Over the holiday season, I have been catching up on some television series I haven’t had time to watch in the last month or so and in this article there are two examples of mixes that I would like to highlight that needed my family to reach for the remote to adjust the volume.
As some of you will know, I have been across the new loudness workflows and have been mixing loudness compliant content for several years, and have been providing training on loudness and loudness workflows around the world. As a result I am ultra aware of content and mixes and how the sound, and whether a consumer would need to reach for the remote control to adjust the volume, but I find my family is a real world measure of a program that has issues when they have to use the volume control or worse still put the subtitles on!
I decided to investigate these two programs to see if I could learn anything from them to help me better understand what is going on.
Planet Earth 2 - Cities
The first is the excellent series from the BBC Natural History unit - Planet Earth 2. The filming is amazing and the music is stunning too but the dialog level seems much lower than the music, especially as it crescendos, the music goes outside the comfort zone that I refer to in my Understanding Loudness tutorial series. Tests undertaken as part of the research that resulted in BS1770 have shown that if the short term loudness stays within the 'comfort zone'' then the consumer doesn’t feel the need to reach for the remote control to adjust the volume. This comfort zone is considered to be +3 to -5LU around the target loudness, and I have made it the green zone on the plots in this article using the Nugen Audio VisLM2.
When we watched the Cities episode of Planet Earth 2, with the volume set at a level that was comfortable when the music was playing we couldn’t always hear the excellent commentary from Sir David Attenborough and had to resort to turning on the sub-titles to be sure we knew what Sir David was saying!
The red section in the excerpt loudness plot above starts with a music sequence (mainly in red) and then the second half is Sir David's commentary. You can see that the music is well outside the comfort zone, with the short term loudness (averaged over 3 seconds) reaching the dizzy heights of +9LU, which is 6LU outside the comfort zone, whereas the commentary is bouncing around the bottom of the comfort zone, hence the need to reach for the remote to adjust the volume.
The Grand Tour - Episode 2
The second series I want to highlight is The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. They have spent a huge amount of money on this series but again the dialog is so much quieter than the music.
Although when looking at the full loudness plot above, it looks more even, I found that the dialog was still lower than the target loudness, which meant more use of the volume control as the music scenes and the extended car fxs scenes were too loud when compared to the volume setting for comfortable dialog.
You can see in the excerpt loudness plot above the the first block of red is a music sequence as part of a car review, then a section of dialog and then the next set of red peaks in the short term loudness are drive passes of the car being reviewed and exceed +9LU, whereas the dialog is around -4LU.
As I explain at the beginning of my Understanding Loudness tutorial series the loudness workflows, standards and delivery specs came about because consumers were complaining about 3 issues
- Jumps in volume between programs (especially adverts)
- Volume changes within a program
- Volumes changes between channels
Lets take a look at each of these issues in the light of these two programs. It you look at the end of the full program loudness plot for Planet Earth 2 you will see that the trend for the short term loudness comes up to sit around target loudness. This is a technique for making sure the junction between programs or between programs and adverts is seamless when it comes to loudness and is an excellent technique.
With regard to the second point, this shows itself in both of these examples. With extended music sequences and FXs well above the target loudness, to get the whole program to comply with the integrated loudness for the whole program, the dialog ends up well below the target loudness to get the average loudness of the whole program to hit the target of -23LU.
It seems to me the mixes for both these examples are closer to film mixes rather than broadcast mixes, the quieter dialog and the loud dramatic sections would be less of an issue in a cinema, where the ambient noise is lower and the sound has got somewhere to go. whereas in a small screen setting, we are looking at smaller domestic spaces that have a higher noise floor, which could mask the quieter dialog and room volumes and speaker systems that cannot handle the very loud passages as well.
Some of you you may be thinking by this point that I am advocating for a sausage factory approach to mixing for loudness where everything is the same, I AM NOT!
As I stress in my Understanding Loudness tutorial series, one of the advantages of mixing to loudness is that it frees us from the ceiling that comes from a system of peak normalisation so close to the normal signal level. As you can see from the graphic above, with the larger headroom that the loudness specs give us we can have those dramatic impact moments, which before would have been crushed by the limiter set to the peak normalisation point, typically around -10dBFS or PPM6 here in the UK.
But if these dramatic peaks go on for too long they will start to skew the integrated loudness figure and result in the dialog level being significantly lower than target loudness and it is my opinion that this is not good practice. But what do you think? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.
Would You Like To Learn More?
If you would like to learn more about loudness and loudness workflows then check out my Understanding Loudness video tutorial series.