When you watch a baseball game, you're also listening for the hum of the crowd and the crack of a baseball bat. People like Andrew Stoakley make that happen.
He mixes audio for teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, which means he combines a tangle of audio feeds to create the soundscape you hear when you watch the game at home. And he's done it for a long time, too, with experience including hockey, NBA, lacrosse, and almost every other game that needs sound. Oh, and he's very Canadian — in the winter months, he mixes curling.
He was nice enough to guide me through how he helps sports sound amazing, answering some questions I'd never thought to ask before: How do they keep the crowd from cursing into the microphones? What makes a baseball bat sound so good? And what's it really like making all that noise into an incredible show?
1) Mixers show up six hours before game time
Stoakley walked me through a typical Blue Jays game. He's worked a lot of them this year, and as an "A1," he leads their sound mixing.
When the TV truck arrives, he and his assistants get to work. They'll show up at 1 for a 7 pm game, since they have a lot of work to do.
Stoakley runs audio lines from the TV truck to the "patch room," which serves as a clearinghouse for connections to the stadium's audio lines. As Stoakley patches in, his assistants are busy placing the TV station's mics on the field, which will stay there during a home series.
A large stadium like the Rogers Centre (where the Blue Jays play) has an audio and visual system built into it, plus a circulatory system for TV. Though audio mixers might need to improvise more at other venues, big stadiums are made for mixing a broadcast as easily as possible.
2) Hidden mics capture home plate excitement
The sound of a baseball bat cracking a home run is instantly recognizable, but for home viewers, that's only because of a careful audio mix.
Look at the two square Blue Jay images in the photo below. Those birds hide the microphones Stoakley uses to record the sound for home games:
It takes more than luck to get a sound like that. Stoakley uses two parabolic dishes with lavalier mics that, together, mix for stereo sound (you can read more about them here). Imagine a tiny mic in a handheld satellite dish, and you get the idea.
"You want to hear that ball," Stoakley says. "My mix tends to be a little sharper, and when you hit a ball on a bat, you have a deeper sound, and that's characteristic of the dish with the lav."
That sound — which defines a baseball game for the home viewer — can vary wildly by A1 and by the mic type used by the stadium.
3) Each key sound needs its own special mic
"I have a parabolic dish at first base and third base for pick-off mics," Stoakley says. "I have two microphones in the bullpens, so you'll hear the pitcher and catcher's mitts. I might put mics on cameras that can get into the dugouts."
That arsenal of microphones gives the team a veritable soundscape of gameplay to select from. And when it comes to players, that requires discretion.
4) Players need to be mixed carefully ... especially when they're angry
The players are a wild card that mixers like Stoakley need to interpret on the fly. If somebody's made a bad play, Stoakley might not track the audio for a player who's upset (and likely to curse). But if they're celebrating, he'll throw in some of their cheers.
In curling, a huge sport in Canada, the expectations for hearing players are a lot different. Players' grunts, chants, and shouts are a huge part of the broadcast mix. In a featured game, mixers will put a mic on every team member and mix that in with the game's announcers.
But some of the most important sounds aren't from the players at all.
4) A great mix captures the crowd — but not the drunk fan swearing
This Blue Jays fan might not be rowdy. But if she is, she could screw up a mix.
"I have a series of six microphones that I use to pick up crowd noise," Stoakley says. From those, he composes the ambient sound that most of us take for granted.
Translating the crowd's roar is harder than it might seem. Sometimes that means noticing that a drunk guy is shouting into one of your mics. Mixers have to quickly fade him out so he doesn't overwhelm the sound.
"Baseball is not like hockey," Stoakley says (he mixes those games as well). Hockey is noisy both on and off the ice, which can mask one or two unruly fans. But baseball has more silences, so mixers need to be vigilant to fade out that one person "who will sit and scream, and no matter what you do you're gonna hear them."
Mixers also have to deal with the blaring public announcement system, which TV listeners at home don't want to hear. "The PA is the bane of every audio person's existence. You can't eliminate it — you just try to minimize it."
Even the building itself can change the sound. "My bat cracks sound different when the roof is closed versus open," Stoakley says. "You have a giant dome that acts as a reflective surface, but when the roof's open, the sound escapes." He prefers the open roof: "It allows the sound and the city to come in."
6) Mixing all that together happens live in a very noisy truck
There's a ton of raw audio coming into Stoakley's truck parked outside.
"I have the director, producer, color commentator, play-by-play person, host, on-air talk back, master control, and studio mix on," he says — and that's in addition to the many mics in stadium. That means he's listening to all of those feeds on speakers as he creates a mix for both the TV broadcast's play-by-play announcers and the audience at home.
The art of the job is mixing it all together.
When Stoakley described what it's like inside the truck, I couldn't help but think of a bizarre, slightly dated reference: a scene in 2006's Superman Returns, where Superman hovers above the Earth, listening to millions of voices and trying to make sense of them all.
"There is a din," he says, and the truck's audio room becomes its own mini-stadium as he creates his mix. That's necessary to hear everything going on, from the guy yelling, "You suck!" over and over to the cues coming from a broadcast announcer. To whip to a third-base speaker in time for a tag, he has to pay close attention.
7) This sound mixer appreciates the quiet, too
Stoakley's been mixing sports since 2008 (after decades of audio TV work prior to that), and it's a loud environment even in the trucks. Part of the reason he moved from Toronto to Niagara Falls was to get a little more quiet when he came home from work. After a long Blue Jays season and more gigs, from curling to hockey, on the horizon, he told me he's taking a week off soon for the very quiet sport of golf.
He appreciates that an audio mix is subjective and intense. The setup is long and hard, but his work affects how we feel a game. That's because everyone at home, whether they know about audio mixing or not, can appreciate the perfect sound of a home run.