Tech Focus: Venue Sound — Some New Wrinkles

Live sound systems in sports venues have seen some large-scale trends evolve over the last few years: most notably, the shift to full-range systems that can accommodate the wider variety of music that teams, leagues, players, and fans have been demanding, and the inclusion of greater numbers of larger subwoofers to reproduce the LFE in urban and pop music and in team sound effects. Recently, the design of those sound systems has been getting as creative as some of the content being played through them.

Mark Graham, associate principal at consultant/design firm WJHW, says teams have been looking to expand their effects palettes, using sound to underscore field events, such as a scoring play, and to reinforce their brands. Sitting in his office not too far from the Denver Broncos’ Sports Authority Field at Mile High, he notes that a mascot like a horse could have a soundtrack like galloping hooves. However, the twist he has been looking into is to use speakers around the stadium as a massive surround soundfield, with the effect moving from speaker to speaker, circumnavigating the bowl.

It has been experimented with before, by WJHW in tandem with production creatives, who programmed speakers at the Tennessee Titans stadium after a 2012 system upgrade to have a train-whistle sound pop up in different speaker zones as though a locomotive were making its way toward the scoreboard screen at Nissan Stadium (formerly, LP Field) as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” played through the PA.

More recently, the concept was applied at the American Airlines Center near Dallas, where 16 tracks of sound effects, created on an Avid Pro Tools system and synched to video graphics and animations, are played through a separate sound system comprising several loudspeakers salvaged from the old one, which was replaced during a 2010 upgrade. JBL large-venue specialist Brad Ricks, who worked with WJHW and integrator Pro Media Ultrasound to create the subsystem, calls it “amazingly effective.”

A and V Converge in the Venue
Brian Elwell, senior consultant/VP at consultant/design firm Idibri, sees the entire venue becoming part of the overall production, with high-resolution audio and video extending beyond the bowl and into concourse areas, in an effort to keep the fan constantly engaged with the game.

“LED video walls have become so much less expensive, and they’re becoming ubiquitous throughout the stadiums and arenas,” he says. “With the audio embedded, the producer can send any combination of signals to any screens and could, for instance, send the same signals to every screen in every area of the venue when the home team scores. You don’t have to feel disconnected from the game just because you’re in the beer line.”

Key to making this work, he says, is high-quality audio and video, often taken directly, via tie lines, from the remote-production trucks in the adjacent broadcast compound to prevent a broadcast-inserted delay. And the ongoing transition from copper to networked signal transport within the venue is also making more-complex routing and distribution easier, using networked routers.

“You no longer have to have a huge A/V router with tons of BNC connectors,” he says. “Instead, you have a network [switch] and a LAN that can move anything anywhere. This is turning the venue into a production.”

Let’s Get Big
Putting sound systems inside ever larger video displays in ever larger football stadiums will be a challenge for those pursuing this mega-niche. Danley Labs recently put its systems — deep-throated point-source systems that the company’s self-styled Chief Steward in Charge Mike Hedden prefers to call “non-line arrays” — into Auburn’s 190- x 57-ft. $3.5 million display unveiled this season, the largest in college football, and will have them in the Atlanta Falcons’ forthcoming new venue, which will sport the first-of-its-kind circular display, which Daktronics is building.

“The battle is how to get the acoustics enough horsepower,” says Hedden, who adds that the pre-installation analysis that Danley is performing is the most comprehensive and rigorous ever done for a stadium of this type. “The Falcons’ stadium is the first one where we can show auralizations. It will be the most intelligible broadband system in any stadium.”

But it will also have plenty of low end, something Hedden says isn’t nearly as deep as it could be using line arrays. The Atlanta stadium will reach down to 25 Hz, well below the 60-80 Hz that most stadium systems attain, he says. Bigger video displays and louder sound systems, he adds, will require a higher level of collaboration among systems designers, integrators, and architects.

One of Meyer Sound’s Cal 96 columnar array speakers at UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium

One of Meyer Sound’s Cal 96 columnar array speakers at UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium

The point-source approach has been the choice for most college football venues because of their scale and their architecture: putting 90,000-plus fans in the stands rarely allows for the tiers that serve as supports for distributed systems, which is the design approach that would offer the best solution to the challenge of keeping the audio synched with the video over very long distances. And, as the video gets bigger and has higher resolution, sync issues become more readily apparent to in-venue viewers.

An alternative in some cases has been to use flagpoles or cell repeaters along the top rim of stadiums as supports for the new generation of high-powered, beam-steerable columnar speakers. According to John Monitto, director, technical support worldwide, Meyer Sound, that’s what was done at UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium, where Meyer’s Cal 96 columnar-array speakers distribute the sound downward onto the seating areas.

“The problem had been that column-array speakers didn’t have enough power for applications like this until recently,” he explains.

Adam Shulman, product and applications manager, EAW, agrees that beam-steering technology is becoming more important in venue sound-system designs. “We’re getting way more requests for steerable speakers in stadiums lately,” he notes. “That’s relatively new, and it dovetails with the increase in subwoofers there, creating much more full-range systems overall.”

The future will see more use of these steerable loudspeakers combined with more-granular DSP that will allow sound-coverage patterns to change during the game, Shulman predicts: “You’ll be able to put the sound on the field to amp up the players pregame, then keep it off the field and on the seats during the game, to avoid feedback into the referees’ microphones, by automatically turning off certain speakers.”

Currently, some stadiums, such as Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, use a secondary, supplemental sound system for the field; Shulman says DSP would allow one system to do it all.

More Players in the Game
The heightened activity surrounding venue sound is drawing more players to the game. Paris-based L-Acoustics is known as a provider of audiophile touring sound systems for top music artists. It put its first system into a sports venue, the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay in 2006, and its line arrays were deployed at several recent Olympics games in Europe. But Dan Palmer, head of integration for the U.S. and Canada, L-Acoustics, says the company is pursuing the market more assertively now. Its systems have been installed in the Houston Rockets’ Toyota Center and the University of Wyoming and are scheduled to be fitted into the AT&T Center, where the San Antonio Spurs play.

“It’s about the convergence of sports and entertainment: sports is entertainment now,” Palmer emphasizes. “People who spend thousands of dollars a year in sports venues are expecting concert-grade sound in them. The game has to sound like a rock show.”