Sports Audio Adventures
May 1, 2007 12:00 PM, Survey by Travis McGee
Modern venues up the audio ante as they enter the multipurpose entertainment realm.
Harman Pro Audio officials recently surveyed some of their leading system integration partners to discuss some of the issues and challenges involved with designing quality multipurpose audio systems for stadiums and other sporting venues. The following article shares the input of those integrators, illustrating some of the projects they have recently worked on and the choices they made in grappling with the audio issues presented by such jobs, as well as offering some practical advice for audio professionals working in this market.
When it comes to sports venues, industry professionals are quick to point out that audio delivery and presentation tools and techniques have undergone a fundamental paradigm shift in recent years.
“In the good old days, audio at a baseball facility was a horn on a pole, and as long as you could hear who was at bat, that was fine,” says Demetrius Palavos, senior systems engineer at Pro Media in Hercules, Calif. “Today, we have HD video scoreboards, cameras in the stands, and plasma video walls in the concourses. The fan not only wants to know who's at bat, but he wants the entertainment value as well, with video clips and sound bumps. The gap between sports and entertainment has narrowed a lot.”
In this sense, sporting venues have added what people in the theme-park world call “soundscape” to their productions — audio designed specifically to support what fans are expecting to experience when they hand in their ticket and walk into a facility. This evolving expectation of the production quality, including sound, is directly related to the fan's everyday experience. Sports fans have become used to great sound in their cars, home theaters, and houses of worship. These are everyday experiences that require more complex sound system designs and engineering products, and fans expect things to be no different at the ballpark.
“Ten years ago, the ideas of crowd reinforcement and play-in and play-off music were novel concepts,” says Michael MacDonald, executive vice president of marketing at Harman Pro Group, who has seen both the technology and the culture of sports audio change significantly in the last decade. “Now, these are common concepts, as are 360-degree sound systems in stadiums, as well as instant replay, and crowd-sound reinforcement. The sound systems have had to up the bandwidth to get at that bottom octave, and have had to raise the ante in terms of volume.
“Now, we're moving toward a new phase of this,” MacDonald says. “I call it the ‘hip-hop’ phase: the need to replicate the low frequencies that people can achieve with subwoofers in the home and car for sporting events, and to make the venues multi-use for theatrical and other applications. It's another half octave that needs to be added, as well as another 5dB or 6dB. Six years ago, stadiums had an operating level of between 92dB and 94dB. Now, they routinely operate at or slightly above 100dB SPL. The crowds get bigger and louder, and the music rocks harder.”
Designing sound for multi-use applications has become the gold standard in sports venue audio. There have been numerous instances of new and retrofitted venues choosing sound systems to accommodate exactly that need, including Chicago's new 20,000-seat Toyota Park, home to Major League Soccer team Chicago Fire, which also features a permanent concert stage at one end and was designed to host a variety of sports and entertainment events. Another is the new Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill. — an 11,000-seat arena opened in October 2006 that is also the home of the Chicago Hounds (United Hockey League), the Chicago Storm (Major Indoor Soccer League), the Chicago Shamrox (National Lacrosse League), and the Chicago Slaughter (Continental Indoor Football League), as well as the host to concerts by the likes of Bob Dylan, Duran Duran, and others.
Formerly known as Arrowhead Pond, the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., seats approximately 17,000. In addition to hosting the National Hockey League Anaheim Ducks, the facility also holds numerous concerts and other events throughout the year.
“This installation is kind of the essence of what sports sound has become,” says Palavos, whose company did the Honda Center systems integration work based on a design from Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW) of Dallas. That design comprises four clusters, consisting of various JBL Precision Directivity (PD) series loudspeakers, including eight PD743, four PD764, and either two PD764 or PD743 models per cluster for downfills. Each cluster includes six JBL ASB-6128 subwoofers apiece.
The new design also added delay loudspeakers to the system: 30 JBL AM4212/00 loudspeakers provide coverage to the upper portion of the seating bowl in the arena. Crown CTs series amplifiers power the system and the BSS Audio Soundweb London handles digital signal processing. The JBL HiQnet controls the amplification and processing from a single interface via BSS Audio HiQnet London Architect.
“The design had to sound great, be cost-effective, and be highly adaptable to a variety of uses,” Palavos says.
The use of clusters was key to achieving many of the facility's goals. “Depending upon the size and design of the facility, installing center-hung clusters can cut down on the overall costs associated with the sound system compared to a distributive sound system design,” Palavos says. “These cost savings are evident in several ways, including cost of components, cost of installation, and cost of maintenance.”
A variation on this is found at the 11,000-seat Stockton Arena in Stockton, Calif., that is home to minor-league hockey's Stockton Thunder — a design and install handled by the same WJHW and Pro Media team. The facility illustrates that while the distinction between minor league and NHL may be huge to hockey players and fans, the difference between their sound systems is less so these days.
Palavos explains that officials opted for a hybrid combination of JBL AM series speakers in a distributed configuration, with smaller three-box PD series clusters with 15in. woofer/horns hung over the end zone areas.
“No subs,” Palavos says. “The idea is to rely on the individual box to generate added low frequencies. It's scaled to the venue and the budget, and while it doesn't create quite the same impact as the all-cluster system at the Honda Center, it does generate a substantial wavefront and maintains the overall excitement level.”
The Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., is another multi-use venue with demanding sound requirements. Owned by the city, the facility houses North Dakota State University football games, as well as regional high school football teams, and is set up to hold two basketball games simultaneously for annual collegiate tournaments. The facility — the largest such venue in the entire state — also hosts municipal events and commercial tradeshows, as well as theatrical productions.
“The orientation of the venue has to be able to change significantly, and that applies to the sound too,” says Dean Eberle, sales engineer with AVI Systems of Bismarck, N.D., which handled the systems integration in conjunction with acoustical consultant Bob Oswood of Synergistic Design Associates of Minneapolis. The Fargodome has 22 clusters of JBL PD series speakers and Crown CTs amplifiers positioned around the seating area, plus six more retractable clusters on motorized pulleys, all programmed with macros designed for each type of application.
Oswood says the balance in any project is always between sightlines, cost, and intelligibility, but that sports venues often rely more heavily on spoken narrative, thus putting intelligibility at a premium.
In this case, he recommended using a larger number of smaller clusters to keep the speakers as close to the listeners as possible. This approach raises its own particular issues. More speakers mean more wire runs. The placement of the amplifiers in racks on the catwalk above the field shortened the runs and lessened any impedance and power loss problems. Furthermore, a larger number of speaker clusters, while putting the point source closer to the listener, also put each set of sources closer to each other.
“Ideally, you want the window of the arrival time to the listener between any two clusters to be about 35 milliseconds,” Oswood says. The use of more and smaller clusters also helps achieve the directionality needed when two or more events, like basketball games or wrestling matches, are taking place simultaneously.
The Fargodome has a large concourse around the bowl perimeter with numerous passages between the two areas. This inevitably leads to leakage, which is controlled via time delays set with a Soundweb London processor. Oswood used a TEF analyzer to establish the delay times between source speakers in the cluster and in the distributed audio system throughout the concourse. (Oswood says he chose TEF technology because it's the best at filtering out noise while doing an analysis.)
The Fargodome install also brought up another key issue involving audio — the need for large video displays. The use of large displays make big sound necessary, but the trick in such situations is to synchronize the two in the cavernous reaches of sports arenas.
This is first and foremost an intelligibility issue, Oswood says. “We may not realize it, but we're trained from childhood to read lips,” he says. When the lips on a screen and the sound associated with them are out of sync, it can obliterate the message and drive the listener/viewer to distraction. The maximum window of sync between the two is no more than 20 milliseconds, he says, and to the extent there is a time differential, it should be the video leading the audio — not the other way around. This can lead to a potential conflict when the delays needed to coordinate audio-for-picture are at odds with the delay values dictated by the acoustics of the space.
Oswood says that's one of the reasons his firm accommodates both audio and video measurement. “The only solution to that issue is coordination between audio and video designers,” he says. “If two different companies are doing those aspects of the project, the client has to be aware that lack of coordination [between the two] could be disastrous.”
The increasingly complicated nature of sports events combined with the trend toward multi-use venues puts a new emphasis on the ability to program sound systems to quickly and reliably change configurations to meet each application. Harman Pro Group's MacDonald describes the situation as one in which the entire sector is experiencing a programmatic evolution. “Fifteen years ago, we needed a sound system for voice and music that was light and in the background. Now, you have the many different needs of many user groups within a facility. They need macros to reliably reconfigure the space, and that's an increasingly crucial job for integrators,” he says.
Eberle agrees, adding that subcontracting the programming work to third-party programmers is not unusual anymore as the diversity and complexity of systems and components increases, but he also points out that AVI Systems maintains an inhouse programming team to provide customers with turnkey services.
“I think what we're seeing is how more cities and counties are making the investments in these sports facilities, but then demanding that they be capable of multiple uses,” Eberle says. “That, in turn, increases the level of programming needed to allow the installed systems to accommodate each use efficiently.”
Palavos says his work on the Honda Center illustrates the need and the usefulness of networked systems like the HiQnet approach he used there to integrate programming of the PA system, the amplifiers, and the Soundweb London DSP controller. In this instance, HiQnet controls the amplification and processing from a single interface via HiQnet London Architect.
“Before HiQnet, we needed to have multiple applications running to manage the control and distribution of the audio — at least two separate systems, depending upon the components you were using,” Palavos says. “What's neat about the Honda Center installation is that we integrated all of the audio systems, including the main bowl, back of the house, and meeting and conference rooms into a single network. This is not only great operationally, but also for offline things like diagnostics. You get better diagnostic information from these integrated networks. HiQnet provides the facility and/or contractor with detailed data allowing these entities the ability to resolve the failures sooner and more efficiently.
“HiQnet was really an asset for us [because] we only had six days to remove the existing system, and then install and arrange the new PA system,” Palavos says. “We were able to set up the system faster, and there was less possibility for error.”
Audio and video systems are experiencing convergence with each other and with multimedia thanks to digital technology. This phenomenon is taking place even as sports venues demand better audio and their owners demand multi-use capability for the venues. All this puts a new level of pressure on AV integrators, but it also offers a new landscape of opportunities.
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