The Fake Sounds at the Olympic Games

We marvel at the video quality of sports events, but often the sound engineering goes unnoticed. Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlanticconsiders the sound quality at the Olympic Games. Dennis Baxter, an audio engineer at the Olympic Games for twenty years, says in the BBC documentary, The Sound of Sport:

“In Atlanta, one of my biggest problems was rowing. Rowing is a two-kilometer course. They have 4 chaseboats following the rowers and they have a helicopter. That’s what they need to deliver the visual coverage of it,” Baxter explains. “But the chaseboats and the helicopter just completely wash out the sound. No matter how good the microphones are, you cannot capture and reach and isolate sound the way you do visually. But people have expectations. If you see the rowers, they have a sound they are expecting. So what do we do?”

Well, they made up the rowing noises and played them during the broadcast of the event, like a particularly strange electronic music show. 

“That afternoon we went out on a canoe with a couple of rowers recorded stereo samples of the different type of effects that would be somewhat typical of an event,” Baxter recalls. “And then we loaded those recordings into a sampler and played them back to cover the shots of the boats.”

The real sound, of course, would have included engine noises and a helicopter whirring overhead. The fake sound seemed normal, just oars sliding into water. In a sense, the real sound was as much of a human creation as the fake sound, and probably a lot less pleasant to listen to.

I like Madrigal’s coinage of “sonic fiction”:

So, in order to make a broadcast appear real, the soundtrack has to be faked, or to put it perhaps more accurately, synthesized. We have a word for what they’re doing: This is sonic fiction. They are making up the sound to get at the truth of a sport.

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