While a very small number of lucky US football fans will be inside the Superdome in New Orleans for the game on Sunday, February 3, the rest of us still get a taste of game action, thanks to broadcasters’ commitment to deliver the sounds of the Super Bowl.

In fact, those of us at home get more game than the stadium crowd: besides great commercials, home viewers hear all the sounds on the field, from the clash of helmets to the thud of a toe punting pigskin.

A broadcast event like the Super Bowl is a massive media production. The 2012 broadcast used 116 microphones and 57 HD cameras to capture sound and images. That data traveled miles of cable within the stadium to on-site production trucks. Staff on the trucks has the challenge of mixing sound from field, stadium, and announcers live as the action happens, to deliver the best-sounding experience possible in 5.1-channel surround.

Dolby technology has been part of the Super Bowl experience since 1987, when we helped bring Super Bowl XXI to living rooms in multichannel surround sound for the first time ever. Jim Hilson, Technical Manager at Dolby, counts broadcasts of five Super Bowls, seven Olympic Games, multiple NASCAR races, and other sports—not to mention live, televised awards shows—to Dolby’s credit. He was game to answer a few burning questions.

Lab Notes: What stands out in your mind about the live mix in surround sound at the Super Bowl?

Jim Hilson (JH): When we mix, we all want to get that one big hit, and I’ve had a few happen while mixing games.

But what sticks out more in my mind is the ability to get the complete play: from the quarterback calls, to the defensive responses, to the clashing of shoulder pads as 11 guys try to get the ball downfield against 11 other guys who are trying to stop it or make it go backwards. That almost always creates exciting audio “crunches” worthy of replays with sound.

Lab Notes: Dozens of microphones get placed around the stadium and on the field to pick up sound, but are certain stadiums are easier to mic than others?

JH: The placement of mics doesn’t change much from venue to venue, but crowd noise definitely changes. A domed stadium is louder overall as long as the crowd is into the game. It also gets very quiet when the home team is behind by three touchdowns in the third quarter.

When the crowd is loud, it makes it harder to get the on-field sounds. Most teams have alternative ways to call the snap because the players can’t always hear the quarterback calls. If the team can’t hear them, then the viewer probably won’t hear them either.

Lab Notes: What’s your favorite “sound” of the Super Bowl?

JH: My favorite sound of any Super Bowl has to be the US Air Force flyover as part of the national anthem. And my favorite flyover was actually the quietest.

At Super Bowl XXV in Tampa [2001], they had a B-2 stealth bomber from the local Air Force base fly over the stadium. It was in stealth mode, so nobody heard it coming until it was overhead.

The crowd went crazy when they realized what was going on.

That’s what catches the ear of a Dolby expert. What sounds super to you about the Super Bowl?

Photo: John H. Kim