From The Stadium To Your Stereo: Behind Baseball's Biggest Sounds

Oct 25, 2014
Originally published on October 25, 2014 6:54 pm

When the Giants' Gregor Blanco hit a home run to lead off the second game of the World Series, millions of viewers heard that satisfying crack of the bat well before watching the ball fall into the Royals' bullpen.

It's baseball's most iconic sound, and it's the No. 1 job for Fox's baseball audio engineer-in-chief, Joe Carpenter.

"The bat crack is really kinda where everything starts for us," Carpenter tells NPR's Arun Rath.

A trio of parabolic microphones arranged around home plate captures that sound. "[They're] those big dishes that you see on the sideline of football games," Carpenter explains. "We have three of those behind the plate, one on each side — a left and a right stereo pair of those — and then one in the center to capture more of the umpire sound, and maybe the pitcher."

Or the batter, like Eric Hosmer telling the umpire that a pitch was "down" outside of the strike zone.

But there's a lot more going on in a baseball game than the action at home plate. Carpenter and his team set up around 80 microphones around the rest of the stadium to catch as much sound as possible.

"It's challenging in that every baseball stadium is different," he says. "So when we go into a place, you're presented with sometimes a completely different situation."

One example: the bullpens. For pitchers warming up in the Royals' Kauffman Stadium, the bullpens are tucked behind the outfield walls. It's easy for Carpenter to find quiet places to place his microphones. But in the Giants' AT&T Park, the bullpens are right out on the dirt, just across the foul line from the outfield and right in front of the crowd.

Another challenge is following the action as it happens, switching from microphone to microphone.

"It sometimes becomes almost like you're playing a video game," Carpenter laughs. "We have a lot of fun chasing the sound around, you know what I mean? We're really following the video. So we're listening to the director calling [the shots], you kinda get a preview of where they're going, and you try to chase the sound."

Like in the fourth game of the National League Championship Series, when the Giants were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. In the fifth inning, the Giants' Hunter Pence stole second. As soon as the catcher makes the throw, the camera angle switches to face second base, and the microphone in the bag opens up.

Occasionally, he says, the sound can inform the video. Imagine a runner is leading off at second base.

"In baseball coverage, your primary angle for the start of every pitch is from behind the pitcher, looking in at the catcher," he explains. "So you might not necessarily see [the runner]. You might see the top of the guy's head, or the shortstop holding him on base.

"Sometimes, the [shortstop] will go over and he'll be like smacking his glove a little bit, and trying to keep [the runner] on second base. And if we hear that through the microphone that we have in second base, maybe we'll open [the microphone] up. Maybe that'll make the director tell Camera 4 to widen out just a little bit more so that you can see the action."

During the game, Carpenter monitors the mix of the sound — which microphones we hear, whether those sounds come from the left or the right, how loud the crowd is.

"It's all about perspective," he says. "I'm trying to put you in the ballpark and create that same kind of atmosphere and excitement."

And sometimes, he says, he tries to subliminally divert the viewer's attention through the sound.

For instance, he says, imagine the runner is leading off first base.

"You're looking at Camera 4's perspective from center field. And we open up first base mic, and you might hear the first base coach talking to the runner leading off, saying 'You're good, you're good, you're good, back back back back!' Then, now, when that pitcher turns and wheels around to throw to first, I kinda try to collapse that sound to all down in front of you as if you're the runner diving back into first base."

Our final question: Do you ever fake it?

"Never," he says. "Never ever. That'd be cheating, you know? Baseball's still America's pastime to us, man. We wouldn't really want to cheapen it out with any of that."

Carpenter's handiwork will be on display for at least two more games — including Game 4 tonight in San Francisco.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Kansas City Royals are up two games to one on the San Francisco Giants in baseball's World Series. The teams meet again later tonight. Hard at work during each broadcast is Joe Carpenter, the in-house sound designer for Fox Sports. Carpenter and his team are the reason you can clearly hear sounds, like the amped-up Kansas City crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ROYALS FANS: Let's go Royals.

RATH: Or the scuffle around a base as a runner steals second.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Runner goes. Throw down by Pierzynsky - he's safe.

RATH: And of course, the crack of a home run, like this one by the Giants Gregor Blanco to lead off game two on Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: That's hammered into right.

JOE CARPENTER: The bat crack is really kind of where everything starts for us. And to capture that sound, we use parabolic microphones, those big dishes that you see on the sideline of football games. We have three of those behind the plate, one on each side, a left and a right, kind of a stereo pair of those. And then one in the center to capture more of the umpire's sound and maybe the pitcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: On the outside corner. You can hear Hosmer say it's down. It's a 1-1 count.

CARPENTER: It's challenging in that every baseball stadium's different. So when we go into a place, you're presented with sometimes a completely different situation. But these three parabolic dishes that focus on the plate, sometimes with the right humidity and temperature, you will actually hear the ball traveling through the air. And you'll definitely hear the essence of the ball on the bat.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Strike one.

RATH: Roughly how many microphones do you have altogether? How many inputs do you have coming in?

CARPENTER: I'd say altogether, probably around 80 microphones.

RATH: Wow. And for directing that - for coordinating that during the show, I've got to imagine that's incredibly complicated because like you said, you're switching around 80 different inputs.

CARPENTER: It sometimes becomes almost like you're playing a video game. My crew and I are also fans of the game of baseball. So it's kind of like - we have a lot of fun chasing the sound around, you know. I mean, we're really following the video. So we're listening to the director calling, you know, you kind of get a preview of where they're going and you're trying to chase the sound. And we're, you know, we're kind of just having fun.

Occasionally, something will happen that maybe you don't see but you'll hear it first, and then we'll kind of make the director take a shot of it because it's so prevalent. A good example would be like a guy's leading off of second base. And in baseball coverage, your primary angle for the start of every pitch is from behind the pitcher looking in at the catcher. So you might not necessarily see - you might see the top of the guy's head or the shortstop holding him on base. Sometimes the guy will go over and he'll be, like, smacking his glove a little bit and like, you know, trying to keep that guy to, you know, hold him on second base. And if we hear that through the microphone that we have at second base, maybe we'll open it up. Maybe that will make the director tell camera four to widen out just a little bit more so that you can see the action or he'll cut to a shot from behind center so you see the guy holding him on.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: He's more on his toes here.

RATH: One of the things I've noticed when I'm watching the games and I put it through my home stereo system is that you guys seem to have this set up for surround sound. When you're thinking about the home experience, how are you trying to set that up to create a kind of 3-D, acoustical experience?

CARPENTER: Yeah, I'll tell you that's kind of the biggest challenge for me is it's all about perspective. I'm trying to put you in the ballpark and create that same kind of atmosphere and excitement, and sometimes subliminally divert your attention through the sound, like, maybe a good example of that would be a runner's leading off first base. You're looking at camera four's perspective from center field. And we open up first base mic. And you might hear the first base coach talking to the runner leading off, saying you're good, you're good, you're good - back, back, back, back.

And then now when that pitcher turns and wheels around to throw to first, I kind of try and collapse that sound all down to in front of you, as if you're the runner diving back in to first base.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

RATH: Do you ever use any fake sound, anything that's not actually live there from the game?

CARPENTER: Never. Never ever. That'd be cheating, you know? Baseball's like a really - still America's pastime to us, man. We wouldn't really want to cheapen it out with any of that.

RATH: That's Joe Carpenter. He's the sound designer behind the World Series on Fox. Joe, thanks so much.

CARPENTER: Yeah, thanks a lot, great speaking with you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: That's hammered into left off the bat of Infante. It's gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.