October 11, 2022
Melinda Head

The Sounds of the NFL

Brought to you by the folks you never see

The behind-the-scenes audio work necessary to bring the sounds of the NFL to audiences is mind-blowing.

What would football be without sound? Not much, as we, the audience, and the teams, learned during the restrictive days of COVID.

How is this critical element of the game captured?

Cameras are almost everywhere and the ones near or on the field of play are “mic’d”.

There are also stand-alone microphones, both hand-held and affixed to various operators, players, officials, announcers, and other people and objects, including the goal posts (called “doink” microphones due to the sound a football makes when it hits metal).

Some 30-40 mics are used to pick up the sound effects of the game, all of which are managed by a sub-mixer using an incredibly sophisticated mixing board. As production values increase, the number of audio inputs typically increases. For example, at the Super Bowl, the locker room entries, locker room hallways and field entrance tunnels are mic’d.

Here is an example of the environment in which an NFL sub-mixer works. This is typical of an “A” show environment (e.g. NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, Prime), some of which have as many as 7 or 8 mobile units (tractor trailer trucks) making up their production facilities

Mixing the sounds of the game is no easy feat. The sub-mixer captures a myriad of sounds from the game. This content is then handed over to the A1 (lead mixer), who controls talent microphones, music, tape machine playbacks, silly sound effects and other elements, each of which make up individual layers. These layers are then strategically blended together on top of each other to produce a final broadcast product, the game you see.

There are many people involved in bringing any NFL game to you – both the NFL itself, the networks (and their broadcast teams) and the game venues.  Most network-produced content is live, but not all of it (some is produced beforehand; for example, the NFL provides replay/highlight reels and recap shows).  The network audio team controls the audio communications of the broadcast team, from director and producer to camera and audio operators, talent (announcers and play-by-play analysts), NFL officials, players and referees (from an NFL feed), statisticians, the crowd and the public address system (from a stadium feed). The broadcast audio crew is usually the most audible top layer of a good production, but the momentum of the crowd is also a quintessential element that helps unveil the story. Everyone has a part to play.

“A good audio mixer can make viewers feel like they’re close to the action by letting them clearly hear the quarterback’s clap that breaks the huddle or audible calls at the line of scrimmage, even though no one in the stands can actually hear these things. Play calls, a hit, or a player’s cry that might be wince-inducing on a quiet practice field blend into the game-day atmosphere. The sounds you hear during a television broadcast are really a highly produced and edited version of the game, one that reflects the priorities of the league, satisfies the TV networks that pay billions of dollars for the broadcast rights, and provides fans with a pleasant viewing experience for one of the most popular entertainment products in the world.” (Nora Princiotti, The Ringer)

Sounds levels at an NFL stadium can hit about 105 decibels. If a home team sucks, it’s not unusual for sound levels to be lower. You might be wondering: how loud is 105 decibels? It’s as loud as a jet taking off. That’s loud. Sound is actually an important weapon, as less noise makes calls easier for teams to overhear, which could change game tactics.

I happen to have a neighbor who is a sub-mixer. And kudos to her, she’s the first woman in a man’s world to ever sub-mix audio for a Super Bowl broadcast.

Wildly successful Barbadian singer, Rihanna, will headline the 2023 Super Bowl halftime show, after declining a previous request and showing support for civil rights activist and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem in protest of U.S. police brutality and racial inequality

My sub-mixer neighbor is a big football fan, but only really gets to watch a game when she returns home from broadcasting an NFL event. In the heat of the moment, she’s far too busy trying to anticipate and capture the right content in an environment in which everything happens at lightening-fast speed.

“I love sound. My mother was a musician. I always try to get the best sounding action for the job. You gotta be on your toes for that.”

She admits using one trick to try to keep the broadcast clean. The minute she hears the word “mother”, she automatically cuts that microphone … because we all know what comes after that. It’s pretty much a sure thing. Players know the rules and are supposed to keep their language clean; however, in the heat of the moment, that can be pretty difficult. For this reason, much of the verbiage from players (such as pre-game huddles and warm-ups) is recorded “offline”, not aired live … or the video simply rolls without sound. But, in the live action moments of the game, especially after a score or great play, all bets are off.  There have been many famous moments when player comments have made air; they are called “hot mic” moments.

Here's a funny example that was inadvertently picked up by a parabolic microphone from outside the player box/bench area.

Al Micheals and Chris Collinsworth share a chuckle at hot mic moment

Any foul language can result in a fine from the FCC; however, that is a management issue, not a sound engineer issue.

The one sacred place where sound cannot be captured is in the player box/team bench area. The privileged information that is exchanged in that intimate space is strictly off limits.

Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots has many accolades to his name, as well as scandals … including scandals related to sound. There have been accusations of team management interfering with opposing team headsets and dialing into the opposing coach’s microphone frequency to overhear team communication.

Mic’d referees used to provide great audio input to the game, but now officials must stand behind the quarterback instead of behind the defense, to avoid referee injuries. With their voices now projected in the wrong direction, what used to work brilliantly doesn’t work any more; therefore, microphones are put on guards or centers to provide the line of scrimmage sound, and the NFL both controls and distributes that feed to the networks.

Another league, the XFL, used to wire up a bunch of players for sound, before declaring bankruptcy after ceasing operations due to COVID-19. Will this customized hear-the-players feature be adopted by the NFL? We haven’t heard any hint of such a possibility so far.  

Microphones can take a beating, so durability is important. In a recent NFL game, a player innocently nailed a sound man (and his parabolic microphone), who ended up in hospital. And what about sweat? No electronic component, including microphones, likes moisture.

Sound quality has come a long way since miles of copper-based wire were spread across football fields. Now glass (fiber optic cable) is used. The buzzy interference that occurs when copper meets electricity has been solved with fiber, but now latency issues have cropped up; in common language, latency simply means delay. As bandwidth improves, latency will decrease.

American football remains the most popular sport in the U.S. in terms of broadcast viewership. That success has been possible due to the contributions of many unseen collaborators, including the audio crew. Let’s give them a hearty round of applause.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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