Canned society

Like canned laughter, simulated football crowd noise is an attempt to provide an imagined atmosphere for the consumer. But does it really just end up drawing attention to the absence of social life?

As I listen to my radio I can't quite shake the feeling that I'm being tricked. When the football returned to radio and TV there was a large gap where the crowd used to be. The stadium from which they were broadcasting was almost silent. These sporting moments were left with no atmosphere and none of the ebb and flow of noise that accompanies the rhythms of the game. A dilemma for the broadcasters: to acknowledge this gap and leave the broadcast without crowd noise or, alternatively, to add something to fill the void. The problem: neither sounds quite right - the silence is disconcerting and crowds are hard to mimic.

As the season draws to a close, we have had some weeks to acclimatise to the sonic measures they have taken. From what I've heard on radio and TV, broadcasters have largely opted for some fake crowd effects on their main match feed. On one commercial radio station they even keep reminding the listener that they have added crowd noise, informing us that a more natural version can be listened to on their website. It seems that they were a little conflicted of how best to represent these games to their audience.

I'm reminded of canned laughter. Many will remember those old comedies with fake laughtracks. They were supposed to sound like there was a live audience laughing at each supposed joke. Intended as a psychological trick, the viewing audience were being nudged to laugh along. TV schedules were dotted with quite obvious fake hilarity. These prerecorded laughs never quite sat right and tended to draw attention to their own presence rather than seamlessly populating the programme with a sense of spontaneous reaction. Canned laughter lacked the rhythm and flow, the start and end points were abrupt, it was often jarringly repetitious, and instinctively the type of laughter didn't quite match the timing or tone of the particular joke. Even at its peak, canned laughter was not all that popular.

Starting on radio before moving to TV in the 1950s, the laugh track provoked mixed responses, yet it was still widely used through to the 1980s and into the 1990s. Although, from the 80s onwards its use was reduced before being largely abandoned by the realist type comedy that became popular in the 2000s. The enforced lack of studio audiences in recent weeks has led to canned laughter being considered again as a way of giving some atmosphere to remotely produced comedy panel shows.

The added soundtrack to football matches is, of course, far more sophisticated than the simple laughter track. Some of the crowd noise being used is a product of a partnership between the Premier League and the video game company EA Sports (who make the popular football game series Fifa). A match has an individual operative drawing on sampled sounds to try to replicate match noises and to integrate them into the action. An article in GQ on this live sountracking captures a flavour of this process:

‘Sat at a desk with three monitors and several Midi soundboards – a device with volume controls and buttons that are typically used to helm digital musical instruments – sound engineer Adam Peri had a split second to react. He turned up a dial marked “whistles” (scribbled in black biro on white stick-on labels) and tinkered with buttons on a touchpad labelled “ohhh”.’

The match soundtrack is something that is actively mixed. Clearly there is an aim to make this simulated crowd follow the action, yet, trapped into a responsive mode, it remains predictable and flat. The use of a games manufacturer is also interesting, in that it further blurs the line between simulation and actuality in sport - with databases of player metrics already shared across the two and esports attracting huge followings.

It may be a significant technical development on the much cruder canned laughter, with matches soundtracked by samples of previous fixtures and including instant and varied sounds for specific match events, but watching or listening to the football leaves a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance (especially when the camera zooms out to reveal empty seats). You can hear its presence, but you know there is no crowd. The sounds aren't quite matching crowd behaviour correctly. It's a crowd without reaction - a seascape with no waves. The organic and varied nature of crowd noise isn't there. The actions of the game provoke only limited and circumscribed responses. Nor does this imagined crowd try to influence the players, as sports crowds often do.

The sports writer Jonathan Liew has concluded:

‘a football crowd is more than a sound effect. It’s a living, breathing organism. It’s a collective enterprise in which individual voices can still be heard. It rises and falls and seethes and sneers and occasionally leaves 10 minutes early to beat the traffic. It doesn’t simply react to what it sees; it’s an active participant, often scenting a shift in momentum long before it occurs on the pitch.’

However technically sophisticated the soundtrack, the artifice can't be escaped. It is a pretence of normality, rather than an acceptance that things are different.

In some ways these simulated football crowds have been more disconcerting than simply hearing the emptiness of the stadium. Society can't be canned, doing so only draws attention to what is missing.