Capturing sound at the Olympics

Microphones

The Atlantic ran a fascinating piece a couple weeks ago (seems I’m behind on everything these last few days) on the advanced sound engineering that’s been implemented for the London Olympics:

For the London Olympics, Baxter will deploy 350 mixers, 600 sound technicians, and 4,000 microphones at the London Olympics. Using all the modern sound technology they can get their hands on, they’ll shape your experience to sound like a lucid dream, a movie, of the real thing.

Let’s take archery. “After hearing the coverage in Barcelona at the ’92 Olympics, there were things that were missing. The easy things were there. The thud and the impact of the target — that’s a no brainer — and a little bit of the athlete as they’re getting ready,” Baxter says.

“But, it probably goes back to the movie Robin Hood, I have a memory of the sound and I have an expectation. So I was going, ‘What would be really really cool in archery to take it up a notch?’ And the obvious thing was the sound of the arrow going through the air to the target. The pfft-pfft-pfft type of sound. So we looked at this little thing, a boundary microphone, that would lay flat, it was flatter than a pack of cigarettes, and I put a little windshield on it, and I put it on the ground between the athlete and the target and it completely opened up the sound to something completely different.”

This is pretty impressive, but it’s the bit at the end that strayed a little too close to 2008 Olympics-style manipulation:

“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.”

It’s one thing to enhance the actually existing sound during an event to enable TV viewers to hear things that couldn’t be picked up in person at the stadium or arena. It’s quite another to fabricate the sound entirely from preexisting recordings. Alexis Madrigal wraps up his piece with the following (grammatically confused) thought:

But how bright is the line that separates factual audio from fictional audio a bit thinner and more porous than we’d like? If we want hyperreality as an end, can we really quibble about the means?

Is it really that porous of a line? Seems to me that one sound’s real, and the other’s not. Either way, the whole thing is very, very cool technology.