Earlier this summer, Canada hosted the Pan American Games. That prestigious Olympic-style event invited top athletes from dozens of countries to compete in 48 sports in downtown Toronto.
Living in Toronto myself, I seized the opportunity to record world-class athletes in “rare” sports such as professional field hockey, squash, handball, and others.
That “field report” explained how I approached the recording session, overcame mistakes I made, and captured field recordings of sports crowds, cheers, chants, ambience, and more. Check out that post, and download the free field recordings there.
How can you record your own sporting events? Today’s article features tips and tricks you can use to help you navigate an event, capture the best crowd reactions, gather ample coverage, and much more.
The Challenge of Field Recording Sporting Events
The last post described how I used the stealth field recording technique to compensate for event security, adapted to tricky environments, dealt with a lack of freedom of movement, and learned the importance of event research. Will my experiences dealing with those challenges help you the next time you’re field recording sports?
Yes, those challenges are common, and you can expect to face them. However, the truth is that every event will be vastly different. How?
Naturally, every game is played differently, complete with distinct athlete formations and movement, equipment hits, buzzers, playing areas, and so on. But there’s more. Crowds react differently as well. Some sports feature quiet crowds that react occasionally. Others are consumed by a constant roar. Some sports move up and down a field, requiring a field recordist to hustle to follow the play. Others are static. And, of course, there’s a considerable difference between recording the World Cup and capturing clips of your son or daughter’s little league soccer game.
Those are just a few examples. Is it possible to share tricks that help with every sporting event? Yes. Common threads exist amongst all events. Here are broad tips to help you improve your sporting event field recording sessions.
Note: I’ll be describing field recording sporting events. As you’d expect, that’s much different than recording sport equipment Foley in a theatre. That concerns ball hits, passes and catches, equipment clatters, and so on. Events are a bit different: they capture the sport itself, the crowd, the players, and the overall spirit of the match within the context of the event. These tips help recording sports beyond the studio.
Tips for Recording Sports Sound Effects
I’ll divide the tips into three areas:
- Before field recording.
- Recording the event.
- Mastering and curating.
Let’s get started:
- Before Field Recording
There’s plenty of work for a field recordist to do long before powering up their audio recorder. Here are tips to get you prepared to capture the best sound effects in the field:
Get a press pass. Press passes are security credentials that authorize a field recordist to access areas of the arena that are typically forbidden to everyone else.
If you can get a press pass, do it. It makes every aspect of recording sporting events incredibly easier. This may simply be a matter of applying for media credentials on an event’s website, together with a good amount of luck.
However, getting a press pass is not easy. It usually requires a longstanding relationship with a team, the broadcast network, arena staff, or being associated with a triple-A project. I explained some tips for getting a press pass in my eBook Field Recording: From Research to Wrap. However, for the sake of this article, the remainder of the tips will assume you are working without a press pass.
Research the event. No two sports are recorded the same way. A field recordist must adapt to the differences of each sport. Learn about these distinctions, including:
- Technical info. This includes duration of play and downtime, sport terminology and slang.
- Team detail. Know which team is playing, their standings, and reputation. Note the star players and their jersey numbers.
- Visit fan sites. Learn the location of the fan section. Research team chants.
On the most basic level, research helps you know what’s going on. I assume the majority of people know the aim of popular sports. However, knowing details of obscure sports is essential. Moreover, knowledge of the ebb and flow of a sport helps a field recordist anticipate the game’s tension. Knowing terms and slang is especially helpful when adding metadata, later.
Choose the correct event. Which game or event should you record? No two games will unfurl the same way, of course. While you may be tempted to record during playoff season as the stakes increase, I’d advise against it. Why?
Tournaments, playoffs, and medal events are well-attended, it’s true. They have an incredible amount of energy. However, that means advertisers and broadcasters will appear as well. Both cause problems for field recordists. You can expect more music, blaring advertisements, corporate overtones, hovering helicopters, and twitchy security staff. Instead, go earlier in the season. You’ll lack some of the energy of a nail-biting finals, but your work will be easier, and tracks will be cleaner and simpler to master.
Be clever when choosing matches. Avoid games between the league leader and the last place contender. There will be little contest between them. Expect lifeless crowds and fewer reactions from those matches. Instead, choose games between contentious rivals or neighbouring nations. Games featuring the home team or nation will feature fierce reactions.
