From EA to the NHL: How synthetic audio is helping tell story of the game

Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom makes miraculous sprawling kick save to keep the Canucks in the lead of Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.

New camera angles, giant screens, fluorescent lighting around the rink framing the main event – hockey’s got a new look this summer.

Fans at home have no doubt noticed it sounds a little different, too.

With the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating the possibility of proceeding with fans in attendance, the NHL decided to bring in some help in the form of synthetic audio in an effort to create a more normal atmosphere.

If it feels like the players are living in a real-life video game, you’re not far off. All that audio, aside from the organic stuff – skates on ice, pucks on sticks, chirps on opponents – is supplied by EA Sports’ NHL division, makers of NHL ’20 and the upcoming NHL ’21.

“What you’re hearing inside the real-life games right now are the exact same sounds that we use in our product,” said David Pritchett, presentation designer at EA Sports’ NHL franchise headquarters in Vancouver.

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As the “vision holder” for the video game product’s visual and audible elements and overall presentation, Pritchett was a major driving force in creating the audio hockey fans have been hearing since 24 return-to-play teams set out in their quest for the Stanley Cup earlier this month.

Upon seeing how EA’s FIFA division supplied in-game sound for the return of the Premier League in June, the NHL reached out to Pritchett’s team with a question: “What opportunity is there for NHL to do something similar?”

While the video game relies on artificial intelligence to trigger a series of audio reactions programmed to be at the ready at all times, applying that same audio to real-life sports means doing it manually — with an audio operator located at the rink and manipulating the synthetic sound in real time.

Where soccer’s sounds come in rolling waves, slowly building to a crescendo as the beautiful game unfolds on an expansive sea of green, hockey provides a much greater challenge with its fast, frenetic pace and unpredictability. (Make it playoff hockey in the year 2020, put it in a bubble, and anything can happen.)

Like every aspect of the NHL’s unique return-to-play setup, plans between EA Sports and the NHL came together quickly over the course of about a month and a half of meetings, mock-ups, test-runs, and fine-tuning – done remotely and via Zoom, of course.

“There’s a fine line there, where we want something that sounds authentic, but we need to be careful with that,” Pritchett said. “What we’re really doing is helping with the storytelling of the game.”

Working in EA’s favour was the NHL’s desire to create a more neutral in-game atmosphere, with both sides getting a home-team feel as far as crowd reactions and goal horns go.

“The NHL made it very clear that they don’t want it to be something that’s kind of in-your-face, and I totally support that as well,” he said. “They use it more as a background tool, just to add a little bit of something so that we’re not constantly reminded that we’re in this COVID era, I suppose. And I think that’s great.”

The NHL also wanted to keep things positive – i.e., more cheers than jeers.

“There were things that we knew we didn’t want, like booing on referee calls,” Pritchett explained. “We wanted to keep it positive, for sure – that’s the number one thing – but we also didn’t want to be in this weird situation where it felt like the NHL was making commentary on the reffing in the games.”

(Hockey Twitter will look after that part.)

So, what’s in a game? It starts with the general crowd noise, the audible anticipation, as the baseline sound of every game’s broadcast — that comes in the form of a three-minute audio loop, mimicking the atmosphere of a rink full of excited fans and void of any “audio landmarks” that would stand out.

“If you listen really, really closely, it’s like this mix of close-up fans that you can actually hear reacting to the play plus the 17,000 fans at the same time,” said Pritchett.

Then there are shot reactions – “Literally, I’ve written down in my notes here: ‘oohs and aahs,’” Pritchett said with a laugh. These match up with goals, saves, or misses, with every possible reaction coming in at varying voracities, from a glove save in the first play to a Game 7 overtime winner with Lord Stanley on the line. There’s also applause for a nice play or save, and even a fight loop for the rowdy fans (not) in attendance.

As much as it sounds like Pritchett’s team and the league have got it down to a science – for every action, there is an equal and augmented reaction – it turns out it’s actually more of an art.

“When we were in discussions with the NHL as to what type of person should be handling the hardware and doing this in real time during the games, we stressed to them the importance of having somebody that was more artistically oriented as opposed to technical,” Pritchett said. “This is not a technical tool – this is an artistic tool.”

The tool he’s talking about is called the Ableton Push 2, operating a system called Ableton Live.

“It’s typically meant for DJs. It’s more of a musical tool, it’s meant for live-mixing, on the fly, at clubs and things like that and it’s intended to be easy to use and super intuitive,” said Pritchett. “The idea is that it becomes so intuitive for the operators that they’ll have one hand on that piece of hardware and not even have to look at it while they’re watching the game … clicking buttons and be using rotary dials as it happens, almost like a musical instrument.”

The result is a symphony of sounds that make up a hockey game. And while it may seem like there’s an entire orchestra behind the audibles, it turns out it’s all the work of a one-man band.

That’s where Jeff Kozak comes in. Equipped with the Ableton operating system and EA’s collection of clips, it’s Kozak who’s actually applying the sound effects in real-time to every single Western Conference game in Edmonton’s hub city, making the big game sound more like… well, the big game. (Michigan-based audio operator Matt Coppedge is doing the same role for every Eastern Conference game in Toronto’s hub.)

