Even with more than 20,000 fans expected at Super Bowl LV, the NFL will still provide artificial crowd noise for Sunday’s broadcast, as it has for every game this season. But the league won’t be using just a standard track. NFL Films has edited audio from the last Super Bowl in Tampa Bay (Cardinals-Steelers in 2009) for the occasion, and even though the Bucs will be playing at home, the soundboard operators will, for the first time, attempt to mimic a neutral crowd.
By necessity, the league took augmented broadcasting to a new level this year. Before the season, the NFL hired 32 operators to be responsible for creating fake fan noise at their respective home sites, using a bespoke system stuffed with actual crowd sounds recorded over the last several years. “We never played a crowd sound that wasn’t recorded at that stadium,” NFL Films VP and supervising sound mixer Vince Caputo said.
Each broadcaster was free to mix that sound into its presentation as it liked. Every network, and every crew, settled somewhere different. ESPN opted to have one of its own staffers join the NFL hire in creating the fan mix to get a consistent sound from week to week. Fox brought in third-party Sonofans (which got its start creating fake fan noise for Pete Carroll’s USC practices) for support. At CBS, one of two quality control consultants monitored every game to make sure the sound is consistent. One will be in the broadcast center Sunday to keep tabs on the Super Bowl presentation.
The natural audio made games easier on the ears. It also helped broadcasters. Announcers generally like to have fan noise fed into their earpieces during games so they can play off a crowd’s energy. The same was true this year, even if that crowd was totally digital—maybe especially if it was. “We found that, at least for certain people, they wanted more of that in their ears, not less,” CBS Sports VP of remote engineering Mike Francis said.
Meanwhile, NBC tamped down the fan noise for viewers on its Sunday Night Football broadcast over the course of the season. “As we started hearing more and more things from the field, stuff that Al [Michaels] and Cris [Collinsworth] could react to in real time, we started lowering the crowd and taking the field effects forward,” SNF executive producer Fred Gaudelli said. “I just find it provides more opportunity to talk about things we haven’t talked about in the past.”
“You can hear the QB audible, you can hear the pads cracking louder,” Monday Night Football producer Phil Dean said. “We were able to lean on that a little bit.” In the booth, analyst and former QB Brian Griese explained to viewers that Can! Can! meant killing one play (or throwing it in a trash can) and switching to a second. Chalk! signaled a draw play. That’s what you do with chalk, after all.
At Fox, elevating the field sound brought on a philosophical shift. Rather than placing the viewers in the stands, with field noise in front of them and fan noise surrounding them, the sound mix endeavored to bring them onto the field this year. “We approached it more from a cinematic perspective, is what I call it,” Fox’s lead NFL sound mixer Fred Aldous said. “With field sound becoming so intense and us able to get closer to that environment, we were pushing viewers onto the field.”
Throughout the year, NFL Films has been updating its system, adding team-specific chants in the playoffs and custom features for certain plays like kickoffs and extra points. Until now, one operator has worked each game, but with extra options added for the Super Bowl, Caputo will work his first shift alongside Tampa Bay’s operator.
During the regular season, the operators would send Caputo pictures of themselves practicing with the kits, often on their laps as they sat on the couch on off weeks, practicing against live games. For his part, Caputo has been playing practice audio against the Super Bowl game he pulled the sound from. “I’m so married to this thing,” he said. “I’ve been living with every play and crowd reaction since week one.”
Sunday, it will get its biggest test yet in front of 100 million viewers. And then?
“The hope is we scrap it,” Caputo said. “If we get to scrap it, that means things are back to normal and stadiums are full of people. That’s the ideal situation. We’ll certainly spend some time in the off-season making sure every kit is working and refreshed and probably add the features that we made for the Super Bowl. But hopefully we’ll never have to use them again.”