Scout the location. Of course, it’s not easy to scout professional stadiums. It’s helpful to buy a throwaway nosebleed ticket to a game before your actual target match. Use the cheap ticket to explore the grounds and the arena. Take this time to plan a quick treasure map-style path throughout the arena that will hit recording spots upfield, downfield, close to the field, and high in the stands. Look for nooks where you can loiter for a few minutes at a time without being trampled by roaming fans. Other tips: note where the PA is strongest, and other problematic recording locations (food stalls, washroom entrances, security booths).
If you can’t scout a stadium beforehand, find information online. Search for stadium floor plans. Use Ticketmaster to get an idea of the seating map. Visit fan sties to discover where the most energetic crowds congregate.
Learn more about scouting before field recording.
Security and gatekeepers. Security may or may not care about a field recordist capturing event audio. Browse the event’s FAQ or email the PR team to learn what’s allowed. Some may permit small devices, but forbid full kits. Be respectful of security and gatekeepers.
In short, ensure you spend time preparing before the event. It will make your life far easier on the day of the recording.
- Recording the Event
How can you ensure you capture the best sound fx in the field? Use these tips:
Get there early and stay late. During the event, you will be capturing dazzling athletic plays, triumphant cheers, and explosive crowds. That’s not all an event has to offer. There are many valuable sound effects before and after the final point is scored.
In particular, you can find a lot of character at tailgate parties, long before an event begins. Tailgate party fans are quite spirited, and often can be encouraged to cheer, chant, or shout on command. Watch out for ambient music at these parties, of course.
Sounds of the crowd assembling or streaming into an arena can be quite valuable. You’ll hear distinctive chatter. They will be full of optimism.
Stay after the event, too. Victorious fans will be full of energy, and you can often record celebratory cheers or inspired chants. Take advantage of good-natured taunting by rowdy crowds, and responses from defiant fans.
Break down the event. There is an incredible variety of sound effects to capture during a sporting event. In fact, there’s so much selection that it may be overwhelming to a new field recordist. The solution to this is to use articulation when capturing field recordings. In short, break the event into its smallest parts, then capture each of them:
Subjects. Examples include the athletes performing a play, the broader atmosphere of game itself, the crowd in general, and specific reactions (chant, cheer, applause, boo, air horns, thundersticks, noisemakers).
Much of this depends on the game itself. For example, boxing crowds are mostly quiet, populated by occasional distinctive shouts or pop outs, then cresting to a huge reaction. Football or hockey games are more likely to feature a constant, roaring crowd.
Perspective. Complete coverage of a sporting event requires multiple perspectives of the crowd and the game. Just recording from your seat or from the field won’t provide editors enough options for their projects. So, it is vital to move throughout the arena to record different perspectives of the sound effects.
Examples include recordings at different levels (upper levels, mid levels, field level), off-stage perspectives (entrance tunnel, hall, concourse), and distance from play (upfield, downfield). Other options: within the crowd, and at a distance from the crowd. You also must capture each type of play: goals, saves, idle activity, penalty shots, fouls, and so on.
Once you have articulated each type of sound effect you want to capture, schedule how long you have to record in each location. For example, you may wish to capture idle crowd at field level, at mid level, in the nosebleeds, in an entrance tunnel, and the concourse halls. Aim for three minutes of raw audio at each perspective, if you can.
Adapt to the event. Your tickets may place you in the fan section. You may be dumped into the nosebleeds far away from anyone. You may spot a quieter section, or an area with rabid fans. An annoying group may arrive and intrude on your perfect location. Be prepared to move around to capture variety. Even if you don’t have a ticket to a particular area, many venues won’t notice you loitering in a entrance hallway in various sections around stadiums. Move to capture emotion.
Record many, shorter takes. Sporting events are long. You may find yourself tempted to keep recording as the crowd or a play builds, dies, then swells again. Avoid this.
Instead, capture one “phrase” of an event at a time. For example, end a recording after an attack. Punch in again during a frantic defense. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself trying to sort out the action from cumbersome 45 minute takes while mastering, later.
Choose long takes if you have many microphones already placed around an arena and are able to document every angle of the event with a video camera, markers, or time-stamped notes. In all other instances, short takes are far easier for a run-and-gun field recordist to capture while hustling from place to place. That will force you to focus on distinct, expressive performances. It also makes mastering easier in the edit suite later. Selecting, dividing, and adding unique, distinctive names to a 45-minute take is a chore I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Slate. It’s easy to identify a play while at the event. Judging the action by audio alone is far harder. Was that crowd cheer reacting to a save, or a foul? Was the play upfield, or closer to midfield? These details add distinction to your tracks, and help editors choose the right play, emotion, or reaction.
