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How Audio Mixers Make Sports Sound Great on TV

You may already know about the website Vox.com.  It is a feature content website that typifies a genre that has come to be called “Explanatory Journalism“, the kind also engaged in by Upshot, FiveThirtyEight, and a few others.  They take issues both significant and inconsequential and fashion their stories in such a way as to explain how the subject works.  Sometimes the overture will be obvious (“El Niño, explained“), sometimes a bit more subtle (“Bryce Harper Should Have Made $73 Million More“), but either way, the style will be pedantic, didactic. and quite often both exhaustive and exhausting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Personally, I like explainer articles, particularly for subject I am ignorant of or otherwise insufficiently knowledgeable about. It’s also not always everyone’s bag.

When the subject at hand is one you do have an interest in, such as the way baseball covers the media, having a key aspect of it that you didn’t know much about, or thought much of, explained to you is a pleasure. That’s how I felt when I came across this Vox article about how the people who mix the audio for the sports broadcasts we all enjoy actually do their jobs.  This article is very much in the vein of the “Working The Game” series we’ve been featuring occasionally on this here site, sans the interview part of it.  The author of the Vox piece, Phil Edwards, did interview The Toronto Blue Jays audio mixer, Andrew Stoakley, for the article, but You will see this is not an interview piece. It’s an explainer.  And Edwards does a bang on job of explaining the art and science of audio mixing.

The full article is reprinted below.  You can also read the piece in its native habitat here.


How audio mixers make sports sound great on TV

Can you hear a home run when you see it? If so, there's a reason.
Can you hear a home run when you see it? If so, there’s a reason. | Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When you watch a baseball game, you’re also listening for the hum of the crowd and the crack of a baseball bat. People like Andrew Stoakley make that happen.

He mixes audio for teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, which means he combines a tangle of audio feeds to create the soundscape you hear when you watch the game at home. And he’s done it for a long time, too, with experience including hockey, NBA, lacrosse, and almost every other game that needs sound. Oh, and he’s very Canadian — in the winter months, he mixes curling.

He was nice enough to guide me through how he helps sports sound amazing, answering some questions I’d never thought to ask before: How do they keep the crowd from cursing into the microphones? What makes a baseball bat sound so good? And what’s it really like making all that noise into an incredible show?

1) Mixers show up six hours before game time

The Rogers Centre while empty. | Shutterstock
The Rogers Centre while empty. | Shutterstock

Stoakley walked me through a typical Blue Jays game. He’s worked a lot of them this year, and as an “A1,” he leads their sound mixing.

When the TV truck arrives, he and his assistants get to work. They’ll show up at 1 for a 7 pm game, since they have a lot of work to do.

Stoakley runs audio lines from the TV truck to the “patch room,” which serves as a clearinghouse for connections to the stadium’s audio lines. As Stoakley patches in, his assistants are busy placing the TV station’s mics on the field, which will stay there during a home series.

A large stadium like the Rogers Centre (where the Blue Jays play) has an audio and visual system built into it, plus a circulatory system for TV. Though audio mixers might need to improvise more at other venues, big stadiums are made for mixing a broadcast as easily as possible.

2) Hidden mics capture home plate excitement

The sound of a baseball bat cracking a home run is instantly recognizable, but for home viewers, that’s only because of a careful audio mix.

Look at the two square Blue Jay images in the photo below. Those birds hide the microphones Stoakley uses to record the sound for home games:

These two logos hide the mics that capture home runs. | YouTube
These two logos hide the mics that capture home runs. | YouTube

You can hear the result in a typical highlight reel, where the sound of the ball hitting the glove is incredibly clear and the sound of a bat hitting the ball is even better:

It takes more than luck to get a sound like that. Stoakley uses two parabolic dishes with lavalier mics that, together, mix for stereo sound (you can read more about them here). Imagine a tiny mic in a handheld satellite dish, and you get the idea.

“You want to hear that ball,” Stoakley says. “My mix tends to be a little sharper, and when you hit a ball on a bat, you have a deeper sound, and that’s characteristic of the dish with the lav.”

