In one of the strangest headlines of the week, the NFL's Atlanta Falcons were fined $350,000 and lost a draft pick, when an investigation revealed that they played fake crowd noise inside the Georgia Dome.
While the Falcons perhaps went over a technical line by hitting play on the old "LoudCrowd.wav" file on the PA's iTunes, the whole situation feels absurd, because stadiums are designed to be loud. And, in a certain way, crowd noise is always partially artificial.
Sports teams have known for years that they can manipulate the sound inside their stadiums by adjusting certain structural elements. Want more crowd noise? Move the seats closer to the field. Install aluminum benches so that fans have something to stomp on. Hand out noisemakers.
Architects can take things further, too. The design of a venue like Seattle's CenturyLink Field works like a natural acoustic amplifier. The stadium's canopies reflect back and focus sound generated by the crowd onto the field. "The curvature and angles of the canopies act to focus the sound energy onto the playing field, producing higher noise levels," one acoustic expert told Time.
In other words, the sonic force of a stadium is not merely the unmediated expression of fans' joy and hatred. It is always influenced by the technologies that stadium builders and event planners deploy to magnify their sounds. Seattle's stadium, which holds a world record in noisiness, deployed architecture and materials science to artificially make things harder for opposing teams. Atlanta used electronic technology to do the same thing. Is there really enough of a difference to allow (even celebrate) one and punish the other?
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Imagine a world in which someone designed an electronic system that did precisely what Seattle's architecture does, but replicated the effect with microphones and speakers. Would that be okay?
That scenario is probably possible now, or will be in the very near future. Take this description of the work Meyer Sound Laboratories does to engineer the sound of the spaces they work in:
They manufacture a range of high-end audio products, but they are particularly noted for their ability to enhance, through electronic means, the acoustic of an extant hall or space. When Oliveto underwent a renovation, last year, the owners called upon the Meyers to design a more conversation-friendly setting. The apparatus that the Meyers installed includes a version of the company’s Constellation system, which employs microphones, a digital-audio platform, and loudspeakers to sample the noise of a room, modify it, and send it back out in altered form. The walls of the seating area are outfitted with what the Meyers call the Libra system: sound-absorbing panels that have an attractive façade… Concealed in a back room is the system’s digital processor, which can be controlled with a tablet.
So, if the sound-enhancing system was built into the building rather than played over the loudspeakers, would the NFL still be mad? If a complex algorithm sampled the noise in the building and then "optimized" it through an opaque process, would the Falcons still be in trouble?
A present-day stadium designer could argue, after all, that they are merely trying to deliver the best experience to the fans. And those fans have expectations shaped by the sports on TV. And the sound of sports on TV is a total lie.
Well, maybe that's going too far. Let's call it a fiction. Sound designers combine "real" and artificial elements to create an emotionally compelling soundtrack.
In a fascinating BBC audio documentary rebroadcast by 99 Percent Invisible, The Sound of Sport, audio engineers broke down precisely how they construct the sound we hear on TV during sporting events. "I am not a purist whatsoever in sound production," audio engineer Dennis Baxter says. "I truly believe that whatever tool it takes to deliver a high quality entertaining soundscape, it's all fair game."
That might include placing microphones in places where no human could actually sit—like under the path of arrows in an archery range. It might include playing the sound of buffaloes running during a horse race. It might include shaping or amplifying the crowd noise of a broadcast to set the right mood. We might call it "mixing" sound, but it is really creating a novel soundscape, which ends up naturalized to us as "what football sounds like."
Even weirder, as the documentary demonstrates, our expectations of the TV experience have been shaped by movies and video games. What an events manager at a stadium is really trying to replicate is the sound of a movie about football, filtered through TV production techniques. Is it any surprise that sometimes they resort to digital tricks to get things to sound right for fans sitting in the stadium, let alone to disrupt other teams' communications?
Now, I'm not saying what the Falcons did was right, according to the letter of the law. But if their digital, technological intervention was wrong, why isn't Seattle's analog, architectural intervention? Simply because we feel that something is real doesn't mean that it is.