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Sound is second-nature to Kozak, whose extensive musical experience began when he first started playing piano at a young age and grew as he took up the violin, performing in symphonies and on stage for about 12 years before transitioning to the technical side of things.

Without knowing it, you’ve heard Kozak’s contributions to hockey broadcasts before – over the course of his 31-year career, the freelance sound mixer has traveled wherever hockey goes, helping bring thousands of hockey games (including All-Star Games, outdoor classics, and Stanley Cup Finals) to life on the small screen.

“I know what the building’s supposed to sound like in between play. I know what the crowd reaction is going to be on certain aspects of the play – a great body check, a fabulous save, a puck sliding by an open net super slowly,” Kozak said. “I was really actually invigorated by the chance to do this.”

Kozak, who’s used to being tucked away in the sound suite of a technical production truck, is now located up – waaay up – at the press box level of Edmonton’s Rogers Place where normally a commentator and analyst would watch and call the game.

This new vantage point has forced him to re-think how he watches the game he’s made a career in, in order to get fully in sync with the ebb and flow of narrating a hockey game through the collective gasps and roars in place of the 18,500 fans that would typically fill the seats at the home of the Oilers.

He’s used to listening to a flurry of other voices through his headset – commentators, producers, directors, fellow sound technicians. Now, his focus is solely on the dozen players battling on the icy stage below him.

“They tell me everything that’s going on on the ice. I can hear their dialogue up here – it’s astounding,” he added “So, I’m mixing the game live, to them, and it’s super helpful. It really is.”

In front of him throughout every game is the Ableton Push 2’s panel of 64 colour-coded buttons – eight rows of eight, with dials above each row to adjust the volume and intensity of each sound and reaction.

Kozak was able to configure the grid to his own preference like a personalized, colourful Rubik’s cube of a keyboard, all lit up come game time and ready to be played as soon as the players set foot on the ice.

“I can load that with whatever sounds I want in a way where I can make it easy for my hand just to rest on a button and I know that my index finger is a cheer or my thumb is a goal or my pinky is different sound, and I can colour-code all that. And then with my left hand, I have all kinds of different crowd intensity samples – so, as play is moving up the ice, I’m making it louder just like people would cheer a rush up the ice in a real crowd,” Kozak explained. “I’m trying to replicate that, but not too much because I still have to be conscious of the fact that I am sweetening the game, I’m not trying to re-create the crowd. The game is dictating to us what it should sound like.”

Kozak didn’t have much time to prepare – he learned about the job opportunity just a few weeks before traveling to Edmonton from his home base near Peterborough and, once settled inside Edmonton’s bubble, he received the fully-loaded hardware and software just two days before the puck dropped on the first exhibition game.

For two days, he called up old hockey games on YouTube, studying the rise and fall of the ambient sound and reactions, recording those games using his own applied audio, and then listening back to compare.

Through that process, Kozak learned that the natural tendency is to put in too many sound effects.

“Less is more, for sure,” he noted. “There’s commentary overtop of it … the skate sounds and the sticks and the dialogue from the ice. You have to leave some room in there for everything.”

Kozak’s biggest takeaway?

“The thing I noticed right out of the gate was, because I’m used to seeing the game on a monitor in a broadcast, was how fast it is up here — it’s just so incredibly fast,” he said.

Have any plays snuck up on him?

“Well… Connor McDavid,” he said, with a laugh. “The other night, that goal under the crossbar…”

“At times, it’s very difficult to see the puck up here because you’re so high … It was up and under the crossbar, and I was trying to figure out where the puck was and it was in the net. Just an incredible goal.”

That half-second pause between the puck zipping past the goal line and Kozak’s finger releasing an eruption of fan noise from the would-be hometown crowd is something he’ll “forever remember.”

It also brought a human element to a process driven by technology.

“It is comforting to know that that does happen in real life,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s not comforting when you’re the person pushing the button.”

Now about three weeks into the action – and working up to three games a day – in Edmonton, the action has slowed down for Kozak and he’s clearly having fun with what is a “really unique opportunity.”

“As the games have gone by, it’s gotten much easier. The game’s slowed down enough that you can make the decision,” he said. “And 99.9 times you’re correct – unless it’s Connor McDavid with that backhand under the crossbar.”

There are a lot of new normals these days, and it takes some time to get used to them.

The league and its broadcasters went into this process knowing there would be room for plenty of growth and adjustments to come, and we’ve seen that already.

Prior to the real competition starting up, the idea of synthetic audio was to have it input only into the broadcast feed – not into the arena itself. That changed at the end of the exhibition games, when the NHL tried feeding it straight into the rink for the players to hear, too.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from players and officials is that they’re very happy with what they’re doing,” said Kozak. “It’s putting them in a place where they feel like things are somewhat normal. That’s probably something we’re most proud of – is the fact that we’re being transparent and neutral.”

With plenty more games on the way, expect more evolution – and more unique soundbites. Just as no two hockey games are the same, no two crowds sound exactly alike, either. Kozak, Coppedge, Pritchett and the NHL will continue to collaborate as competition progresses to bring in new sounds as the stakes get higher.

As Pritchett pointed out: “You really have to be thinking about the long game as well, over time – like, what am I going to reserve for those really big moments?”

We’ll have to wait and see. And listen.

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