How the Gorgeous, Sometimes Fictional Sound of the Olympics Gets Made

The audio from your favorite events isn't real. It's much better than real.

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An Olympic archer (Reuters/Alexis Madrigal editing).

When the London 2012 Olympics begin in a couple of weeks, a menagerie of sports will take over the world's TV screens. Tens of millions of people will watch archery, diving, and rowing.

Or at least we call it watching.

Really, there are two channels of information emanating from your flat screen: the pictures and the sound. 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 bar's flexing as the athlete twirls. Watching sports on mute is like eating an orange when you have a stuffy nose.

A massive sporting extravaganza like the Olympics requires massive media production. The television broadcasts from the Olympics aren't merely an act of capturing reality, but an act of creation. TV sporting events are something we make, and they have a tension at their core: On the one hand, we want to feel as if we watched from the stands, but on the other, we want a fidelity and intimacy that is better than any in-person spectating could be. Our desire is for the presentation of real life to actually be better than real life. 

This is most apparent on the soundtrack, where dozens of just barely detectable decisions are made to manipulate your experience. Behind those decisions is audio engineer Dennis Baxter, who has been working on the Olympics for 20 years.

"I am not a purist whatsoever in sound production," Baxter says in the BBC documentary, The Sound of Sport, produced by Peregrine Andrews. "I truly believe that whatever tool it takes to deliver a high quality entertaining soundscape, it's all fair game."

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."

Just to walk through the logic: based on the sound of arrows in a fictional Kevin Costner movie, Baxter created the sonic experience of sitting between the archer and the target, something no live spectator could do.

On the gradient between recording and creating, diving requires even more production. "You can really separate the 'above' sounds in the swimming hall and the 'below' sounds, the underwater sound. It really conveys the sense of focus and the sense of isolation of the athlete," Baxter continues. "We have microphones on the handrails as the divers walk up. You can hear their hands. You can hear their feet. You can hear them breathing."

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