That sound — which defines a baseball game for the home viewer — can vary wildly by A1 and by the mic type used by the stadium.

3) Each key sound needs its own special mic

 

“I have a parabolic dish at first base and third base for pick-off mics,” Stoakley says. “I have two microphones in the bullpens, so you’ll hear the pitcher and catcher’s mitts. I might put mics on cameras that can get into the dugouts.”

That arsenal of microphones gives the team a veritable soundscape of gameplay to select from. And when it comes to players, that requires discretion.

4) Players need to be mixed carefully … especially when they’re angry

The players are a wild card that mixers like Stoakley need to interpret on the fly. If somebody’s made a bad play, Stoakley might not track the audio for a player who’s upset (and likely to curse). But if they’re celebrating, he’ll throw in some of their cheers.

In curling, a huge sport in Canada, the expectations for hearing players are a lot different. Players’ grunts, chants, and shouts are a huge part of the broadcast mix. In a featured game, mixers will put a mic on every team member and mix that in with the game’s announcers. You end up with sound like this, from an epic shot in the 2014 Grand Slam of Curling:

But some of the most important sounds aren’t from the players at all.

5) A great mix captures the crowd — but not the drunk fan swearing

This Blue Jays fan might not be rowdy. But if she is, she could screw up a mix. | Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images
This Blue Jays fan might not be rowdy. But if she is, she could screw up a mix. | Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

“I have a series of six microphones that I use to pick up crowd noise,” Stoakley says. From those, he composes the ambient sound that most of us take for granted.

Translating the crowd’s roar is harder than it might seem. Sometimes that means noticing that a drunk guy is shouting into one of your mics. Mixers have to quickly fade him out so he doesn’t overwhelm the sound.

“Baseball is not like hockey,” Stoakley says (he mixes those games as well). Hockey is noisy both on and off the ice, which can mask one or two unruly fans. But baseball has more silences, so mixers need to be vigilant to fade out that one person “who will sit and scream, and no matter what you do you’re gonna hear them.”

Mixers also have to deal with the blaring public announcement system, which TV listeners at home don’t want to hear. “The PA is the bane of every audio person’s existence. You can’t eliminate it — you just try to minimize it.”

Even the building itself can change the sound. “My bat cracks sound different when the roof is closed versus open,” Stoakley says. “You have a giant dome that acts as a reflective surface, but when the roof’s open, the sound escapes.” He prefers the open roof: “It allows the sound and the city to come in.”

6) Mixing all that together happens live in a very noisy truck

A Blue Jays game in early September. | Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
A Blue Jays game in early September. | Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

There’s a ton of raw audio coming into Stoakley’s truck parked outside.

“I have the director, producer, color commentator, play-by-play person, host, on-air talk back, master control, and studio mix on,” he says — and that’s in addition to the many mics in stadium. That means he’s listening to all of those feeds on speakers as he creates a mix for both the TV broadcast’s play-by-play announcers and the audience at home.

The art of the job is mixing it all together.

When Stoakley described what it’s like inside the truck, I couldn’t help but think of a bizarre, slightly dated reference: a scene in 2006’s Superman Returns, where Superman hovers above the Earth, listening to millions of voices and trying to make sense of them all.

“There is a din,” he says, and the truck’s audio room becomes its own mini-stadium as he creates his mix. That’s necessary to hear everything going on, from the guy yelling, “You suck!” over and over to the cues coming from a broadcast announcer. To whip to a third-base speaker in time for a tag, he has to pay close attention.

7) This sound mixer appreciates the quiet, too

Stoakley’s been mixing sports since 2008 (after decades of audio TV work prior to that), and it’s a loud environment even in the trucks. Part of the reason he moved from Toronto to Niagara Falls was to get a little more quiet when he came home from work. After a long Blue Jays season and more gigs, from curling to hockey, on the horizon, he told me he’s taking a week off soon for the very quiet sport of golf.

He appreciates that an audio mix is subjective and intense. The setup is long and hard, but his work affects how we feel a game. That’s because everyone at home, whether they know about audio mixing or not, can appreciate the perfect sound of a home run.