HOW LOUD IS LOUD?
The inconsistency of standards for audio levels among the many types of media has resulted in various degrees of loudness throughout the audio industry. These differences are so wide spread that the average person often notices volume differences when watching TV, listening to MP3 players or going to the movies. A simple and common question is why is everything getting so much louder? The answer is not so simple and has far reaching effects.
IS PERCEPTION REALITY?
The desire for TV commercials to be louder is perhaps no better understood than by Chicago Recording Company's (www.chicagorecording.com) senior engineer, Michael Coyle. Working on numerous commercials, including those for Coca-Cola, Tostitos and Corona (featuring Kenny Chesney), he is able to shed some creative light on the trend to be louder and louder. "For my industry, I feel that my job is to maximize the frequency range and the voltage I am given to work with," he says. "In other words, to make my commercial as loud as possible when it's on the air. I don't feel that about the music I purchase or the movies that I watch, but I think that advertising is a different animal. A client comes to me for their :15 or :30 commercial to make an impression. No one wants to get that call from the client saying, 'Hey, I heard my spot on the air and it wasn't as loud as everything else.' So, unfortunately it feeds upon itself."
Coyle realizes the program's audio content, in combination with the basic differences between long and short formats, helps create the varied landscape of broadcast audio levels. A primetime drama, for example, may have many audio peaks and valleys throughout the course of one hour. In contrast, a short :15 or :30 commercial may not, choosing to stay at one constant peak. Therefore, it's no surprise to Coyle that commercials are generally perceived to be louder. "When I do get that occasional question, 'Why are commercials so loud?,' I always say that commercials by law cannot be any louder than the broadcast signal is," he explains. "So, if you are watching Lost, for example, and they blow something up, that is no louder than my commercial. So, it's really a question of perception because just before a TV show goes to commercial, they often do it on a sustained music cue, or something that is relatively quiet. It's not common to blow something up and then go right into a commercial break. And, that's an important part of the perception problem. TV shows that you are coming out of will typically be at a quieter moment right before that first commercial during a break."
Coyle believes you don't see this difference as much when you watch game shows. "Typically a game show will go out on a commercial break with a lot of applause and the audience all rallied up. So, everyone needs to know that there are already standards that exist, and we are just working within those standards."
With the large amount of broadcast and cable networks available today, the average channel surfer will most likely notice a change in volume when switching from station to station. This often prompts another common question, "Why are some stations so much louder than others?"
Coyle has uncovered some interesting results and says, "I'd say that the big three networks are all about the same, compressing pretty heavily on all their content. All the commercial breaks are consistently loud, which are often national brands. But when you get into the secondary networks with cable, then you start to notice a lot of local inserts and levels can really get all over the place. It's a real eye opener."
The upcoming FCC mandate to broadcast all television digitally includes expanded audio capabilities, such as 5.1 mixes. "For the short term, I think that broadcasting 5.1 is more of a problem," says Coyle. "It reminds me of the mid-'80s when we went from mono to stereo TV. This is even more dramatic. The problem we are having is the variety of standards. Some networks want VO only in the center channel, and some networks want VO in the left and right channels. In some cases, this applies to music, where one network wants the singers only in the center channel. It's sort of awkward right now because we are getting our spec on a per-network basis. I am hoping that within the next couple of years, everyone will settle on a standard."
Even with the wide spread use of the Dolby LM100, Coyle does not see this common broadcast spec helping set an industry standard. "For our broadcast commercials, we don't use the LM100," he says. "When I am mixing, I am using a surround compressor and limiter with the Digidesign surround metering. So, that's not where the problem lies; it's the fact that the release formats from the different networks are still too varied. The LM100 can't take into account whether or not some stations want the announcer a little bit in the left and the right channels in addition to the center. That's what the bigger issue is right now."
When mixing, Coyle uses Pro Tools 7.4 with the 192 Accel II, Digidesign's 24 fader D-Command, and five Genelec 8030s with the 7060a subwoofer.
When looking at possible standards or guidelines, Coyle says, "Radio stations do something interesting for their commercials. They rate each spot for loudness and don't kick anything back. They build a bell curve that has the louder spots in the middle so it is less perceived. And I think that is a real clever way to handle this."
