Acoustics Expert to World Cup Viewers: Get Used to the Vuvuzelas

It is the authentic sound of South African football, but the vuvuzela has proved intrusive and annoying enough during the 2010 FIFA World Cup for the BBC to investigate whether the characteristic drone can be minimised or cancelled out of broadcasts altogether.

The broadcaster has received 545 complaints about the noisemakers. Commentators and viewers alike have made their feelings known, and players, including Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen and Lionel Messi of Argentina, have said the cacophony produced by the hunting-horn–like instruments — which can reach up to 114 dB — makes talking to colleagues on the pitch difficult. “It is impossible to communicate; it’s like being deaf,” Messi has said.

Even so, the local organising committee for the World Cup in South Africa has rejected calls to either ban the vuvuzela or restrict fans to playing them at specific times. The organisers say the horns are an important part of the atmosphere and there is a case for saying that they are as much a part of South African football as the rattle was to the English game in the 1940s and ’50s.

With the place of the vuvuzela secure for this tournament, the BBC is looking into ways to create a clean audio feed, which would be available on its Red Button service. In this way, the broadcaster could offer viewers a choice of coverage with or without vuvuzelas.

A BBC spokeswoman says that a final decision about whether this will be made over the next few days. There are no details on how the call of the vuvuzela, which, en masse, sounds like a huge gathering of disgruntled bees, could be successfully decreased or eliminated.

An expert in acoustics has warned that any attempt to notch out or block the main frequencies of the vuvuzela would distort the commentary. Trevor Cox, president of the Institute of Acoustics and professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, says this is because the noisemaker has similar frequencies to human speech.

“There are at least six very strong harmonics in there,” Cox told the BBC. “It would sound really horrible to notch these out: if one coincides with the vowel sound e, you won’t be able to hear the e’s in the commentary. It would sound unnatural.”

Cox’s advice to viewers is to get used to the sound of the plastic, meter-long instrument: “If you think it’s annoying, you will get annoyed by it. Embrace it, see it as a colourful part of the World Cup.”