Not Everyone is Sour About Sweetening Sports Audio

By Dan Daley SVG Audio Editor

When is a live sports broadcast entertainment and when is it a documentary?
That might depend on if it gets the Hollywood treatment on the fly,
with real-time SFX added, as well as who’s doing the mixing and what
the network has to say about it.

Fred Aldous, Fox Sports audio consultant, states, “Personally, I’m
against [adding in sound effects] and don’t do it, and hopefully, never will,” he says, adding
that “hopefully” refers to increasing pressure throughout television
to dramatize live events, an acknowledgment that the competitions are
not solely on the playing fields in front of the cameras, but also for viewers and Nielsen numbers.

“I agree sweetening can enhance the entertainment
value of a sporting event, but I prefer to present it just as the event
unfolds,” though he also acknowledges that not every mixer has the
resources of a major network that can deploy scores of microphones at an event. “I’m not
competing with other mixers, I’m competing with movies and video games,
which both have great sound,” he says.
Dennis Baxter, sound designer for the Beijing Olympics, notes instances he has used SFX to replace or beef up audio,
including the Indianapolis 500, where rain has been known to disable
field microphones, and Olympic rowing, when audio “rotor wash” from chase helicopters
is overbearing. But, he says, he rarely uses loops, instead relying
on AKAI sampling keyboards. “You have control over pitch, velocity
and attack, so you can create real-time effects,” he explains. “To
me, adding live FX is an art.”
Today’s reality, with sports fans demanding a “you are there” feel,
occassionally requires sweetening when physical limitations make micing
impossible. A 100-kilometer cross-country skiing event, for example,
simply can’t be miked without laying hundreds of microphones and
hundreds of cables.
Some networks have little in the way of specific policies on the subject,
like Turner Sports, where Tom Sahara, senior director of remote operations
& IT, says, “The decision to use sweetening is primarily at the
producer’s discretion,” and that sports with hard-to-catch audio such
as golf, auto racing, winter sports and water sports may use loops to
fill dead spots in the coverage.

CBS Sports, on the other hand, has an official no-live-sweetening
policy, according to Director of Engineering Bruce Goldfeder. Bob Dixon,
who oversaw NBC’s Summer Olympics audio, says, “As a general rule,
we will capture the sounds of the games with microphones, and not add
anything else.”

Proponents of live sweetening agree that it can add to the narrative
and drama of an event. But there are nuances that can trip a mixer up.
A Master’s Tournament some years ago famously received word that the
bird vocalizations in a “wildlife loop” being used for sound design
support contained sounds of birds not indigenous to the area. Baxter
says he has to be meticulous about recording Indy car motors every year
or two to assure the proper tone. “There are people who can recognize
specific sounds and are not reluctant to let you know if you get it
wrong,” he says.
One event that does typically require some sweetening are sailing events. Baxter relied on using
sample loops on sailing races at the Olympics but changes in the oceans may change that requirement. More CO2 in the atmosphere is making the oceans more acidic. As a result of this
change in pH, sound absorption diminishes. Scientists predict that a 0.3-drop
in pH by the end of the century will result in a 40-percent drop in
sound absorption below 1 kHz, hence more noise. Might not need those
loops after all.