NEW NETWORK, NEW SPEC
Re-recording mixer Ken Teaney has a wide variety of experience with broadcast audio in all its forms, working on shows such as Mad Men and Dollhouse, at CSS Studios' Todd-AO (www.todd-ao.com) in Hollywood. Teaney and re-recoding mixer Geoffery Rubay (who as of press time, left the studio) mixed the TV series My Own Worst Enemy, including the series finale.
"The difference in levels certainly is a common complaint from the average viewer," says Teaney. "A commercial's goal is not to entertain, but to sell products and make its message as big and as bold as it can. But for a TV series, our goal is to use whatever creative nuance we can to try to make something enjoyable to watch. We know that we need to make the show loud and jumpy to compete with the commercials. So, we have to employ our own level of compression and processing in order to make that happen."
Teaney mixes on Digidesign D-Command consoles, Genelec speakers and uses a variety of plug-ins, including Speakerphone from Audio Ease and Izotope's RX restoration. To ensure proper levels on air, compression technology is essential using the L-Series limiters and the C4 multiband compressor from Waves. "It was a real difference for me coming out of feature film mixing to push up the levels so much for a TV series," explains Teaney. "I am sort of relying on pushing things into the compressor and letting it be my safety net certainly more than I ever did. It has become part of the sound."
Early on in Teaney's career, he discovered that the perception of how loud something is could be deceiving. "I found the reality to be that if you are just looking at the meter, commercials are not louder than a TV show. It's more of the concept or perception that they are louder because there are no peaks and valleys during a commercial, just a constant peak. When I am mixing any TV show, my goal is always to tell the story. That requires loud and soft passages and everything in between."
Today there are more specialty networks than ever, with practically a new network for every interest. With the increased number of networks, each one has their own independent audio specifications. In addition, the recent rise in audio tracks available on videotapes, such as the Sony HDCAM SR's 12 channels, has led to a multitude of audio level requirements, track configurations and surround sound requirements for every network. These are just some of the variables that make up the inconsistency of audio levels often noticed by TV viewers when switching from station to station.
"I have seen the network's headroom, or ceiling, range from +12, to +14, and if they really want it hot it can be as much as a +17 ceiling," says Teaney. "One network wanted the average dialogue level to always be above 0 VU, whether they were whispering or not. The result is that it is very hard to make anything dynamic to help enhance the actor's performance."
The evolution of technology is yet another variable, adding to the complexity of loudness. Ironically, the new breed of compressors and limiters that are designed to make things louder may be responsible for feeding this trend. Or, is it the other way around? Does the need to be louder create these products? Despite which came first, the need to be louder or the technology itself, any mixer today must rely on this technology to some degree for broadcast audio. "We have to employ those things in order to get the show to be where the clients and networks want it to be," says Teaney. "In regard to networks, each having their own spec. What ever happened to NAB's standards? Everybody seems to have their own different standards. So, we just need to take it on a case-by-case basis and re-adjust for every show and network."
When looking for a source for guidance, one might think of Dolby or the FCC's DTV standard to provide some answers. "To me the FCC thing seems to be ceasing something instead of adding something truly new," says Rubay. "It's about turning off the analog signal, so the digital TV thing is more of a consumer issue than a mixing one. But, ultimately, the presentation, or the medium, affects how we mix. The goal is for it to play well out in the real world.
"I am not sure the Dolby LM100 is the answer to an industry standard, but what I do know is that different networks use that information differently. What it really comes down to is where they set that Dia-norm level. And that totally affects the rest of the mix and basically the level that something will be played. I think we all need to agree that the setting needs to be at one particular place on something like the LM100, for example, and go for whatever that magic number is. That's what we do with movies. All the trailer guys have all started to agree that louder isn't necessarily better."
Teaney agrees: "The LM100 is an interesting tool," he says, "but I don't want to judge creative ideas and storytelling based on a number. I've never come at mixing mechanically. For me, it's always a performance and it's creative. I want to do what our creative team came up with on the stage and let everyone hear that.
"DTV, and the upcoming FCC switch to broadcasting only digitally, is available now. So, we are not going to see any change in how we deliver the show. I am hoping that the consciousness of the listeners will come up a little bit, but I don't think it will change how I mix at all. Hopefully, it will represent the best of what we do. But remember that if you wanted to, you could hear it that way now."
