The Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog points to a fascinating piece by radio documentarian Peregrine Andrews on the audio-centric site fast-and-wide.com. Andrews reports that, though Joe Beanbag might not realize it, the sound mix for your average Olympics telecast contains more artificial sweeteners than your grandmother’s iced tea. The Olympics actually employ a full-time sound designer, Dennis Baxter, who deploys thousands of microphones in order to deliver the sounds of the game that viewers apparently crave.
In the Olympic gymnastics balance beam events, contact microphones are bonded directly to the beam and respond to its vibrations. So we hear what’s happening inside the beam, the creaks as it stresses under the gymnast’s weight, responding to each tiny shift of their feet.
Even if you stood right next to the beam you’d never hear this. It’s a hidden world. So is this real? It isn’t faked, taken from somewhere else, but it’s an additional sound layer exposed only by using a special, artificial if you like, technique.
When an athlete or course can’t be sufficiently miked, Baxter will use pre-recorded sound effects that correspond with the sounds that you’re expecting to hear. The rowing events, for example, are very difficult to record, so Baxter goes out in advance to get “clean oar sounds” which are then played during the live broadcast.
While this audio trickery seems a bit unnecessary, I don’t have a huge problem with it. All sports broadcasts are manipulated in one way or another. I don’t think this is all that different from the yellow first-down line on football telecasts—and, by God, I love that yellow line.
In fact, I don’t think the Olympics is going far enough with this sound manipulation business. Here are some other things I wish they’d do:
· Put Michael “Police Academy” Winslow in the broadcasting booth for all the less-dynamic events, like table tennis and sailing. Give him free reign to liven things up with random gunshots, doorbells, and record scratches.
· Play “Yakety Sax” very, very quietly during all the track events.
· Replace the basketball announcers with the guy from NBA Jam.
· Mike Michael Phelps for the entirety of the games, at all hours of the day, so adoring viewers can listen to him sleeping, or breathing, or eating a Subway sandwich. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH PHELPS.
· Invent a “mute Bob Costas” button, or, even better, a “mute Bob Costas and replace him with Vin Scully” button.
· Autotune the triathlon.
This calls for a “1,000,000 people for a funnier-sounding Olympics” Facebook group. Who’s with me?