".

For the first game or two without crowds pre-lockdown, Fordham thought things would be fine au natural. But by the time the round was over, he knew otherwise.

"By that Sunday, having seen seven games without crowd noise, I was worried about maintaining that for an unknown period," he says. The hardcore league fan might be fine with it, but for the broader audience "the crowd is the thing that brings it together and endorses the sense of excitement … without it, they might choose MasterChef over NRL if they're not entertained".

Even so, it wasn't until the day before the first game back that Nine finally decided to go with the added crowd noise. "We'd had discussions, done a couple of rehearsals, and were confident of the technology, but we had concerns," Fordham admits.

Paul Pogba is fouled in the incident which led to Manchester United's equaliser against Tottenham. Credit: AP

The NRL crowd noise comes from the network's databank of match recordings, but the soundtracking is done by an external company, AFX, which didn't even exist prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Again, it's a single audio engineer mixing live as the game unfolds – "it has to be somebody who knows and loves the game", says Fordham – pumping the volume of the crowd up and down using a foot-operated pedal, and dialling in boos, cheers, jeers, whistles and the like from a data bank of between 20 and 30 samples.

But each of those effects is also calibrated to the specifics of the venue. In a game between two Sydney teams, for instance, the crowd might be weighted roughly 50-50, but at a Broncos game in the cauldron of Suncorp Stadium, the Brisbane side is likely to have 80 per cent of the support. Each effect needs to reflect that as well.

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"The tough part is the crowd is such an organic thing, completely reactive to its environment, so if you get it wrong it really sticks out," says Fordham.

Whatever you do, though, crowd or no crowd, it's going to stick out at least a little.

Take the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United on the opening weekend of the EPL's resumption. Home side Spurs were leading until the 66th minute, when United were given a penalty after Paul Pogba tumbled to the ground in the box.

Instantly, the crowd jeered and whistled in outrage. Except, of course, there was no crowd.

It was jarring and familiar all at once.

Just about perfect, in other words, for this strangest of seasons.

Follow the author on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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