Rubay sums up, "I think that whatever Dolby says, should go. They know more about this than all of us and they are excellent at making standards, and they have all the R&D to back it up. So, if we could all agree on a common set of practices, it would be great. Until then, it's just going to be a lot like what you hear on the radio, where it's some kind of arms race — that's where it's all headed."
JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN'T MEAN YOU SHOULD
The film industry is also being asked to turn it up. But even though the technology allows them to, it is not always desirable. Supervising sound mixer Gary Bourgeois has mixed such films as Bedtime Stories, Lakeview Terrace, Step Brothers, You Don't Mess With the Zohan and Red Belt at Culver City's Sony Pictures Post Production (www.sonypicturespost.com). He works in the spectacular William Holden Theatre.
Bourgeois believes that how loud something should be, or not, is a choice based on the film's content. "As the technology keeps getting better and higher in quality, it means we can become more detailed. We can utilize these tools to our benefit, but we can also abuse them. If I have a car that goes 150mph, that doesn't mean I should drive to work at that speed."
When it comes to a movie's playback in a theater, film mixers are sometimes faced with a paradox. They may be asked to make their mixes louder in anticipation of the theaters being asked to turn it down. It is a self-defeating proposition. "Yes, that can and does happen," says Bourgeois. "It's the tail chasing the dog. When dealing with loudness, it's an interesting conundrum. In the past, for years, I mixed for an optical soundtrack. Consequently, there was a very narrow window for us to work in level-wise. We all had to learn how to utilize dynamics in the mix to communicate the punch, so to speak, which was required in certain scenes. Once digital came along, that window was really opened up."
Initially, the digital revolution in film audio resulted in some people making mixes loud for loud's sake, rather than the need for it. "I like to give the analogy that all of a sudden, we were given really bright reds, bright blues and bright yellows to paint with," he says. "So, some directors and mixers went too far with it. Consequently, everyone started asking, 'Why is everything so loud?' The answer was, 'Because we can.' It was like the lid was taken off, level-wise. The use of it regarding taste was in question at the beginning."
Once the boundaries of how loud a film could be were stretched, many people quickly realized it was not always desirable. "We have to consider that we work in a medium that is on average 90 minutes long," explains Bourgeois. Creatively as mixers, we have to be well aware of dynamics. You can't be painting everything with bright, bright, bright colors all the time. You'll get saturated or worn down with all those colors after a period of time, and they will not have any meaning. Not everyone realizes that, so it's part of our jobs as mixers to educate people and let them know how dynamics work. And yes, there will always be a director or a film that appropriately calls for it to be loud."
Despite the trend to be louder, Bourgeois has recognized how many films today have the proper audio levels. "Anyone who says that everything is too loud, I would have to disagree with. There are a lot of very tasteful films, including big action films, which have been mixed with lots of dynamics and used their colors tastefully. They are big and bold when they are meant to be, but they are not sitting up there all the time. So, you can't say that taste should be regulated. Sure, in some cases, a picture might be very loud to fool the audience to think that it is bigger and better than it really is. But, audiences are very sophisticated and it's obvious to them when that happens."
One advantage the film industry has over most other types of media is the implementation of very strict audio guidelines. "There are standards that are adhered to very stringently on our end," says Bourgeois. "We have what is called the Academy Standards and the SMPTE standards for constant levels in the theater. For example, in our mixing theater, we play pink noise through each speaker, one at a time, calibrated to 85db at the location where the mixer sits. Once it is set, the volume is never changed during the mix. That's because at a theater, you are mixing for large audiences without actually being there, unlike a live concert event for example. So, we must rely on the industry wide standards that are in place. That also includes standards for the frequency response of the speakers so that all the colors we are using to paint with translate to the audience."
When mixing at Sony's beautiful 238-seat William Holden Theatre, Bourgeois uses the 320-channel Harrison MPC3D digital console, which is configured with 896 inputs on a digital 1120x1340 router. "The board is layered," he says, "so, when I am looking at all the inputs in front of me, I can just flip layers, individual faders or the whole console. I can go from layer, one, two, three, four, and so on. And for mixing dialogue, I like to use the board's EQs and compressors because it's just an amazing digital control surface. I also like to use Cedar for noise reduction and Junger for D-essing. The TC Electronic M6000 is great for all my room matching because their algorithms are based on rooms rather than reverbs. But you know, it's less about the technology and more about of how we us it."
