Theoretically, making a stadium filled with people watching a fictional sports team shouldn’t be hard. In a vacuum, hooking up a few well-placed microphones amidst an actual rowdy, responsive cluster of fans should get you all the cheers and whistles and shouts and “awwww”s to plug in wherever needed.
“One of the catches with just going to a sporting event and trying to record the stuff wild is there’s so much music at these events,” Findley told IndieWire. “In the world of football, these clubs have copyrighted their chants and these chants are in these crowds continuously throughout the game. So it’s hard to just snag a section of a real-life crowd to use for something else because there’s music buried in it.”
Another main reason that the show can’t simply insert a single chunk of an existing crowd is that these particular sounds are part of the evolution of the story. Jason Sudeikis stars in the series as Ted Lasso himself, an earnest American football coach brought in to unwittingly sabotage a flailing football club. As AFC Richmond faces various clubhouse challenges, those dynamics spill out onto the pitch in the various matches that take place on screen.
Even if much of what happens in “Ted Lasso” is shaped by what happens away from it, the in-game action reflects a lot of those particular rises and falls. So while the intended effect is to have an ambience that sounds like an actual British stadium, there’s some strategic shaping being done inside those parameters.
“Jason Sudeikis really made sure every scene was continuing the arc of the story. He would say, ‘Maybe this looks like it’s a big deal, but let’s hold back a little bit and give it a place to go,'” Findley said. “Sometimes there are two or three events back-to-back-to-back. In a real stadium, that initial build of the first one would become this big overall wash across all of these events. But for telling the story to the people at home, we still had to try to make a delineation between each of these moments to say, ‘That was a big deal…Oops, this is a bigger deal…Oh my gosh, this is the biggest deal!’ So there is a little bit of this pulse on it that wouldn’t wouldn’t necessarily take place on the day.”
Knowing how much room there is to evolve starts with knowing how many people are intended to be in this stadium. Each crowd-size order of magnitude comes with its own cautionary steps.
“25 people can sound like 100 people and 100 people who are not very busy doesn’t sound like a lot. Once you hit 500 people, you could maybe get up to 2,500 people before you tell the difference. So, you know, once you hit the 20-to-30,000 people mark, you really need to go to 100,000 before you can say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more people in the stands,'” Findley said. “So it’s the big leaps where you start losing the articulation of the craft. It starts becoming a thunderous wave as opposed to being able to understand what anybody’s saying. With 20,000 people you’re not going to understand either, but you can tell there’s some granularity to the number of bodies that are there.”
The product of a team that also includes dialog editor Bernard Weiser and sound effects editor Kip Smedley, the “Ted Lasso” crowd ended up using some pre-existing crowd sounds as the skeleton for the atmosphere, with re-recording mixers Ryan Kennedy and Sean Byrne using some basic principles in the final mix orchestration to help accent the back-and-forth in-game rhythm.
“I’ll have a 200-person layer, a 1,000-person layer, and then as as a supporting bed under everything I have a 20,000 person layer that becomes the ambience that never goes away. As the game comes up and goes down, I can use those smaller crowds to do those swells and get in and out of a swell that 30,000 people would never move that fast,” Findley said. “The mixers can start putting those 30,000 people up in those upper speakers to give some depth, which opens up the front speakers for the the smaller portions of the crowd. We can actually do something more to manipulate those smaller crowds and give that texture.”
There are some similarities between the ways sound and visuals of a fictional crowd are put together. A director can film a section of actors collected in a single section and still give the impression of a raucous, packed stadium. One specific hurdle facing the audio component of building a crowd is that repetition is as dangerous as it is, at times, necessary.
“I’ll go into the library and just spend hours building, basically a do-all library of the core crowds that I’m going to use across the board, so there’s consistency,” Findley said. “One problem you get with crowds is it’s all white noise. Crossing in and out of different crowds, you can get this wash. One of the dangers of offsetting the same crowd recording from itself is that it starts to compete with itself and you’ll get a cross that you hear on a lot of live broadcasts.”
Offsetting the potential for that cross (which sounds vaguely like the entire crowd has been placed in some pulsating, echoey jar), sound teams enlist the help of a small collection of voice performers known as a loop group or a “walla” group. Not only do they serve as specific building blocks for filling in the gaps of the library sound, they replace the sound for the insert shots that’s impossible to get on the actual filming day.
“For the show, it was very important to get the closer proximity texture. As the camera pans the crowd closely and you see somebody shout, on the day that audio — if it’s even recorded at all — for the picture is not usable. So we specifically spot all these moments throughout the show after the fact to a version of the final cut and place voices in their mouths,” Findley said, explaining that due to post-production timing, a lot of those loop group records had to be done after quarantine measures had been put in place. Much of those sessions happened remotely without people in the same room.
Those same chants that make real-life libraries of ambient crowd noise so hard to use end up providing an extra layer of spice into the “Ted Lasso” on-screen fandom. Findley said that Sudeikis — also a writer, co-creator, and executive producer on the series — wanted to make sure that each team’s fans were represented in each crowd, that for every huge cheer, there are some disappointed rumblings in there as well.
But for the moments when the home team supporters direct their collective energies at one particular person (like when they all echo “You don’t know what you’re doing!”), making those chants have the signature sing-song quality required its own bit of trickery. It involved using audio recorded for the scenes when a group of AFC Richmond fans gathered in a pub are joining along with the TV action.
“They didn’t record the live stadium people singing. So to get them to sing that, there are software tools that you can use to apply the characteristics of one sound to other sounds. You can make a car engine sound like a lion or something,” Findley said. “So while they’re not literally singing, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing,’ the pulse and the pacing in the dynamics of that chant are imposed on these crowds. I can take the bar chants, layer them, mash them up, treat them with frequencies so they don’t necessarily sound like we’re still in the bar when we’re out on the field. And then that’s the forward layer, buttressed by this crowd pumping along with it.”
Many of these matches eventually hop between those two environments of the AFC Richmond “broadcast” and bar scenes. For those scenes to be effective, “Ted Lasso” also needed contributions from a convincing announcer. Fortunately, the show was able to enlist the services of NBC Sports’ Premier League lead play-by-play man Arlo White, who used his experience calling matches to add some of his own flavor.
“He’s just a fantastic human being. He’s used to being on for 90 minutes straight, but I needed him on for four hours straight. It was a marathon for him,” Findley said. “Jason and [producer] Brendan [Hunt] wanted him to put his signature on their script. So while we wanted him to call this action, they let Arlo say it in a way that Arlo would say it.”
Obviously, the challenges for “Ted Lasso” are different than a live sporting event with no predetermined outcome. Different sound designers are now being tasked with devising systems that can replicate those waves of action in the same way that Findley had time to perfect.
It may sound perilously close to the overworked maxim about jazz being the notes you don’t play, but it’s true: the most important part of getting a believable crowd sound is managing the parts in between the fireworks on the field.
“The directed and purposefully performed-for-post-production crowds are the cleanest and the intentional,” Findley said. “But what a lot of them are missing is just the standing a bed of presence of audience between plays, maybe at the seventh inning stretch, just that din of voices. That’s an interesting dynamic because right now, the crowd isn’t telling the story for us.”
“Ted Lasso” Season 1 is now available to stream on Apple TV+.