BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Games are noisy. They should be, as Alexis Madrigal wrote recently for The Atlantic. What you see depends in part on what you hear. To be immersed in a performance on the uneven bars, we need to hear the slap of hands on wood and the bars flexing as the athlete twirls. Peregrine Andrews produced an audio documentary called “The Sound of Sport” that explains that some of what you’ll be hearing is not exactly what you’ll be seeing. Welcome, Peregrine.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s start with an example of the sound during the last London Olympics in 1948.
ANNOUNCER: Three hundred yards to go, Eriksson of Sweden leading and Strand right up at his shoulder. Three Swedes in front now, Slijkhuis fourth is catching up…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m finding it interesting about all the Swedes, but I’m not hearing much in the way of sporting.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: No. I’m not sure how many microphones they had access to, probably very few. And it may have literally been one microphone on the announcer, and any sound that happened to accidentally get picked up, you know, was — was a bonus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now every detail of an event is recorded, even the flight of an arrow.
[AUDIO FROM ARCHERY]
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: You can, if you — if you listen carefully, clearly hear the three stages of the flight, the twang of the bow [TWANG] and the swish through the air [SWISH], and then the thud of the arrow hitting the target [THUD/APPLAUSE]. Most people probably haven’t seen real arrows very often, but they have watched films, they have watched “Robin Hood.”
[“ROBIN HOOD” CLIP]
And that kind of twang-swish-thud is quite possibly a movie-driven idea. But Dennis Baxter who’s the sort of lead sound designer on the Olympics, he felt that he needed to meet that. And so, he did by just using a clever combination of microphones and very carefully putting a microphone underneath the flight path of the arrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let’s listen to the sound of a gymnast.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: What we’re hearing there is the use of a thing called a contact microphone. So if you put on a balance beam a gymnast is walking along, you’ll actually hear something that you would never hear naturally if you stood beside the beam. What you’re actually picking up is the vibrations inside the beam. It’s a kind of hidden world. And it was just an idea that Dennis had. By bringing out the flexing of the bar as the nervous feet make their way along it, it makes for something really intense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are other examples where pre-recorded sounds are mixed into the sound of the event. This is a loop of horseracing that was used during live races.
[SOUND OF HORSES’ HOOVES]
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: There’s practical reasons why they do this. Your camera lenses can pull in shots from, you know, a mile away with their zooms. You have no microphone that can do that. So the only way you could cover a huge race like that would be to use hundreds of microphones, which is impractical. Or you fake it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: And with horseracing, rather than put a load of microphones out across the track, they figured that they could use this kind of galloping — horses’ rumbles. It would fill in what you expect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of those horses used in that loop might be dead!
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: [LAUGHS] Well, in fact, I was told, when I sourced the recording, that they may not even have been horses.
They may have been buffalo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But at least that’s not during the Olympics. During the Olympics, we have the example, however, of rowing in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In that case, pre-recorded sound was used to create a more, quote, “natural” experience.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: It’s a case of meeting expectations. And if you’re watching rowing on television, they’re not showing you the helicopters, they’re not showing you the chase boats, but all you can hear, if you have microphones placed along the course, is helicopters and chase boats, ‘cause they make an awful lot more noise than the rowing. Dennis and his team said, well what should we give people?
And I should make it clear that the use of these things is quite subtle and it’s generally mixed in with the natural sound.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Natural though isn’t necessarily the same as — authentic.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: No, but I mean what’s authentic? Television isn’t authentic.
You know, pointing lenses and microphones at things doesn’t capture reality. It captures a little sliver of reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to be careful here. We’ll be cutting out your ums and my ahs and, even on our show. I will record ambience and sound and then read my text over it, But we wouldn’t insert ambient sound that was recorded in another time and place, like we wouldn’t put a, a marching band under you now, or maybe we would.
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: [LAUGHS] I’ll tell you something interesting, is I’ve worked in radio a lot. I then, sort of halfway through my career, started doing sound for TV. And the one thing I noticed was that you actually need a lot more sound. If you see someone slam a car door, if you don’t hear a car door slam, it really disturbs you. Your brain’ll just go, “There’s something wrong,”
[SOUND OF MARCHING BAND/UP & UNDER]
- that you find, you know, doing television post-production sound a lot of those little, what you might call cheats going, but that’s not even to make it big and Hollywood and hyper-real. That’s just to make it seem normal and right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peregrine, thank you very much.
[MARCHING BAND PLAYING]
PEREGRINE ANDREWS: [LAUGHS] You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Audio engineer and producer Peregrine Andrews is the producer of the audio documentary, “The Sound of Sports.”