Bourgeois offers an intelligent solution to help ensure proper audio playback for movie theaters: "Unfortunately, each movie theater has its own volume control. It's possible that an inexperienced theater manager might change the audio levels for a film's playback, completely disregarding the set standards. Therefore, I would like to see a volume control for theaters that are only plus or minus 2db. That way, we would be presenting what the director's vision was."
MAKING IT ALL BLEND
Mastering engineer Joe LaPorta at New York's The Lodge Mastering and Music Production (www.thelodge.com) knows that one of the first types of media to experience a boom in loudness is the CD. The shuffle mode on any MP3 player reveals how much this trend has increased over the years. Many other forms of media have quickly followed suit. LaPorta has worked on music projects for Garbage, Goldfrapp, Tiesto, The Subways, Death Cab For Cutie, Matt and Kim and The Stills.
In addition, The Lodge has done audio post and mastering for TV spots for Bud Light, Volks-wagon, and Hampton Inn. LaPorta understands the importance of competing for people's sonic attention while still maintaining what is right for the project musically, no matter what the medium.
He explains how the first step of his process is understanding his client: "I typically start by requesting as many notes and references as possible so there's a clear understanding of what the client is going for before I start working on the project. Once all of this info is compiled, I like to send out a couple of test tracks to make sure the client is loving my approach before proceeding with the entire project. Sometimes, if I feel it's necessary, I'll provide the client with some different mastering options with varying levels of compression and/or EQ. That gives them an opportunity to check out several possible flavors to choose from. I believe that this step of the process is crucial to providing great customer service and avoiding miscommunication."
LaPorta's record album experience perfectly illustrates how the trend to be loud has fed upon itself over the years. "Unfortunately, many people these days equate a quieter record with sounding inferior or lacking in quality. However, if you turn that quieter record up on your stereo, it has the potential to sound better than the louder mastered record. Every artist, producer, and label fears their record coming on next will not be as loud as the previous one, whether on the radio, iPod, etc. This fear is understandable, but for some records going louder may be doing more harm than good."
The Lodge's digital audio workstations include Sonic Solutions and Pro Tools|HD with key processors from Avalon, Z-Sys, TC Electronic, Tube-Tech, Manley, Dangerous Music and Empirical Labs. They use A-to-D converters from Lavry, Prism and Apogee, with speakers by Genelec and Duntech.
When it comes to music, adding more compression or limiting to make things louder can actually help a musician or a composer achieve a stylistic sound and sonic approach. "I think that the loudness wars have ruined a lot of records, but it has also worked for some others," says LaPorta. "It's definitely not meant for all genres. Some artists and producers aren't content with their original mixes and request for the tracks to get slammed in order to obtain the life and energy they were initially looking for during mixing. However, if the mixes aren't up to the caliber they were aiming for, it's my job to explain what a realistic outcome would be and why. Other times, the mixes are great to begin with and the label demands it to be comparable to 'so and so's' record, neglecting to keep in mind what is possibly being lost in the process. As a mastering engineer, you must be extremely careful and make tasteful decisions that will end up with the best possible results, while still maintaining the client's vision.
"Of course, we can voice our concerns regarding the mastering approach, but we are here to keep the client satisfied," he continues. "Mastering engineers get a lot of criticism about the material that reaches the consumer, but people forget how many decision makers and reference discs are involved before the approval occurs."
LaPorta and his clients manage to keep a nice blend of loudness while not being overbearing. "More often, my clients tend to request things like, 'We'd like it loud and energetic, but it doesn't have to be the loudest thing in the world,' which is great to hear. I believe that the handful of articles, forums and YouTube videos addressing loudness has been quite helpful and artists, producers and labels are much more aware of this issue now."
Raising awareness of any pitfalls of this trend will most likely continue to have positive results industry wide. "Everyone needs to do their own thing and do what's appropriate for the specific project being worked on," he explains. "More attention should be put into maintaining the true characteristics of the original source, rather than being competitive and sometimes destructive to the recording. I would love to see the industry gradually dialing things back a bit, but it's going to take a while. We'd eventually have a balanced selection of records that could have an improved dynamic range and potentially sound better, but it'll just take a few years for everyone to be on that same page."