Raise the Song: Inside Penn State's Plans for a New Kind of Whiteout

Sweet Caroline? Livin' on a Prayer? They'll be at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's Whiteout game against Ohio State, even if fans won't be.
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Penn State's Beaver Stadium might be nearly empty Saturday, but it won't be silent. Lion roars, cowbells and "We Ares" will ring once again, delivering Penn State at least the modest feel and sound of a 'Whiteout' against No. 3 Ohio State.

Those attending might even get to sing along with Neil Diamond or Bon Jovi.

"It's not meant for a home-field advantage," said P.J. Mullen, Penn State's director of athletics marketing. "It's meant for a home feel."

Penn State will host its first fan-free Whiteout on Saturday, when the Buckeyes visit for their fifth consecutive prime-time game at Beaver Stadium. The Whiteout is Penn State's signature home game, a showcase for the university and an event normally worth a 10-point advantage for the home team, according to former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.

This year's version will be different, of course, with only a few hundred family members allowed in a stadium whose attendance has swelled above 110,000 nine times, including the last three Whiteout games. Still, Penn State wants to deliver a traditional home game in some sense, particularly regarding sound.

So the Penn State Blue Band will perform its pre-game show virtually. Zombie Nation will play the team's entrance through the stadium tunnel, as will The Lion King soundtrack.

Mullen and his gameday staff have compiled a playlist of crowd reactions, favorite game songs and some surprises for those watching in-person and at home. Sing-alongs? Fan favorites Sweet Caroline and Livin' on a Prayer are possible.

Further, the athletic department worked with a group of sound-design students in Penn State's School of Theatre to source and edit audio ranging from crowd noise to the Blue Band's mid-game cuts to a host of Penn State cheers. A professor of sound design even recorded audio of the distinctive cowbells heard across Beaver Stadium.

The experience won't be the same, and head coach James Franklin doesn't want it to be. But Penn State insists a version of the show will go on.

"It's our responsibility as the gameday presenters to make sure we're doing everything we can to bring that juice," Mullen said.

Mullen, whose job title tasks him with directing the atmosphere and in-game flow at Beaver Stadium, has worked on gameday operations since 2014. His staff seeks flourishes for every game but went above at last year's Whiteout against Michigan.

Mullen asked former players Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and Grant Haley to shoot videos for the stadium scoreboard. During pregame, some students asked Mullen to play a Jonas Brothers song. Mullen went one better, calling a band representative for a video. Thirty minutes later, Joe Jonas was asking, "What's up Beaver Stadium?" on the big screen.

The pregame rush led to a Whiteout first: Michigan called a timeout before its opening play from scrimmage because of the sound.

That moment helped lead Penn State to a 28-21 win over Michigan in an environment that, Frankin said, fans need to experience first-hand. "And the people that do, usually fall in love," he said.

But Franklin is reluctant about trying to replicate that atmosphere in an empty stadium Saturday, because he knows the program can't. Other teams can't as well, though they try.

Mullen said that "there's not a game that goes by" that a staff member from an opposing team emails after a visit to Beaver Stadium asking, "Our coaches want to know how you did that."

"I would make the argument that I think that you want to avoid that," Franklin said of trying to recreate the Whiteout experience. "... As we all know, because there are programs all over the country that are trying to recreate what we have in Beaver Stadium for Whiteouts, it's hard to do under normal conditions. So you know for us, we're just going to embrace it. This is what the 2020 season is."

Instead, Penn State has offered fans opportunities to purchase stadium cutouts and to send video cheers for use on the big screen. The Nittanyville student section will make its usual collection of player signs to drape over the field-level walls.

Regarding sound, Penn State has some creative plans to fill the stadium at a lower volume. Beaver Stadium has reached deafening noise levels during Whiteout games. In 2007, Penn State researchers recorded a peak sound level of 122 decibels, which they said was loud enough to cause ear-drum pain.

The acoustic team also found that, during Penn State's offensive series, the quarterback could be heard calling plays 32 feet away. Ohio State's quarterback, meanwhile, could be heard only 1.5 feet away.

On Saturday, Beaver Stadium will feature a general crowd "murmur" supplied by the Big Ten. Each team received the same track that included about 90 minutes of crowd noise which can be played no louder than 70 dB. Teams can play celebration sounds at 90 dB.

Curtis Craig, Penn State associate professor of sound design, compared 70 dB to the sound of a small vacuum cleaner. He also called the Big Ten's crowd-noise soundtrack "boring," so he and his students sought ways to enhance the single-track recording within the Big Ten's parameters.

Craig, a theater sound designer, became fascinated by the piped-in crowd noises of baseball and football games. Since his BFA students had no shows to produce this semester, Craig volunteered them to help create the alternate stadium sound.

The students recorded the Blue Band's pregame show at Beaver Stadium in early October, staging microphones across 70 yards of the field. They also curated a playlist of varying levels of celebratory "ooohs" and "aaaahs." Some sounds came from video games, others from recordings of past Penn State games.

Some of the audio required a careful listen to edit for, well, language.

"It's tough to find them without the drunk person in the foreground," Craig said. "Not to say that everybody at a football game is drinking."

For Penn State, though Saturday won't be the same, the program still has expectations. Mullen promised plenty of chants from the "Seven Nation Army" song, along with the traditional sounds of "Fight on State" and the Blue Band horns.

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth said he wants to hear the Lion King clip before kickoff. Mullen was happy to oblige.

Finally, as usual, players and coaches will sing the alma mater postgame, win or lose. For receiver Jahan Dotson, one accompanying sound would be perfect.

"The victory bell," he said. "That's all I want to hear."

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