Sound Systems Ride Wave of High-Quality Video in Stadium Construction

By Dan Daley

Sports-venue construction tends to move in waves, and we’ve just come out of what the surfers at Hout Bay in South Africa call a “rhino.” From two new baseball stadiums in New York to new digs for the Cowboys, 49ers, and Jets, we’ve seen a coast-to-coast building spurt that has been a bright light in the middle of a general construction contraction.

One of the byproducts of that trend has been a vast improvement in the overall quality of sports-venue sound. That has been driven largely by the quality — and the utter hugeness — of the video installed in the newest stadiums, says Jack Wrightson, partner in WJHW, the acoustical-consulting and systems-design firm that has been specializing in sports venues.

“You’d think it had to do with music,” he says. “But actually, the screens are so big and so hi-def that the real issues are lip synch: the sound has to match the picture, and, when the picture is that good, you can’t fudge it.”

Another key driver has been the need for greater intelligibility, not so much for who’s up at bat next or what the referee’s call is — the fans know the lineups by heart, and the refs have their own semaphore system — but rather to assure advertisers that the audio portion of their message is getting through.

In the larger sense, though, Wrightson believes that major-league sports has ratcheted itself up with the rest of the high-end entertainment media that it has to have 5.1 on the air and concert-level sound in the stadium just to compete. “And the video content has become very busy,” he adds, “so the audio has to keep up.”

Line Array vs. Distributed

Sound-system design for sports stadiums has been drawing from music concerts, but the line array, while a regular part of the stadium designer’s arsenal, doesn’t get the same attention it does for a U2 concert. “When you go 360-degree coverage in an arena, you lose some of the advantages of the vertical that the line array gives you,” Wrightson explains. “Plus, the systems tend to be expensive because you have to use a lot of boxes to get sufficient vertical coverage in a very tall, modern arena.”

More often, he says, distributed systems are the core at most new ballparks and stadiums. They work especially well in situations where the audio has to penetrate deeply into the hull of the structure, which describes a raked and tiered stadium to a T. Both of New York’s new baseball parks use fully distributed systems.

However, line arrays do have their place, and which is usually in clusters, such as in outdoor end zones and near big scoreboard assemblies. Wrightson cites new sound systems for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and the University of Minnesota as examples of how clustered line arrays are used most effectively. They also help in domed-stadium designs, such as in the Dallas Cowboys’ new facility.

“Those types of stadiums tend to have a lot of hard, reflective surfaces, the kind we don’t want [the sound] to hit,” he explains. “The line arrays give us a very steerable option and help to keep sound off the roof.”

They’re also finding favor in some smaller arena settings, where the line array’s thin profile helps keep sight lines clear to video and other displays that are elevated in the bowl.

But the audio is only going to be as good as what goes into it — a variation on the computer adage of “garbage in, garbage out.” Wrightson cradles his forehead in his hand when he talks about feeding 8-bit MP3 audio into a multimillion-dollar sound system.

Then he notes system operators who, he believes, are not sufficiently trained in many cases, given the complexity and sophistication of the media systems going into sports venues. “The skill of the operators is at least as important as the hardware they buy,” he says. “If I had to make a choice, I’d rather have high-end operators and mediocre equipment. I think the next round of upgrades we’re going to see will be the venues’ upping their operational game.”

One suggestion he emphasizes is that stadium media operators preview and audition all the content over the arena or stadium sound system before game time. Fifty-foot-tall surprises are usually not the best surprises.

The spurt of new construction will taper off significantly after the new homes for the Twins and the Marlins are finished next year. The recession has pretty much turned off the economic spigots necessary to build these high-tech coliseums. But one of the legacies of this round of construction will be dramatically improved audio virtually throughout MLB and NFL venues.