Mumbai: It’s the IPL 2019 final. Krunal Pandya top edges a Shardul Thakur bouncer. The bowler chases the lobbed-up ball all the way till square leg, and holds on to the catch with much difficulty. The tension and excitement is palpable from the reaction of the fans at the stadium. For the TV viewers, that collective cheer from the stands is augmented by the booming voice of Ian Bishop in the commentary box.
It is the combination of such real-time noise from the stadium and a commentator’s analysis that creates a high decibel drama in the TV rooms day in-day out during the IPL.
Cut to Saturday’s IPL 2020 opener in Abu Dhabi. Chennai Super Kings’ Deepak Chahar goes for a couple of boundaries in the first over. But there is zero shouting, for there is no fan present at the stadium due to Covid-19 restrictions. But for those watching the match from their living rooms, there is a constant buzz from the background thus creating an illusion of normalcy. That was basically pre-recorded crowd noise to give the viewers a “stadium feel”, in what is a made-for-tv IPL.
The opening match showed that the sound engineers had not warmed up to the task in the early overs. Later, the audio library of crowd noise from previous matches was played out throughout. There were glitches though.
On occasions, when Ambati Rayudu would connect well and the ball flew past mid-wicket, the crowd audio would suddenly be amped up right when the ball reached the empty stands. The timing and coordination was simply not right. To regular cricket viewers, there was something amiss.
Experts say the coverage will get better with time. “Cricket is the most complicated sport to put out audio in. Each ball is an event and each event has a different audio. It will get better as the tournament progresses,” said Hemant Buch, who does live cricket production around the world.
“For an audio engineer, you have to put the fader (a device for varying the volume of sound) up and down, making sure the ambient sound is right. For day 1, they did a decent job.”
There are two feed sources which viewers get at home, a world feed for the English commentary and another feed for the Hindi commentary. There were differences in how recorded noises played out in the feeds.
The broadcasters had the option to amp up the stump mic audio and avoid fake/old noise altogether, like at the tennis’s US Open. However, unlike cricket, in tennis points are played in pin drop silence and viewers are used to the sound of the tennis ball thudding on racquet strings. Cricket viewing is different altogether.
“It is still incongruous. You know there is nobody there in the stands and suddenly there is sound, you wonder where the sound is coming from,” said commentator Charu Sharma. “But you still have to do it, because without the sound, it would be a damp squib.”
“But, you need to let the viewers know that it is a virtual sound and not real. You don’t want to be fooling people. We are just trying to create an atmosphere,” said Alvin Naicker, a leading South African broadcaster, in a recent conversation.
Creating match atmosphere
That’s something all sports broadcasts during pandemic, including the IPL, have been mindful of – using wide and top angle shots liberally despite empty stadia. Additionally, the empty seats have been used for advertising and social messaging.
European football leagues have all used canned crowd noises. The sound engineer also had the choice for team and situation-specific chants. “Football is easier because a lot of the game happens in the mid-field, except when there is a tackle. Otherwise when the ball is in play, the crowd chant is the same,” opines Buch.
However, some gave option to the viewers to shut the fake sound in certain premium live streams. The same approach was used in the second IPL match between Delhi Capitals and Kings XI Punjab on Star Sports Select, where canned crowd noise was muted in favour of expert commentary that focuses on analytics even between overs.
Sharma is worried the casual fans may not have the same connect this year. “The problem is there are many categories of cricket watchers. Particularly in IPL, there are a large number of casual watchers, not fans, who watch for many reasons – for the atmosphere, who else is watching, is there any celebrity, any other aha moment, watch it because someone else is watching or thinks it is exciting. They are not likely to get swayed by this,” he said.
While all was being done to keep the viewers engaged, for cricketers used to playing in front of packed houses, there was no canned crowd sound at the stadium. There was a DJ console though, which stayed busy during key moments.
There were other innovations like playing pre-recorded videos of cheer-girls dancing on the stadium’s giant screens, as well as a virtual fan wall comprising of some select fans of both teams. “It was completely different. We are so used to seeing so many people cheering us. But, we were expecting this. IPL did some great job with some noise going around the stadium. I hope this is the new normal only for a little while,” said MI skipper Rohit Sharma.