Tech Focus, Part 1: Audio Looks To Lead in the Stands

By: Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group

Stadium videoboards have grown visibly in recent years. The two 362-ft.-long scoreboards installed this year at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ EverBank Field are the largest LED screens of their kind in the world.

The sound systems that go with these video behemoths have been bulking up, too, some even taking advantage of the bigger screens in NFL and college stadiums and using that space to hide larger point-source horns and line arrays.

“Stadiums are transcending the sports they were built for,” observes Ted Leamy, COO at Pro Media/Ultrasound, an AV integrator whose portfolio includes the American Airlines Center in Dallas, home to the NBA Dallas Mavericks and NHL Dallas Stars, and the NFL Packers’ Lambeau Field in Green Bay. “The audio in them is following the video in that it has to be able to support the same kinds of things we used to use convention centers for, for all kinds of big events. And the expectations for the quality of sound in them have risen.”

Going Deep
Speaker manufacturer Danley Sound Labs’ Mike Hedden, whose title is chief steward in charge, notes that major-league venues are turning to their sound systems to offer fans a more immersive experience. And these days that means bass.

“It’s hip-hop and EDM [electronic dance music] driving it, and it’s not just in the basketball arenas anymore,” he says, adding that a hit EDM track he heard played on a late-September Saturday at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium through a Danley system had the entire venue stomping their feet. “A system has to be able to generate good, accurate, and really loud low end now. It’s what the music of the times demands. It’s what people are used to hearing.”

Bass is a double-edged sword, however. Low-frequency propagation has to increase to fill the massive and, in some cases, still expanding bowls in college football stadiums, to give those venues an authentic music experience. But low frequencies are the hardest to control in terms of directionality; they tend to disperse widely by nature. As systems get louder and lower, they can spill over the edges of stadiums and into surrounding neighborhoods, generating complaints. There are control techniques, such as the use of cardioid subwoofers and increasingly steerable transducer systems. But most acousticians will agree that the only thing that stops bass is mass and distance.

Tim Habedank, a systems specialist at AV integrator Parsons Electric, says the trend has been to deploy larger numbers of dual-loaded 12-in. and 15-in. subwoofers rather than using fewer larger ones, an approach that makes them more steerable, as does positioning the subs behind the front-firing main speakers. Recent Parsons installations using that design include the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Stadium and the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes’ Kinnick Stadium.

“You’re seeing more bass being deployed everywhere, in all sports venues, major league and college,” he says. “With that comes the need to manage it better.”

As venue volumes have increased, steerability has become a key sound-management parameter. Adam Shulman, product manager at speaker manufacturer EAW, whose QX system was recently installed at the Ottawa Redblacks’ TD Place Stadium, says the SPL requirements in major-league and college stadiums have increased from around 95 dB a decade ago to well over 100 dB now — and counting. “Sports venues are looking for concert-level SPL now,” he says. “But they’re also looking for ways to contain high volume, too.”

College Gets the Point
As a category, the collegiate venues are the largest venues in sports, and they use point-source–system designs extensively, the better to cover huge bowls. Much of the NFL’s live-sound infrastructure, however, uses distributed audio. The sound quality tends to be better simply because there’s less brute force involved, but that approach makes it harder to incorporate subwoofers into a design.

“Arenas and other enclosed venues have places to hang line arrays and subs from, and the big collegiate stadiums are now putting subs into the bigger point-source systems they tend to use,” explains JBL Professional applications expert Brad Ricks, citing recent JBL installations at Baylor University’s McLane Stadium and TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium. “A distributed system has less opportunity to integrate a large number of subs. A lot of our work is with distributed systems, so it’s something that we’re working on.”

But, he adds, even stadiums with distributed systems are finding ways to add volume, such as attaching additional speakers to canopies at the Cleveland Browns’ First Energy Stadium and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ EverBank Field, where JBL point-shoot speakers were added to buttress existing sound systems. “Volume is becoming a bigger and bigger priority in venues,” he says.

Besides more volume, what’s next in the sports-venue–audio arms race? According to Parsons’s Habedank, more speakers means that more-efficient ways to move signal around the venues are needed. “That’s why it’s all moving to networked audio, specifically Dante, which we’ve been using on every project lately.”

Danley has been getting inquiries into how venues can find ways to monetize their sound systems for advertising, as they do with their video systems. Says Hedden, “They’re asking, ‘How can we make audio into something we can bill?’ We’re thinking about it.”