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

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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."

Then, as they reach the water, a producer remixes the audio track to pull from the underwater hydrophone at the bottom of the pool. Now, you are literally pulling audio from in the pool. "You can hear the bubbles. You get the complete sense of isolation, of the athlete all alone," Baxter concluded.

But sometimes, there is no way to capture the sound of being there. There are vast differences in the physics of recording light and sound waves. Camera lenses can provide better than 100x zoom with near perfect fidelity. Microphones are not lenses; sound waves are not photons. Moving air has to strike a diaphragm and move it to generate the electrical signals we play back as sound. You have to get close and you can't block out all background noise.

Baxter's answer to this problem appears on Roman Mars' spectacular 99% Invisible podcast, which excerpted the BBC program.

"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.

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.

There is clearly a difference between making up the audio for the rowing competition and using a bunch of different mics, mixes, and production techniques to achieve the most exciting effect in diving. 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?

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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