The Sound of Ketchup

The story of the Heinz Field Ketchup Bottles sound-design.

Back in the summer of 2001, I was contacted by Michael Dougherty of the HJ Heinz Co. and asked to create sound and effects for some huge ketchup bottles that were being installed on the scoreboard of the newly built Heinz Field.

Back then I was headquartered at Music House, just off Grandview Avenue on top of Mt. Washington. From there we had watched Three Rivers Studium come down and the new stadium built. Furnished with animated videos of the several different sections of motion that would be used to represent the triggers for where in the red zone the action on the field would be, I was excited by this challenge. As I recall, there were three or four of them. These ketchup bottles were going to be huge, and because the award-winning sound system they created for the stadium was super powerful, I knew that these sounds that I was to create had to be immense and aggressive as well. It was the Steelers after all!

I developed and utilized generator sounds, hydraulic and heavy machinery sounds and synthesizer-generated sounds layered to create the various movement of the bottles. To create that motion of the ketchup pouring slowly from the bottles down through the scoreboard, I created and utilized layers of molten lava, pitched-down earthquake rumble and several more synthesis layers. I wanted to rattle the seats so I made sure there was lots of low frequency in the mixes I was providing. There may have been 30 or so layers for each segment.

As is standard procedure, following a few approval rounds with the Heinz team, we had the final mix elements. The next step was to test this live in the newly constructed stadium. As I recall, the first sporting event at the new Heinz Field facility was a Pittsburgh Steelers pre-season Monday Night Football game. On the Sunday evening before the game, we gathered at the new stadium while last minute final preparations for all the technical aspects were underway.

After a brief visit to the control room where all the stadium media systems were controlled, I recall I returned to the platform at the endzone underneath the scoreboard. As I was discussing on the phone some details with Dan Ferraro, my partner at the studio, without warning the technicians suddenly fired up the ketchup bottles. The stadium system engineers understandingly hadn’t had much experience with their systems yet nor did they preview just how loud my sound mixes were. They must have had the volume near full-on when the blast from the bottles opening and lifting almost blew me from the deck and onto the field. My cell phone fell from my hand. It was glorious! I’d never heard anything that loud and expansive before, except once when I saw a space shuttle launch in Florida. It really was almost like that, but closer. I was directly below them.

I’ve been to many games since that time and sadly they don’t play them that loud, and the crowd noise can make them harder to hear. I wish you could have heard them as we did that first night. I see today that the iconic bottles are being removed. It’s a bit sad, like losing an old friend. However, 21 years is a pretty good run. Many thanks to Heinz for the good times!

And here’s to, ah, um, what’s the name going to be now? I wonder what kind of sound that will make?

Heinz Field Ketchup Bottles Audio SFX

Rob Deaner owned the studios Market Street Sound/Contagious Music in downtown Pittsburgh nearly 20 years. Currently, he owns and runs V6 MUSIC +POST at The Vault in Neville Island.

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