When referees overturned Eddie Jackson’s defensive touchdown against the Giants in Week 2, fans booed — or at least we heard the sounds of fans booing as we watched on TV.
Across the NFL, stadium seats are empty to begin the 2020 season. But for those tuning in at home, it sure doesn’t sound like it: there’s cheers as the offense nears the end zone, subdued murmurs when the away team scores, and even those boos following an unfavorable call. For broadcast, it’s easy: because there’s a built-in delay on TV and radio, the league’s sound engineers can splice in the appropriate audio before it hits the airwaves.
But inside the stadium, there’s a whole other team pumping in sound for the players themselves, hired by the NFL in an attempt to normalize the unprecedented season. The audio pallets, developed by NFL Films sound engineers, are club-specific, and consist of everything from ambient crowd noise to gametime music and an in-stadium commentator.
“It just makes it feel like there’s a little bit of activity in the stadium without the fans,” says Tanesha Wade, director of events and entertainment for the Bears. During home games, Wade’s team is in charge of coordinating the crowd soundtrack with the rest of the in-stadium audio at Soldier Field.
The NFL designed the tracks to also ensure league-wide fair play. For instance, the ambient noise may not exceed 70 decibels — about the same as a running vacuum cleaner — or 75 decibels when combined with announcements and entertainment audio like music. Break the rules, and a team could risk fines, suspensions, or draft picks.
Even with these constraints, Wade and her team are focused on making Sundays as energizing as possible for players and staff. Here’s how they do it.
What’s been the feedback so far from the players, the coaches, any other members of the team about the in-stadium audio track?
We’re still compiling feedback and debriefing our first home game. We have to get used to not having the fans, but we utilize some tools to make sure that we can create this high-energy atmosphere. Without the fans, that soundtrack is not complete, so we have to work with what we have. On our end, we’re not able to hit that energy the way we want to hit it at those key moments when we’re at home and want to keep the team excited.
In-stadium, it feels low. It feels like we can’t get that big boost that we would normally get. It’s been a challenge, but we’re definitely trying to find that balance and we certainly are looking forward to getting more feedback to make sure we can adjust the balance that is within our control and within the rules, of course.
I was looking at Twitter and some NFL fans think the sound is being tweaked for home field advantage. Are you concerned with fan feedback or are you focused on how the team feels about the in-stadium audio?
For fans it’s an educational thing. They see what they see on TV and assume that’s going on in stadiums. Once they understand the differences between [crowd noise in the stadium and on TV], it’ll be easier to understand how we’re working through it.
But it is absolutely also important what our players think, and it’s important to understand what the teams as a whole are experiencing across the league. The goal is to try to make as normal of an atmosphere as possible in such an abnormal situation.
How are you feeling about the in-stadium soundtrack so far? It sounds as though there’s not quite frustration on your part, but that you’re not able to amp things up the way you’d like for the players, the coaches, and everyone else.
I’m inside a booth producing the show, so I have to really understand that my perspective is different from who’s out in the stadium bowl and can hear and feel everything. My job is to keep that energy up as much as possible and continue to work within the parameters that we have to.
We didn’t have a preseason this year. Preseason is truly the time where we work a lot of these kinks out and work through the new rules that we’ve collaborated with the team on to introduce for the season. We didn’t have that. This first game for me was really getting my feet underneath myself — but at the same time creating this atmosphere that’s as energetic as possible.
The biggest thing I noticed is in some of those key points where we would normally amp [the volume] up, we just couldn’t do it. We have to make sure we’re playing within those [75 decibel] parameters. The music is on and the PA is on, we just couldn’t put our foot on the gas like we normally would for our team.
Does it feel as though you went from creating this fan experience in the past to creating almost an emotional soundscape for the players and the coaches?
The soundtrack within the stadium has several key components, and we’re missing one of those components — the fans. It’s music, it’s our PA announcer, it’s our prompts, it’s our video. Our team helps us to understand what moments we’re going into and how we need to continue lifting them and keeping them energetic and elevated in their game. We react to them. We still have all those pieces.
But with the fans missing, that flow doesn’t allow us to reach the heights that we’ve reached in the past. What’s nice is, after Week 2, I believe every team will have had a home game. And now we’re moving forward, knowing what challenges there are, and we’re going to work those kinks out. It’s nice that the team got to go through it, because our only real practice of this was the scrimmage we had at Soldier Field. We used that ambient track during that practice so the team could get a feel, but there’s nothing like game day. [Sunday] truly was their first go-around at Soldier Field, on how that will feel, how the music will help and how the atmosphere will change, and what it’ll feel like and how they might have to use different tools to hype themselves up for a third down, or maybe the team on the sideline might have to give us some more noise.
I’m picturing walking into a mall, where everything is open and you can hear people chatting with one another, but there’s nobody there.
Yes! I can’t imagine what it feels like from a player’s standpoint. It’s got to be sort of a shock situation. And then you zero in. I know that’s exactly what they do, they zero in because that’s what they do and that’s what they’re passionate about. We just try to add some energy to that, add some atmosphere to that, add some normalcy to that. That’s our key role and although I’m not sure if I call it an emotional soundtrack, I’d say that we’re trying to play to their strengths, we’re trying to make this as much of a home -ield advantage as we possibly can within the constraints that we’re given.
I’m hoping to see a player do the arm waving motion to amp up an invisible crowd.
Even if it’s not audio-driven, we definitely still try to find ways to make them feel comforted, if you will. There are still people supporting them. We bring season ticket holders into the stadium through the video boards. Although it’s not a noise component, we bring them in cheering from home. We’ve pre-recorded some family members. When [Bears safety Deon] Bush had that awesome play, we had a video of his family cheering him on after we did the replay.
Can you actually hear any Bears-related chants with the club-specific tracks you received? Does it actually sound like anything that would specifically be happening in Soldier Field?
No, it sounds like a crowd. Sometimes it sounds like cheering — I didn’t hear any boos. It sounds like people are talking in the background. It sounds like when you walk into a stadium on game day, collectively, everyone is talking. It’s ambient noise all the way across. And then every once in a while you’ll hear an elevated kind of ebb to the audio, and then it’ll go back to the regular crowd. When you are listening closely, you start to hear people yell or say something, but you can’t necessarily always make out what they say.
Just like thousands of people deciding whether or not to get a beer.
Yes. Exactly. The normal flow of being in the stadium.
It’s such a strange concept.
It was very, very interesting. We were definitely looking forward to having our first game so we could hear what it was going to be like. The league was good, they actually sent us a test track during training camp so we kind of got used to it. Now that we’ve had a game, we understand what we’re dealing with and what we’re moving forward with. If they make any tweaks or changes, we’ll be ready to implement them.
Then you might actually become more of an emotional soundscape artist.
Yeah. I love that. It makes it sound so much more intense. At the end of the day that is what it is. We’re trying to evoke emotion, whether it’s excitement and energy or making sure the opponent doesn’t feel any of that energy. It really is one of those things where the mood needs to be set, the tone needs to be set. That’s what we try to do.