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A bad use for good sound

Fresh from the BroadcastAsia show in Singapore, I noticed while I was there that the conventioneers gravitated toward the local bars alongside the riverfront to watch the unfolding World Cup. Persuaded to join others at the bar to watch the “footie,” I was horrified at the noise that the accompanied the game, like a wasp's nest rent asunder by an axe. Two new words have entered the vocabulary of many in the developed world: “vuvuzela” and “lepetata,” alternately known as those instruments of aural torture. These inane plastic trumpets en masse have provided an unpleasant accompaniment to the tournament at deafening sound pressure levels, to such an extent that players are complaining they can't concentrate or hear the referee.

Last month, I wrote about the technology used to capture the month-long World Cup in South Africa. Based on my experience of sound design, I wrote about some of the equipment used to capture the audio, in stereo and surround, and how it would convey the emotion of the crowd.

Some extremely high-quality microphones and mixers were deployed in the attempt to pick up the crowd reaction, which has always been an essential part of sportscasting in the northern hemisphere. A mix of coincident and spaced arrays was used in the stadiums in a vain attempt to pick up a realistic impression of the fans in 5.1 and in stereo. Spot mics also were deployed to pick up the impact of boot on ball.

This all proved to be a complete waste of fine German and English precision audio engineering. The soundtrack could well have been provided by carbon microphones delivered over silk and shellac-insulated copper cables, for all that it added to the coverage. Instead, viewers around the world were subjected to a horrendous noise, and all the dynamics of an excited crowd were totally absent.

I feel sorry for the sound mixers. I know that if I were in their place, I would have run down the master fader, walked out of stadium, hailed a taxi to the airport, gone home and listened to a performance of the music of Hildegard of Bremen to restore some sanity.

Such a noise in the stadium is an insult to the great skill it takes sports' sound mixers to provide an exciting accompaniment to the game for home viewers. I do think that the officials in charge should have banned the plastic trumpets.

I must declare that I am not a football fan; at school I played rugby, and for years I lived a mile from the home of English rugby, Twickenham Stadium, and often watched matches. The rules of association football were always a mystery to me, and I have never been to watch a game.

Football has always had a “reputation.” To borrow from a popular phrase, rugby is a hooligans' game played by gentlemen, and football is a gentlemen's game viewed by hooligans. This World Cup only reinforces that view.

I was amused to learn that within days of the commencement of the World Cup, an enterprising software company launched an audio plug-in that could remove most of the offending noise from the plastic trumpet.

Faced with worldwide criticism of the racket, FIFA has been unwilling to insist on a ban of the vuvuzela from stadiums. Perhaps next time it chooses a host country, FIFA might consider that with the money it receives from broadcast rights, it should have some sensibilities for the viewers that have ultimately funded the tournament.

Surely, the viewers deserve a better experience than 2010 has delivered.

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