However, without slating, it’s almost impossible to sort out these details afterward. Slate your tracks. If you feel particularly constrained by observant fans or a watchful security presence, slate field recordings silently using mobile phone apps.
Maintain the “recording bubble.” It’s best to record sports crowds with a bit of distance. Why?
Sitting within a crowd creates field recordings with close voices. You’ll capture individual conversations and crowd movement. Unfortunately, that detail is useless to sound pros. Why? That amount of detail will cut through their films scenes, annoy mixers, distract viewers, and risk overlapping the dialogue of the characters in a scene.
Instead, aim to record more general crowds. To do this, create a 5 meter (15 foot) space or field recording bubble between your microphone and the nearest person. Read more about the field recording bubble.
Adapt to music. Many events will blast five seconds of audio after exciting plays. Often it lasts no longer than a few bars. Naturally, this ruins any sound effect underneath. It can be incredibly frustrating to begin recording a gargantuan, rising cheer only to have it invaded by a hip hop sting.
Don’t bother recording these takes. Avoid recording reactions or plays of goals. Instead, aim to record the saves, the failures, or the near-misses. Those have good reactions, and will not include music.
Avoid the press. Do you have a press pass? You may be tempted to stroll into the press box or other media-approved areas. And why not? After all, the best areas seem to be the ones where the press stay, such as on the edge of fields, at corners, or behind the net.
Avoid these areas. They’re prime spots for pro photographers and you don’t want speed shutter all over your audio. Press passes are far more valuable for providing freedom of movement than access to media areas.
- Mastering and Curating
Finally, here are a few tips for editing your clips when you return to the studio.
Heavy editing. Be prepared to make your mastering sessions a battlefield of razor-thin edits and ingenious crossfades. Why?
It’s rare to capture even 20 uninterrupted seconds of a sporting event atmosphere without an announcer or music babbling all over your track.
Use your editing wizardry to chop away problems and compile a long, seamless take. You’ll need to crossfade often. Double-check that these fades are seamless and unnoticeable. I normally provide 3 minute atmospheres, but that’s incredibly hard with sports recordings. Aim for one minute tracks. Few dramatized plays are longer than that, anyway.
Bonus: make the track loopable to cover your bases.
Strip out tracks. Of course, sports crowds do not perform cleanly or predictably. They may begin with an expectant idle, build in anticipation, then die away. Fans may chant in the distance, and a drunk hooligan may taunt the opposing team nearby.
Use this to your advantage while mastering. Of course, create a long atmospheric track that conveys the ambience of the game with all of these elements. Double your mileage by splitting out every chant, cheer, reaction, and shout from the longer track. For example, simply copy a characteristic chant onto a secondary track and edit it into its own file. While the longer atmospheres will be named specifically (“World Cup soccer crowd”), name individual reactions generically (“30,000 people chanting ‘Defense.’”) Include the estimated amount of fans. That helps pros select tracks for unrelated events more easily.
Accurate naming. You learned about each sport’s terminology and slang earlier. Include these terms in your names and metadata. That adds flavour to your recordings and intrigues editors browsing your tracks. What’s more, it conveys deep knowledge of the sound effects, the events, and indicates you have embedded the nuances of the sport directly into the tracks.
Field Recording Sporting Events
Recording sporting events is a challenge. There’s a lot to do. The majority of the event is completely beyond a field recordist’s control. They must be quick on their feet to respond to the play on the field and the mood of the crowd around them.
Use these tips to prepare. Sporting events are rich soundscapes that pack an incredible amount of variety and energy into every field recording you will capture.
Learn more about recording sporting events:
- René Coronado described his experience recording sporting events for the A Sound Effect blog.
- Coronado also shared his thoughts on working with event gatekeepers and security in an earlier article.
- Sound designer Jean Edward Miclot blogged about his experiences recording sports crowd sound effects. Miclot shares an interesting interpretation of crowd energy, as well as the importance of capturing the sound of drama.
- Episode 127 of the 99% Invisible podcast (via the A Sound Effect blog) explores sound effects for film and broadcast sports events, including:
- How sound effects are recreated for live broadcast.
- Interesting ideas such as the expectation of sound for broadcast, microphone placement techniques, using fixed vs. roaming recordists on the field, and providing a broadcast version without commentators.
- Later in the podcast (at 21:34), Rob Nokes of Sounddogs.com shares a particularly energetic view of how he captures sports sounds for film. It focuses more on the field recording side of things.
- Finally, Gordon Durity of Electronic Arts Canada describes his approach to creating sports sounds in the studio (at 24:54).
It’s an excellent podcast. Check it out via SoundCloud, below.
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