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Crafting The Roar: Sonofans Rethinks Real-Time Immersive Game-Day Crowd Sound Creation

Audio veteran Fred Vogler’s vision for soundscape creation comes to life in the time of the pandemic to support forward-looking clients like FOX Sports.
The Sonofans team providing the soundscape for National Football League (NFL) games broadcast on FOX Sports.

Think about the moments when we get to pivot from our role of balancing and massaging existing audio signals over to the task of generating original mix material. It could be the long lingering tail on a power ballad snare reverb. Maybe it’s a perfectly timed tap tempo delay filling the gap after a horn section stab. Perhaps it’s a community theater gig that includes a QLab trigger of a gunshot sound effect. These are the special times when we’re tasked with adding key audio ingredients to cook up an authentic and engaging sonic score.

For audio veteran Fred Vogler and his crew at Los Angeles-based Sonofans, this sort of generative real-time soundscape creation has become the new normal – and caught the attention of forward-looking clients like FOX Sports.

Developing An Idea

Sonofans owner/principal and multi-Grammy Award winner Vogler recalls the “a-ha!” moment when the concept came to him. “It all goes back to 2006,” he explains. “I’m a USC (University of Southern California) alumnus and a huge fan. I was watching them play Notre Dame and I heard the screams and chants of Notre Dame fans during the game. I thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could create a more realistic training experience for the Trojans with simulated crowd sounds to better prepare them for the volume and energy a rival team may bring to the table?’ So I did just that.”

He describes his initial concept, which was focused on players, coaches and managers, as “exhilarating, but very costly,” adding, “I set out to record crowd sounds at the [Los Angeles] Coliseum and I played them back for scrimmages and field exercises when the football team would prepare for their upcoming games. It was something I did first as a demo with multiple speaker arrays and sounds we had put together and I eventually worked in measurements from the stadium and got a really good idea of what I needed to do to make it feel right.

“We started with a dozen or so L-Acoustics L-ISA speaker arrays in addition to the house stadium system. I spent a whole season capturing audio from both home and away games and gathering files and testing to make it work, but the budget aspect was a barrier.”

While initially discouraged and feeling a pull back to his first love of high-profile audio gigs at venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Concert Hall, Vogler put the idea on the proverbial shelf to marinate a bit. “The season ended and I didn’t really see a way to monetize the in-stadium audio. I went back to my gig being a part of the music world for a while,” he says. “But when Covid hit and the performing arts world had to largely close up shop. I thought about my collection of all of these crowd sounds and the piles of empty stadiums and the surreal crowd-less live sporting event audio streams I was starting to hear at the time. FOX Sports and I connected about the idea of a more accurate and detailed sonic enhancement and began working together on Major League Soccer (MLS) streams.”

FOX Sports VP, Field Operations & Engineering Kevin Callahan highlights the appeal of this initial pitch, noting the network was “looking for something to replicate natural sounds that felt right.” Callahan and the FOX Sports production team noted how they referred back to recordings of games that were played sans in-person crowd or faux crowd sound and they felt “hollow.”

According to Callahan, “We wanted to alleviate this gap in experience and create something that felt right. That’s how we came to partner with Sonofans. In our extensive search, they were the best we found. For us it’s so important that everything feels authentic – the reaction of the crowd and something beyond canned ‘white noise.’ The experience our fans have of the games is truly next level.”

Making It Work

To achieve a realistic effect, one Sonofans audio engineer manages overall crowd blend and level while a home team operator and an away team operator trigger sound samples via Ableton into the mix in real time.

Roughly 60 channels flow in from Ableton and Sonofans routes four channels out to the various trucks or broadcast entities as needed with a Front Left-Right and a Surround Left-Right quad mix. In addition to a collection of MIDI trigger pads and various studio monitors, the Sonofans setup includes three Dante-enabled Allen & Heath Avantis consoles, a dLive C3500 control surface paired with a DM0 MixRack, and an SQ-6 mixer.

Vogler points to the continued growth Sonofans has experienced with FOX after adding the “spice” to the games that the network was looking for, adding, “Our initial MLS success set us up to also handle Major League Baseball (MLB). We would cater the sounds to the stadium and to the teams that were playing and go beyond what other networks had done with more limited and generalized audio samples and crowd beds. If it was soccer, we’d have more chanting and drums and rhythm elements and so on. We were mining sounds from all of these different sources, some of it from FOX and some from our own libraries, and putting combinations together that made sense for a game atmosphere. This isn’t a gimmick. Just like FOX, we want it to be authentic and genuine and be sensitive to what a real crowd would do in that specific venue. It’s been really successful.”

Beyond MLS and MLB (including the World Series), Sonofans has created sound libraries and provided enhanced stream mixes for professional boxing, bowling, college football and the National Football League (NFL). “Initially I was thinking MADI with the outdoor rigs,” recalls Vogler. “From a computer running Ableton to the desk to a L-ISA processor, all routing via MADI. When things became more of a studio world with the streaming, FOX needed Dante.

“Just coincidentally I was talking to one of my colleagues who mentioned a new desk out from Allen & Heath that was very Dante-friendly, so I checked out the Avantis and fell in love with it. I brought it to FOX and started using it immediately. I basically kidnapped that Avantis demo unit that I got from Brandon Operchuck at (Southern California audio rep firm) AudioGeer until I could arrange to grab a trio of them. I felt a little guilty about keeping that demo unit for so long, but I if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel that bad,” he adds with a chuckle.

Summing up his thoughts on the addition of Sonofans to the FOX Sports audio mix, Callahan turns to a concept that will be familiar to many of us. “The way that we always looked at it, Sonofans is providing real-time audio scoring for these events,” Vogler concludes. “It’s a performance and very similar to scoring a movie. They’re a team of artists who are reacting live and bringing in the human element, and that makes all the difference.”

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