The story of the BBC drama series Happy Valley has resurfaced in the UK press today with a statement from a BBC TV boss quoted as saying “We don’t know what cause drama sound problems.”
Charlotte Moore, who is in charge of the BBC’s TV output, said at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in London recently…
"Sound has been a big issue, all of us want to make sure that sound levels are absolutely so people can hear the fantastic work we are doing. After episode one [of Happy Valley] we took everything back into the edit to try to really get that delineation and worked very hard to make it feel crisper and change those levels. It is something we take incredibly seriously.
It is incredibly hard to get to the bottom of where things go wrong. It is often a bringing together of several circumstances, so that in those rare situations where there are sound issues it is quite hard for us to isolate that there is any one particular problem. It is often several different problems coming together. Sound is a very exact science".
What do you make of that?
I agree with her on one point, that there are number of issues coming together which can cause dialog intelligibility problems which is a big concern with consumers. As I discuss in my Understanding Loudness tutorial series, the BBC analysed the complaints they receive and over a 40 day period 61% related to the background sound being too high, in other words the intelligibility was poor, and so the dialog could not be heard clearly. 20% related to volume jumps between content (and remember this is the BBC which doesn’t carry adverts) and 19% relates to the volume range being too high. So loudness and intelligibility really do matter to the people that one way or another pay for the content we create.
Not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of discussions about this in sound related forums and here are some thoughts….
No More Booms
More and more drama is now being shot multi camera, with at least two cameras running on every scene, to get the required shots in less time. However this makes using booms and decent mics virtually impossible. Consequently nearly all sound is dependant on using radio mics, which often have to be placed in such a way that the sound will be compromised.
This is a real issue, even before the sound gets into a microphone, with more and more directors allowing actors to get away with it. Sound are often overridden by the director when mumbling is flagged up. The classic line “we will fix it in the dub” is regularly trotted out along with “we haven’t got time, live with it”. Then ‘sound’ is blamed when the complaints come in and somehow the director is perceived as blameless.
It's Not Our Fault!
I do not believe the issues of intelligibility can be put down to incompetency by the location sound crew or the audio post production team. We can only work with what we are given, and so if the audio going into the microphones is compromised, if the mic positions are compromised, then when it comes to the dub there is very little you can do, especially as there is rarely the budget for major ADR.
Great Picture, Rubbish Sound
Another issue, which is adding to this, is that the sound in most modern flat screen TVs is abysmal. Back in the days of CRT TVs there was a good sized cabinet that worked well with a reasonable sized speaker to produce reasonable sound. With flat screen TVs there isn’t anywhere to put the speakers, and so they are often tucked away round the back with very small drivers and then we wonder why we get intelligibility complaints.
No Sound Specialists
Another reason trotted out is that programmes are being mixed by inexperienced people. This really winds me up because although there is an element of truth in this, it is a very convenient excuse and even the small truth in it, is also the fault of 'management' not funding proper training.
In addition, more and more content is not going through the hands and ears of a dedicated sound specialist, especially in news and documentaries. Add to that, that these programmes often don’t have a dedicated sound person on the acquisition side and you have a disaster in the making.
Then there is the whole area of training. The opportunities for trainee roles have been slashed with budget cuts with the need to make more and more content for less and less money. Consequently, people cannot learn in controlled environments on the job in real situations, learning off the most experienced people.
Here in the UK there would have been a time, with the introduction of something like loudness, where a loudness course would have been developed at the BBC Training School and people would have been sent off for a two week course and learnt the combined wisdom of the experts.
Put Up Or Shut Up
Those days are long gone and as I was studying and researching this whole area of loudness for my own personal development, I realised that everyone was in the same boat, trying things out on our own with no vehicle to share experiences. As result I decided to ‘put up’ rather than ’shut up’ and produce a loudness tutorial series - Understanding Loudness that has been 2 years in the making.
Here at Pro Tools Expert, we believe training is very important and especially with the ‘cottage-isation’ of the industry we need ‘water cooler’ opportunities where we can discuss and learn from each other and hopefully we provide that here..
Blame Loudness - Wrong!
In a number of forums the discussion on intelligibility, Loudness, ATSC A/85, and EBU R128 are being blamed for this issue. That is a load of crap. If you want to know more about this then check out my Loudness tutorial series. The loudness workflows are liberating. At last we can mix using our ears and don’t have to have our eyes glued to meters or put up a peak limiter and bash our mixes into it.
Calibrate Your Monitors
With loudness workflows, once we have calibrated monitors, we can mix with our ears so that if it sounds too loud, it will be too loud, and if it sounds too quiet, it will be too quiet. Add inclusion of Loudness Range as one of the parameters in BS1770 and you have a very useful parameter to give a number to the dynamic range of a mix. As mixers we must take into consideration how our content is consumed and mix accordingly.
Mix It With Your Ears And Your Brain
When I am mixing, and it doesn’t matter whether it is a documentary or drama, they all are telling a story. I always consider what are the key narrative elements in the program I am working on, and make sure that they are clearly audible even in the most challenging listening environments like a car travelling on the motorway where the ambient noise is very high. I know that other elements that I add to enhance the narrative won’t be heard in high ambient noise environments but those in a quieter space will be able to enjoy those details as well, but I know that they key elements will be audible for everyone.
What Do You Think?
So there you, you can see I have sat on the fence with this issue, what do you think, do share in the comments below….