The roar from Penn State's student section can reach 110 decibels. (Pat Little/AP file photo)
Penn State football is famous for its linebackers and coach Joe Paterno, but now there's an odd group of contributors behind the scenes whose playbook speaks of decibels and broadband noise metrics.
They are from the university's graduate program in acoustics, and team officials think so highly of their work that it is being used to help rearrange seat assignments at vast Beaver Stadium.
Indeed, the group's measurements will guide the positioning of the boisterous student sections to maximize on-field loudness, enhancing what team communications and branding director Guido D'Elia calls "an acoustic nightmare for the opposing team."
The proposed move wouldn't take place until next year - along with other seating changes for nonstudents, tied to their donation levels.
In the meantime, the researchers presented their results in Baltimore on Monday, at the joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Institute of Noise Control Engineering.
Their recordings, taken at a dozen locations around the 107,282-seat stadium, document an ear-shattering truth: The place already is so darned loud, it's hard to hear yourself think.
When the opposing team's quarterback is trying to call a play, the roar from the student section typically reaches 110 decibels.
When Penn State's quarterback is communicating with his teammates, on the other hand, the home crowd cooperates by quieting down about 30 decibels, said lead author Andrew Barnard, a Ph.D. candidate.
The louder noise for the other team reduces its quarterback's "effective communication distance" from 20 feet to about 1 foot, Barnard and his colleagues calculated.
When told of the research, the offensive coordinator for one opposing team said it rang true. The University of Iowa's Ken O'Keefe said his Hawkeyes had at times resorted to other means of communication when playing at Beaver Stadium, such as hand signals.
The Penn State acoustics researchers also have supplied audio recordings of in-game noise for the Nittany Lions to use in practice, so they can grow accustomed to the tumult.
The research began several years ago at the request of D'Elia, the Penn State branding director.
"Somebody mentioned what a great acoustics lab we have, and I said: 'Well, all right then. We'll put it to use,' " he recalled.
Working with professor Stephen Hambric, Barnard and his colleagues gathered data at a game in 2007 and at two games last fall, against the University of Iowa and Ohio State.
They also went to the stadium when it was empty, to gauge the relative noise contributions from spectators in different seats. The researchers used a loudspeaker broadcasting white noise to simulate the sound from an individual member of the crowd, and they moved it around to various locations.
Some results were not all that surprising. Generally speaking, people close to the field contributed more to on-field noise than those sitting farther away, and people in the upper decks were almost a nonfactor.
But an interesting quirk was found in the south end zone, which has two upper decks that reflect spectator sound out onto the field, like a concert band shell.
That reflective effect is so pronounced that patrons in the upper part of the end zone's lower deck - those sitting close to the reflective upper decks - contribute more to on-field noise than the patrons in the bottom row of the end zone, Barnard said.
The results were then used to create a mathematical model so the researchers could try out different virtual seating configurations.
Those findings have led the team to propose redistributing the student section in 2011 so it encompasses all the lower reaches of the south end zone, said D'Elia, the team official. Currently, students are located only on one side of the south end zone and on the adjoining east sidelines, well up into the stands.
Those on the sidelines do not contribute as much sound to the field as those in the end zone.
A similar reflected-sound effect was measured at the University of Michigan stadium by architecture professor Mojtaba Navvab. He found that the recent addition of skyboxes there created a wall that reflected sound from lower seats onto the field. That meant an increase of 4 to 5 decibels in on-field noise.
Then again, noise isn't everything.
At all three games where the Penn State measurements were taken, the Nittany Lions lost despite the crowd's vocal exhortations.
In the Iowa game, which the Hawkeyes won, 21-10, the home crowd's voices apparently petered out.
"I've heard stories about how loud it could be," Iowa defensive end Broderick Binns told a reporter for the Des Moines Register. "Today, we saw how quiet they can be."