The Olympic Games are officially under way, and we're watching sports many of us glimpse only every four years: gymnastics; track; judo. But we're willing to bet that the sports' sounds are just as memorable: the clanking of foils, the tick-tock of table tennis, the robotic "Take your mark!" before swimmers launch.
Those unique sounds are part of the Olympic experience. And it's one man's job to make sure we hear them clearly: Dennis Baxter, the official sound engineer for the Olympics. He's been at it since 1996.
To get a feel for what the Summer Games sounded like before Baxter came on board, we listened to clips from the pre-Baxter era and compared them to recent events. The results were fascinating. Take a listen:
In the Seoul clip from 1988, all we can hear is the thud of the arrow hitting the target. Baxter wanted to change that. "As a child, I remember the movie Robin Hood," he told Guy Raz, host of Weekends On All Things Considered. "And there was this hyper-sound that I remember... and with the archery event, I wanted to hear the sounds of the arrow." So he set up four microphones on the ground along the path of the arrow, to catch its release, and the sound of its flight through the air.
This first clip is a famous moment in Olympic history: The Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scoring the games' first-ever perfect 10. She's on the uneven bars, but the only things we hear are the announcer and the crowd. But in 2008, every swing and release of the U.K.'s Beth Tweddle is perfectly audible. Baxter set up microphones on each corner of the bars — the idea, he says, was "that you [the listener] should be able to close your eyes and know exactly where you are."
During Baxter's first Olympics in 1996, his boss called him during the rowing events with his only major criticism: All he could hear were the motors of the chase boats and the TV helicopter. So Baxter came up with one of his most unusual solutions. He took a portable recorder down to the lake, taped the sound of several boats practicing, and put it in a sampler to play along with the live event.
"Some people think it's cheating. I don't think I'm cheating anybody," he says. "The sound is there. It is the exact sound. It's just not necessarily real time. Because of the laws of physics, you've got one noise masking another noise. So ... when you see a rower, your mind thinks you should hear the rower and that's what we deliver."
For more Olympic sounds, our classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence, has a "know-it-all's" guide to the music behind the games.
Becky Sullivan produced this segment for weekends on All Things Considered.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Over the next few weeks, we'll get to hear those sounds...
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND EFFECTS)
RAZ: ...that most of us only hear every four years.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
RAZ: They are the sounds of the Olympics, of course, and the man behind them all is Dennis Baxter. He is the official sound designer for the games, and he has been since Atlanta in 1996.
DENNIS BAXTER: And the sound design is figuring out exactly what you want a sport to sound like and then do a microphone plan that is necessary to deliver the highest possible quality sound to engage the viewer and to fundamentally, for me, to satisfy the expectations of the viewer.
RAZ: Now, this has actually - and I didn't realize this - this is a relatively new thing. Back if you watched the Olympics in - before 1996, before you became the Olympic sound engineer, the Olympics sounded considerably different. And I want to play some samples of that. This is a clip from the archery event from the Seoul Olympics in 1988 before you - the Olympics had people like you doing the sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEOUL 1988 OLYMPICS ARCHERY EVENT)
RAZ: OK. That's the archery event from 1988. Let's hear the archery event from the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This is the one that you mic'd.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEIJING 2008 OLYMPICS ARCHERY EVENT)
RAZ: Wow. You actually hear that arrow flying through the air, like the (makes noise)
RAZ: That's incredible. How did you do that?
BAXTER: Well, it all starts with what I expect to hear, what I want to hear, and certainly the sound of sports has been influenced significantly by film and currently by games. So as a child, I remember the movie "Robin Hood," and there was this hyper sound that I remember. And with the archery event, I wanted to hear the sounds of the arrow. I wanted to hear what you cannot hear anywhere else, and that's fundamentally where I start.
RAZ: So what did you - how did you set up the microphones to capture the sound of the arrow flying through the air?
BAXTER: I put the microphone in line of the pathway of the arrow so that you hear as the arrow moves across toward the target, you actually hear it go across the microphone and you get a (makes noise) type of sound.
RAZ: Dennis, let's hear another example. This is gymnastics. This is from the Montreal Olympics, 1976. This is a famous moment. Nadia Comaneci of Romania scoring the first ever perfect 10 on the uneven bars. This is what it sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTREAL 1976 OLYMPICS GYMNASTICS EVENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Watch this. She is really moving well. Another handstand. Look at that, right from the handstand. (Unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
RAZ: OK. We don't hear any gymnastics there. We hear the announcer. Let's hear - this is from the Beijing Olympics 2008. This is Beth Tweddle of the U.K. during a qualifying round, also on the uneven bars.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEIJING 2008 OLYMPICS GYMNASTICS EVENT)
RAZ: That is so cool. You hear everything there. I mean, you could just listen to that on the radio and build a picture in your mind's eye.
BAXTER: Well, exactly what you said. To me, it's somewhat based on the radio, but it's theater of the mind. I absolutely subscribe to the philosophy that you should be able to close your eyes and know exactly where you are.
RAZ: Let's hear one of the, probably the most challenging things that anybody could record. This is rowing. And rowing, I should mention, to capture rowing by video, you have to follow the crew from a helicopter. This is from the Atlanta Games in 1996. This is what it sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS ROWING EVENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And in the semifinal, by a .04 of a second behind France, the fastest qualifier. Now, Romania is still ahead Australia (unintelligible)...
RAZ: OK. This is in 1996 Atlanta. You mostly hear a helicopter. Let's listen to the Beijing rowing event from 2008. This is what it sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEIJING 2008 OLYMPICS ROWING EVENT)
RAZ: OK. You actually hear the sounds of the oars in the water, that rowing sound. How did you do that?
BAXTER: I did Atlanta, as well, and it was the only time I got a call from my boss, Manolo Romero, but he said: All I hear is noise. I hear motor noise. And he just said: Fix it. So I took my portable DAT recorder out to the lake, and we followed different boaters, and we basically, you know, recorded the microsound and then put it up into a sampler. Now, that was the first time that had ever really been done. And using samplers in rowing has become standard because of the fact rowing is covered by four or five chase boats in a helicopter. So your entire sound fill is just a wash of noise.
So you don't stand a chance. Some people think it's cheating. I don't think I'm cheating anybody because backing into expectations, you see rowers - you don't see motorboats - and you have certain sounds that you would expect rowing to sound like. So I feel like I'm cheating them on is if I don't deliver those sounds.
RAZ: So you're saying that the rowing event is the Milli Vanilli of Olympic events. This is all lip-synching.
BAXTER: I wouldn't say the Milli Vanilli. What I call, it's basically lie or folly.
RAZ: I got it. OK.
BAXTER: It - the sound is there. It is the exact sound. It's just not necessarily real time because of the laws of physics. You got one noise masking another noise. So it's - as I said, when you see a rower, your mind thinks you should hear the rower. And that's what we deliver.
RAZ: That's Dennis Baxter. He's the official sound engineer for the Olympic Games. He spoke to us from London. Dennis Baxter, thank you so much. And thanks for making the games more interesting.
BAXTER: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: Those Olympic sounds are worth a closer listen. To hear them, go to our website, npr.org. You'll find them in our Olympics blog, The Torch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.