Why those TV commercials are so darn loud

5 Oct

October 5, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

How many times have you had to run to turn down volume on the TV, because suddenly it’s loud enough to wake the dead?

That’s right – it always happens during the commercial!

I find this most frustrating when I am watching a program on the home theatre system, and the volume is adjusted to bring up the voices of the actors. Then, suddenly, some huckster from the Discount Barn is shouting in my face, over a harsh music track that rattles the foundations of the house.

On its web site, the CRTC says it receives many complaints from viewers about the loudness of ads over regular programming. And the problem, it says, is a technique known as audio compression.

“Audio compression is a recording technique in which a commercial’s sound track is recorded at a constant and maximum loudness level,” says a CRTC backgrounder. “When played within a program featuring a normal range of sounds – some loud, some soft – the contrast can be startling.”

No kidding. Someone who knows his way around audio levels is Rick Hollett, owner of Record Time Productions, a recording studio in St. John’s.

“Since we’ve had digital sound on computer there is no margin for error, and everyone figures that it’s got to go up to (maximum) all the time,” Hollett said in an interview. “So we’ve got these programs that enable one commercial to seem louder than the next. You get this loudness war happening.”

When seen as a waveform – a line moving from left to right – music should have peaks and valleys, much like an electro-cardiograph chart or the stock market in a volatile month. Compression works, Hollett explained, through a bit of technical mischief in which the high points of music are intentionally clipped off and deleted.

“The higher parts are normally like a spike,” he said, “and that spike is kind of rounded off, so you gain some more room at the top and the whole thing can be pushed up. That brings up the low stuff… so you have a continuous power level. It looks like a square block on the screen as opposed to something that’s got crescendos and de-crescendos.”

Imagine a thick pine forest, with all those majestic treetops reaching to the sky. Now imagine all the treetops have been clipped off, creating a roughly level thatch of branches. This is the mix you commonly hear on TV commercials – no highs or lows, just a solid wall of sound, pushed to just below the distortion point. In Hollett’s view, this is something of a travesty.

“Is this new technology better?” he surmises. “In some cases, not. TV and music sounded better before because you had that natural rise and fall, that cadence, that was in music and voice. That’s kind of been robbed. People can’t say exactly why, but it’s annoying because it isn’t natural.”

Hollett blames these developments on the digital revolution that was brought on by introduction of the compact disc. “As they got into digital manipulation of sound, there’s more of an emphasis on making it as loud as possible. When CDs came along the loudness wars started. They were saying ‘Oh man, did you hear that CD! Did it ever cut through on the air!’ And then the idea became to make everything louder than everything else. It’s out of control.”

Hollett spoke wistfully of the golden era of sound recording, when excellent mixes were created under the constraint of one- or two-track recorders. “Take Bugs Bunny cartoons for example. They had such limited technology but the recordings were pure genius, all done live off the floor. You’ve got sound effect guys standing by and their cues are dead on. The guy conducting the orchestra is doing it to a click track to sync, watching the scene. The guy picking up the sound is perfect. It was like this huge machine but it was all people, and that’s why it was better. Because people fed off of each other and you get this more natural sort of chemistry.”

Alas, modern audio technology is here to stay. While it does have advantages and is easy to use, it also puts tremendous power into the hands of the mediocre. Which leaves us with mediocrity so loud, it’s impossible to ignore.

As Hollett said, “Thank god for the mute button!”

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