Keeping Score

The Science of Sound: How Seattle Got So Darn Loud

Canopies, aluminum benches and bunched-up seating helped explain the home-field advantage for the Seahawks

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Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images

Members of the Seattle Seahawks return to the field after a rain delay during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Sept. 15, 2013

If the Seattle Seahawks go on to win the Super Bowl, players and fans should take the championship parade right down to the home stadium, where they can toast a couple of canopies.

On Sunday night, fans at CenturyLink Field in Seattle broke the Guinness World Record for the highest peak decibel level — 136.6 decibels — ever recorded at a stadium. Since Seattle’s stadium opened in 2002, its raucous fan base, dubbed the 12th Man, has given opponents fits. Players have trouble hearing the quarterback’s instructions, which can cause delay-of-game penalties and generally throw an offense out of sync. The noise clearly bugged the San Francisco 49ers. Seattle walloped the defending NFC champs on Sunday night, 29-3.

While the vocal cords of Seahawks fans surely deserve credit for piercing ears, so do the designers of CenturyLink Field. Even though it’s a mostly open-air stadium, the building traps noise. While CenturyLink Field isn’t domed, two huge canopies — one on the east side of the stadium, the other on the west side — cover 70% of the seats. This design has two benefits. One, it protects fans from Seattle’s famous rain. And two, it pumps up the volume.

(MORE: Why I’m Abstaining From the NFL)

“The main thing that creates noise is any type of overhanging structure that reflects sounds back into the stadium,” says Andrew Barnard, a research associate at Penn State‘s Applied Research Laboratory, specializing in structural acoustics. What’s more, Seattle’s stadium has two additional overhangs, functioning as the bottom of the upper seating bowl, that cover the lower seating bowls. “Sound also reflects off the bottom of the upper deck, and back onto the field,” says Barnard.

The curves on these canopies are also key. “They are large parabolas,” says Bill Stewart, managing partner at SSA Acoustics, which is based in Seattle. Stewart was responsible for measuring the record-setting noise on Sunday night. “The curvature and angles of the canopies act to focus the sound energy onto the playing field, producing higher noise levels.”

These physics also change behavior. “Fans get caught up in it,” says Stewart. “They experience an intense increase in the sound levels that they would not normally experience in an outdoor environment, and are energized by it.” As a result, they scream even louder.

Over a decade ago, Seahawks owner Paul Allen told Jon Niemuth, the architect of CenturyLink Field, to model his team’s new home after Husky Stadium, home of the University of Washington. Allen wanted that crazed, college feel. So at CenturyLink field, the seats are relatively close to the field. In the north end zone, the design team created rows of aluminum bleachers. “When fans stomp on them,” Niemuth says, “things get really loud.”

Niemuth, however, did not anticipate the sound effects of the curved canopies. He calls this result a “happy accident.”

The NFL is known as a copycat league; if one tactic works, other teams start using it. But teams haven’t rushed to mimic Seattle’s stadium model. “Not every client starts at a place where they want world-record sound,” says Niemuth, whose firm — AECOM Ellerbe Becket — helped design Ford Field in Detroit, and renovate Soldier Field and Lambeau Field. Just look at some of the newer football stadiums, like Ford Field, Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. They’re massive. But the seats aren’t on top of the players.

They don’t scream like Seattle.

MORE: Seahawks Dismantle 49ers; Manning Proves Big Brother Plays Best

19 comments
ncondodina
ncondodina

My take...yes, I'm sure it's loud, but all the attention on it and the gushing of joe buck and friends about it is kind of phony.  As stated  in the article...the stadium is as loud as it is due to stadium design.  Does the record equate to Seattle having the best fans?  Personally, I don't think so.  My reasoning, I went to a game there in '03.  Seahawks weren't very good and the stadium was only about 3/4 full.  About 15000 or so of the fans were for the visiting team.


If Seattle fans were so great and die hard and loyal, there wouldn't have been so many empty seats because of a down year...and there MOST CERTAINLY would not be room for 15000 visiting team fans!


Nothing against Seattle or their fans, or the stadium designed with inherent advantage...it's just gets a bit old listening to all the gushing over how loud the fans are.  It's kind of bogus.  Put them in any other stadium and they would be no louder than any other fans.



elliottatk
elliottatk

Not to mention why don't you Guys complain about Kansas City. They broke Seattle's sound record yet none of you say oh well they have and unfair advantage.

elliottatk
elliottatk

Oh please all you guys are butthurt, you guys are just jealous, you can't accept that Seahawks are a good team, so you blame there good fortune on statistics on their stadium. I mean if Seahawks had a bad home record would you all be complaining? And last I checked the fans are the ones who actually make the noise not the stadium. So just accept that the fact that Seattle is a good team, because if they weren't one of you wouldn't be complaining. Also having been to Seahawk games no one is worried about damaging there hearing. So instead complaining how about you try and be louder when your at your stadium.

EdNoneofyourbiz
EdNoneofyourbiz

In my opinion, rules should be implemented to prevent such an advantage.


A lesser team can have the advantage over a better team (don't get me wrong, the Seahawks are very good).


Certainly, there should be some home-field advantage.


However, this advantage is almost like implementing a rule that the visiting team members aren't allowed to talk.


It's an "equipment" advantage, analogous to not allowing the visiting team to wear cleats.


Perhaps a better analogy would be a rule allowing Seattle fans, and only Seattle fans, to use megaphones (at least a certain percentage of fans). The megaphones would be more obvious and deliberate, but the net effect and advantage would be the same.


