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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Gold for sound artists at the Tokyo Olympics

Thousands of high-tech microphones captured every thud, swish, grunt and relayed it to millions watching on television

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: August 9, 2021 8:40:20 am
Nuno Duarte, Nuno Duarte Tokyo Olympics, Nuno Duarte olympic broadcasting services, nuno duarte olympics sound managerNuno Duarte, senior manager (audio) of the Olympic Broadcasting Services at the International Broadcasting Centre in Tokyo. (Express Photo: Mihir Vasavda)

Viktoria Listunova walks up to the uneven bars. Pauses. Mutters some words. Takes a deep breath. Latches onto the bar and twirls on it. Completes her routine, bows and walks back in an empty, silent arena. Watching it from the stands, it felt a little hollow.

But then, you watch it on the TV, and the experience transforms: when the Russian gymnast walks onto the platform, you can hear her soft, small steps. When she pauses at the edge, you can hear the words she mutters and feel the tension when she deeply inhales; and when her hands slap the wood while she performs, you can hear every thud and the flexing of the bar.

The surreal Tokyo Olympics took place in these two parallel worlds: one, inside the stadiums, where it was mostly deathly silence, and the other on the television, where the sights and sounds felt more intimate than ever before; where it almost didn’t matter that the athletes were performing in front of empty stands.

When it was announced that the Games would be held without spectators, owing to the pandemic, the grand fest that the Olympics is was instantly reduced to a made-for-TV event.

For Nuno Duarte and his team, this meant the challenge to make sure the emotions of the venue and the feelings of the athletes reached every living room across the world got even more thrilling.

Duarte, the senior manager, audio, of the Olympic Broadcasting Services, puts the channels of information into two brackets: moving images that we see, and the sound we hear. The latter, many think just happens. But Duarte, who has won Emmys for the sound design of the London and Rio Olympics, explains his biggest challenge: making the sport accessible to even those who do not understand it through the sound of it.

“It’s the perception of emotions,” Duarte tells The Indian Express.

“For example, the famous movie of (Steven) Spielberg, Shark… if you see that movie without sound, you don’t have emotion or suspense. (But) Once you put the sound, all emotions change. It’s the same in sport.”

To generate the same emotions without the fans in the stadiums, who are an integral part of it, was a challenge. In Tokyo, the organisers tried to recreate a semblance of that atmosphere by playing fake crowd noises at some of the venues.

For Duarte, a purist, this wasn’t an option for the Games’ broadcast even though it practically became a norm for all matches that were held without fans.

The OBS, instead, decided to transmit what actually was happening in the stadium. “If we do synthetic or fake crowd, we are not showing what’s going on in the heart of the athletes and competition,” he says.

It is here, his secret ‘weapons’ made a difference: 3,600 microphones of 32 different models. “It’s important to use correct microphones,” he says, holding up his latest toy, which shaped like a spike-protein, hung on the roof of the venues and is so small that, from a distance, it can be hard to spot it at a venue. That mic, a prototype that is being used for the first time at the Olympics, captures the ambient sounds at almost all venues, which helps in creating the ‘immersive sound’ experience that Duarte is excited about for these Games.

Discreet placements

The other mics are placed discreetly, so they don’t get in an athlete’s face but still capture all the sounds. They are hung on the nets, submerged in sands and underwater, on the cars and underneath the carpets.

In archery, for instance, mics are placed not just near the shooting line, but they are also hidden under the carpet leading up to the target to capture the ‘whoosh’ of the arrow when it pierces through the air. In the pool, when the swimmers touch the wall, a production official leans over and dips a camera that has a mic attached to it so as to get the sound of what goes on underwater.

On the golf course, another production assistant walks the entire course with the golfers with a boom mic, not getting too close to them but close enough to capture all the drama. The toughest, perhaps, is rowing where most of the action takes place in the bay, and it’s not always possible to get the mic close to the rowers to capture the sound of the paddle hitting the water.

“Here, if the mics fail, then we use artificial sounds. But that’s just a backup option in case something goes wrong,” Duarte says. “You need to see a sport like music. All sports have a sound, and we have to capture it. The best way to capture is mics. The international federations understood the importance of the sound of the sport. So, they also allow this to get near to the athletes, to get their sound. If you have the sound, you understand the sport better.”

He gives the example of skiing, where some former players told him they were able to gauge if the snow was hard or soft just by listening to the sound of the pole swooshing through it. “That way, they know if the athlete will be faster or slower than the previous one.”

The mics are most essential in capturing the sound on sight. From there, it travels to an OB van that’s at the venue. There, the engineers make the mix, which is then sent to the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC).

The IBC is where all the action is in terms of the broadcast of the Games.

It’s located inside a funnel-shaped building by the Tokyo bay and in a tiny corner office, a supervisor, with control to audio from all venues, completes the final checks.

The sound is then synced with the video and then, it is transported through the fibre cables under the sea to all TV stations that have the rights to broadcast the Olympics before it is finally relayed to millions of homes. “That’s a simple way of putting it,” Duarte says. “All this happens in milliseconds to get it on air.”

Sometimes, the broadcasters add fake crowd noise to their production. Like it has happened in Tokyo, in some cases. Duarte, a purist, scoffs at the mere thought of it. For him, an ideal sound of sport is basic. “The one where I close my eyes, I can feel emotions of the venue and feel of the athletes.”

Many watching the Tokyo Olympics from home might have had the best seat in the house.

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