We’ve been watching empty-ballpark baseball for a couple of weeks, and getting used to the sights and sounds of the game being played without fans. The sights are something we may never get used to: Empty or advertising-covered sections of seats, jumbo cutouts of fans and former players and pets, announcers doing their best to keep up with the game despite working from home when their teams are on the road.
Among the challenges has been making baseball sound as normal as possible. That’s where Chris Tveitbakk is a big-time player.
Tveitbakk is the audio engineer who brings the noise from Target Field when the Twins are playing, working amid the ballpark sounds real and artificial to make something that sounds as interesting as it would be – and more so, sometimes – if the ballpark was filled with fans.
A few days ago, the Thief River Falls native answered questions about what it’s like to bring baseball to fans under circumstances he couldn’t have imagined.
Give us the short biography about Chris Tveitbakk:
I’ve been working in sports television since 1997, with my first mixing job at Gopher Women’s Basketball in 2002, and I started mixing the Twins in 2004. When I work Twins games, I work directly for Fox Sports North, and also mix the Timberwolves, Wild, and Gopher hockey. I’m the Union President of IATSE Local 745, which is the same union that covers Hollywood films and Broadway stage shows, and we have a contract with FSN, which pays into our union health and retirement accounts. A majority of us have been out of work since early March and there are still a lot of us who are unemployed. Fortunately, our union has covered the last two quarters of health insurance, and I’m hopeful that more of us get back to work soon. It’s been a tough time for us.
Where do you work from during games? Are you choosing sounds or is that being done by someone else? How big is the sound crew? Is that larger or smaller than for a pre-COVID game?
When I’m mixing a game, I’m following the action, creating the field effects, opening up microphones behind home plate when the batter is up, and if there’s a hit, I open up the microphone closest to where the ball goes. We have parabolic mics pointed at home plate), mics pointed at first and third base, along the outfield wall, and even in the bullpen so you can hear the pitchers warming up. (The parabolic mics are hidden inside the “TC” logo boxes against the backstop). During usual times, we also have a few crowd microphones so you can sense at home how the crowd is reacting to the action.
On top of the field effects, I have the announcers in the booth, the pregame and postgame show set announcers, as well as the roaming sideline reporter on a wireless microphone. Dick Bremer is very easy to mix, as he sounds that good in person as well. I’m also in charge of all the music that you hear before we go to commercial, as well as music played when we show edited highlights.
I typically have two audio assistants that set up all the microphones inside the building, and we usually start that process around six hours before game time. We test every microphone every day to make sure squirrels didn’t chew through the cables or some other overnight issue. Before COVID, there was typically a “Home” and a “Visitor” crew that worked from a separate TV truck. Currently, to keep numbers of people at Target Field down, we are working with one crew. The out-of-town team puts its own show together remotely.
What did you think when you first found out you’d be doing baseball in an empty stadium? Is it easier or harder than a normal broadcast?
I had been unemployed for 4 1/2 months, so it was a great relief. I had mixed feelings (no pun intended) about the concept of doing a game with no fans. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I have to admit I was a little excited to think about the fact that I could pick up the sounds of the game better without all the fan noise. There has certainly been some of that, with chatter between players and umpires, and the catches in the outfield have been easier to pick up. I don’t miss the occasional fan yelling into one of my bat-crack mics or pounding on the glass at a hockey game. But in the end, I hope we can get fans back in the stands when it’s safe to do so.
What was the home opener like for you and you crew?
Having a home opener in late July was a strange feeling, but an overwhelming relief. At least we were not worried about getting snowed out this year! The day before our return was an emotional roller coaster for me. Sort of that "day before back-to-school feeling", excited to see your friends and get back to work while depressed about it feeling like the end of summer vacation.
What did you learn from the preseason game and season-opening series in Chicago about working an empty stadium?
I was able to mix the Twins-Cubs exhibition game at the start of this season, so I felt somewhat prepared for when the Twins came home and it was time to go “live” on FOX Sports North. I learned that it was very important to get all the feeds up and tested as early as possible, because things get a lot more stressful as we get closer to game time. Every day at the stadium is like an hour glass. You flip it over when you show up for the day, and you have to be ready before all the sand runs out at game time. The COVID-19 setup for us isn’t too different from how we set up for a traditional home game, but now with a lot more safety protocols and social distancing. FSN installed glass in the broadcast booth between Dick and the analyst, our sideline reporters interview players on a headset and the whole crew is masked up all the time.
Describe the biggest success you’ve had so far in your career? Anything you’d want to take back?
My biggest career success is easy to point to, because it was marked with a big gold trophy named “Emmy.” I was part of an NFL Network crew that worked Super Bowl coverage in Minneapolis, and we won a technical achievement National Emmy. I also got to mix part of President Obama’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte for the NBC pool feed, and knowing how many people were listening to that was certainly a rush. There are probably moments I’d want back, but that’s just not possible in live sports, so I don’t dwell on it and can’t think of anything immediately. There are also jobs that I’ve probably turned down that I regretted later, but I’m also happy I’m able to stay home, mix Minnesota sports, and sleep in my own bed most nights.
Virtual sound seems to be accepted. How do you feel about the virtual fans on FOX’s national telecasts and ESPN’s NBA telecasts?
I think the virtual fans I’ve seen on FOX broadcasts are done well. It seems virtual sound has been accepted. It’s pretty cool to see the role technology has played in everything during this pandemic — the months of e-learning our kids have done, the Zoom style family meetings and happy hours that have happened and now virtual fans and artificial crowd noise at the ballpark. It’s pretty amazing!