The unfairness would simply be more obvious.


Not all stadiums, or ball parks for that matter, are identical.


Field conditions (and in the case of baseball, park "geometry") differ.


However, both teams experience the advantages and disadvantages of these differences.


That isn't the case here.


It's a very large "built-in" advantage.


This is especially true because, the more "important" the game, the greater the advantage. It's no coincidence that the record was set vs the 49ers. And the advantage is even greater during the post-season.


It's unfair.



DavidAllen1017
DavidAllen1017

Well as of 10/13/13arrowhead proudly took that record 137.5.COMPLETLY open feild straight fans vocals. With a 6-0 w/lI say fill that stadium with chiefs fans and we would kill that record. We have always been a loud stadium because of our fans.

Seattle has a great fan base, but I we have a GREAT fan base.

bothandneithernor
bothandneithernor

Why is this written as if 136 decibels is a good thing? That is a dangerous level of sound which can cause hearing loss, especially when exposure is prolonged. Dangerous for the players and fans alike. From OSHA's website: "At 100 dBA, NIOSH recommends less than 15 minutes of exposure per day."

PopeBenedict
PopeBenedict

Haters gonna hate. Plenty of dome stadiums in the league that still can't match the sound at the Clink. And so what if our owner decided he wanted to help foster an awesome game day atmosphere with architecture. Nothing is out there to stop any of the other teams in the league from trying to recreate what we do up here. The fact remains the fans are the difference maker.

AlexHayden
AlexHayden

What makes this so funny is that Seattle fans think they're the ones responsible for the noise.


You put some real sports fan in there, from lets say Chicago, Kansas City, or Green Bay and people would leave that tiny stadium of theirs completely deaf. 


I was listening to some yuppie Radio host on Seattle radio talking about "well why don't your fans rise to the occasion to be loud as well" lol dumb### actually believes its the fans. It amazes me.

DaveDavis
DaveDavis

I agree with the earlier comment, if OSHA monitored the level of sounds in this stadium and treated the owners like any other business, they would have to provide hearing protection to the customers, and probably be fined for not remediating the noise levels permanently.

Why not just allow loud explosions in other stadiums to raise the bar higher, you could use propane cannons, and fire dozens of them,  seconds before the visiting team snapped the ball.

Would that be fair?

I think not, but it puts the problem into perspective.

AlanHall
AlanHall

Plus, Seattle fans are excited about this season. It's about more than just the acoustics of the stadium.

rpearlston
rpearlston

We all know that, for example, a fast food restaurant tends to be very noisy, no matter the clientele at the time, and that fine dining establishments are quiet.  

Now, in your head, look around at the decor of both.  In a fast food restaurant, you've got mainly metal and plastic for the tables, chairs and other assorted furnishings.  Their walls are either bare or have flyers, old posters, etc as their decorative touches.  THese things all cause sound to bounce around.  In that fine dining establishment, there will be a carpeted floor, not an uncovered one.  The chairs will be padded and the tabled covered with tablecloths because both help to absorb sounds.  THere could well be heavy curtains instead of bare windows, and again. the cloth will help to absorb sound.  Both are designed for specific purposes, and both account for sound in different ways because of that.

So what does that have to do with this stadium?  It's simple - there are ways to help absorb sound.  In this case, the simplest, at least technically, might be to line the underside of each of those canopies and overhangs with padded cloth, which will serve to dampen the noise.  It's that simple.  But it wasn't done.

zaglossus
zaglossus

They should remodel the stadium. No one should have to submitted to decibel levels that high which are actually unhealthy. The fans who take the loudness as a point of pride are dunces.

jrh0341
jrh0341

@elliottatk No one is criticizing seattle for having a good team, but we can definitely criticize the acoustics of your stadium when is YOU GUYS running around bragging about how loud you are, to the point of leasing A&Ms 12th man slogan (yes, you actually pay royalties to use it) acting like your fan base is sooooo amazing.  You've done the equivalent of handing your own fans bullhorns, then patting them and yourselves on the back for being loud.  

EdNoneofyourbiz
EdNoneofyourbiz

@PopeBenedict : Nonsense. The stadium is the difference maker.


It's not "fostering an atmosphere" that is unfair. It's the built-in advantage. Might as well allow Seattle fans, and only Seattle fans, to use megaphones.


As for there not being anything to stop the other teams from trying to recreate what you do, there is a matter of expense, the fact that stadiums need to be designed "from scratch" to optimize advantage.


As for the "happy accident", I don't believe it. It's obvious that such a parabola will have the effect it does.


No, it's an unfair advantage. I consider any wins by the Seahawks to have a HUGE asterisk.


Any "success" they have (including reaching the Superbowl), I won't "credit" them with.


They'll be the only team in the league for which, to me, any "success" is meaningless.


They are an excellent team, as attested by their road play.


However, the huge "equipment" advantage they have renders any home "wins" meaningless, as far as I'm concerned.












MatthewScheer
MatthewScheer

@zaglossus The Clink is no different than a dome, in fact a dome with complete coverage will trap MORE sound.  The difference has and always will be the 12th man.  Your point about loudness as a point of pride, ridiculous.  Crowd noise is an integral of both American football and European football.  Fans love it, and those who are worried use ear protection.  For the Guinness attempt, they passed out earplugs.  Your entire argument is rendered moot by the fact that people can protect their hearing by a $0.50 pair of foam inserts.  

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