Olympic sound design: 3,600 microphones and counting

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Professor Joshua Reiss of Queen Mary’s School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science has written for The Conversation on the audio history of the Olympic Games and the impact of Covid-19 on Olympic sound design.

The modern-day Olympics are among the biggest sporting events in the world, but relatively few people can actually watch the action live and in person. Thus, the Quadrennial Games have proved to be an important engine of audiovisual progress.

The 1964 Tokyo Games were the first to be broadcast internationally. More than 14 hours of black and white images were transmitted to the first geostationary satellite and, from there, to 23 countries around the world.

The Syncom 3 satellite had only been launched two months before, which made the broadcast a remarkable feat. But the challenges did not end there.

At the end of 1963, acoustics experts in Tokyo discovered that the sound system at the new Yoyogi National Stadium had major problems. The main grandstand was covered by the expansive tent-shaped roof by architect Kenzo Tange which, although an instant architectural classic, proved to be a headache for sound designers. The canopy reflected the sound below, creating a deep boom. The loudspeaker delays meant the amplified voices of the people were almost unintelligible at the back of the stadium. And the speakers themselves had a very limited frequency response, eliminating almost anything outside of the reach of the adult human voice.

Olympic sound design

The Tokyo 1964 opening ceremony brought together more than 900 musicians and singers. To amplify the music, 20 microphones were placed around the group and the performers. Delays have been introduced for the loudspeakers so that the audience in the stadium hear the sound in sync with what they have seen happening further on the pitch. Pre-recorded sound effects, such as the ringing of Japanese temple bells, have been mixed with live sounds for radio and television broadcasts.

The configuration had its limits. Microphones were needed in useful places – the ceremonial platform, the royal box, the orchestra, the control room – in order to receive interviews and announcements. But these microphones were fixed in place.


The opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

This meant, among other things, that there were also restrictions on speaker locations and levels, in order to avoid the howling sound loops of acoustic feedback, which occur when a microphone placed too close to a speaker picks up too much of its own sound. output being amplified and read.

As the following Olympics audiences grew, we went from wanting to hear the action, to wanting to feel first in line, to now wanting to feel in the middle of the action. . And every innovation at one Olympic Games has become the basic expectation for the next.

At the 1984 Summer Games, sound engineers launched acoustic simulation to model the acoustics of the main venue, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was then used to predict sound characteristics throughout the stadium. This led to advanced modeling of the acoustic properties of each venue for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Winter Games.

Sydney 2000 saw the introduction of the digital audio network, the transmission of high quality uncompressed audio over the Internet without significant loss or delay – a new technology at the time. Now, it can be found in studios, concert halls, schools, and meeting centers around the world.

Sound in the age of COVID

COVID has completely changed Olympic sound design. The lack of spectators means that the roar of the crowd is totally absent. This alters the acoustics of the space. Sound resonates very differently in a stadium when there is no body or clothing to absorb the sound. And with relative silence compared to the constant high volume of tens of thousands of people, we end up hearing the hum of cicadas, the buzz of lights and the clicking of camera shutters.

This is partly resolved by false crowd noise. Personalized recordings of cheers from similar events to the previous Olympics are played over the speakers around the stadium.

Many sports broadcasters have also layered what they call an audio mat, which is the ambient sound of a full stadium when there is no action going on. But canned crowd noise comes with its own challenges as it clashes completely with visuals of empty seats.

From a sound design perspective, however, having empty stadiums isn’t that bad. Sometimes it’s just different. Microphones are always placed very close to a sound source to capture only that sound. And with even less background noise, these point mics are able to better capture impact sounds – the crackle, snap, and thump associated with rackets, wheels, bodies, and collisions with the ground. We hear more clearly the coaching on the sidelines and the cries between the players of a team.

Studies have shown that we expect such sounds to be present in a believable soundstage. The absence of such nuances can affect the realism we perceive from a recording.

New methods of capturing, rendering, and even enhancing the sounds of Tokyo 2020 had specialists excited long before COVID hit. More than ever, these Olympics are taking place in what is known as immersive audio.

Microphones – 3,600 of them – were deployed everywhere, hung from closed ceilings, built into climbing walls and placed on waterpolo poles. The variety of sounds they pick up are mixed and broadcast in a way that viewers hear what athletes might hear and more.

The Olympic Games are, once again, at the forefront of innovation in sound design. As Nuno Duarte, Senior Director of Audio for Olympic Broadcast Services recently said, “We don’t see any problems; we see challenges, and we also see opportunities.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.


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