Here especially in the UK, the sound mix for Blue Planet 2 has come under fire in the press and on social media. At least it is not another case of Mumblegate, but the complaints are about the music volume being overwhelming and the foley effects being too loud and off-putting. But is this a case of the press whipping it up or are there genuine criticisms here?
Looking at the issues regarding Blue Planet 2, let's start with the music. The Guardian, in an article somewhat misleadingly titled Blue Planet II edited on normal TV set to head off sound complaints, has made a big point that...
The makers of Blue Planet II used a normal television while editing the soundtrack of the programme because of concerns that viewers would complain about the narration not being audible.
Surely the use of a TV to check the mix is a routine process and not the stuff of news headlines, and to suggest that the programme was edited using a TV is at best misleading. However, there is an interesting quote that reinforces my point about mixes being too cinematic. The Guardian article says...
The BBC team used a TV rather than a music theatre or studio to review the final mix so they could understand how the natural history programme would sound in a family living room and set the narration, music and sound effects to the appropriate levels.
The Radio Times is running a poll on whether Hans Zimmer's score is too loud and currently it is 74% saying it is too loud and 26% saying it is about right. An example of the comments is this one from Tony Lewis...
The new series of Blue Planet is impressive. The stunning sequences are a credit to the talented and dedicated camera operators and technicians who have used the new technology to amazing effect; and, as usual, David Attenborough’s commentary is very informative and intelligent. But what a pity that the programme suffers from inappropriate and intrusive music, which is so loud that it makes hearing the commentary at times almost impossible. The music is also manipulative, making judgements on animals who are only doing what is natural and necessary for their survival. I long for the time when I can press a button and remove background music in documentaries.
I have to say that unlike Planet Earth 2, where we did have to reach for the remote control, Blue Planet 2 was fine. I felt that the music better dovetailed into the emotion of the story and added to the overall storytelling. So far, and we have watched all four episodes released to date, we have not felt the need to reach for the remote control once.
But Blue Planet 2 is not just being criticised about the music, there are also complaints about the sound effects with headlines like "CRASH, BANG, SCALLOP Blue Planet II fans slam BBC’s ‘ridiculous’ choice of exaggerated sound effects" from The Sun newspaper. The article had quotes like...
Loving Blue Planet but the sound design is ridiculous. Fish do not roar like lions.
Only downside to the amazing Blue Planet is those awful sound effects! Urgh! Please stop with these 1980s effects!
Why do we have to suffer the ubiquitous music and sound effects? No need. Nature doesn’t.
There was only one line at the end of the article which was to take one little quote out of a BBC rebuttal to these kinds of stories and comments...
However, the show’s executive producer James Honeyborne insisted they were vital. He said: “They help convey the experience of ‘being there’ that is important for an immersive TV experience.”
In studying the BBC's rebuttal, one of the key challenges for recording sound underwater is that sound travels further and faster underwater – and that includes the noise of anything humans do. James Honeyborne, Executive Producer of Blue Planet II explains...
When we looked into recording sound at the bottom of the Mariana Trench for example, scientists told us that sound pollution from ship traffic can even reach all the way down there.
Surely, the most important component of the soundtrack is the natural sounds available – those that the professional sound recordists have captured? The Blue Planet II team have gone to great lengths to record a wide variety of sea creatures even working with scientists to reveal the dawn chorus of fish on a coral reef, for example.
Take a look at the image at the top of the story, this was a 4.0 underwater hydrophone used by the Blue Planet 2 team to get some of the beds for the show.
However, it isn't possible to use natural sounds throughout. The relentless sound of the cameraman breathing James says "would be like watching TV whilst sitting next to Darth Vader".
Also, more and more underwater cameras have microphones and although the sound from them isn't always good enough to use it gives the foley team a very good idea what the animal or activity sounded like so they can make as faithful recreation of it as possible. The Blue Planet 2 team were well aware that they needed to create an immersive and enjoyable experience, re-create suitable soundscapes in post-production, once the film has been edited. James continues...
My favourite sequence for its soundtrack is when we dive with a sperm whale mother, who is communicating with her baby, before using her sonar to hunt. The sound was recorded on the on-board suction-cup camera that had been placed on her back. It’s the first time we’ve heard the full sound-cycle of a diving sperm whale. In tracklay, other sounds are added: a woosh of a passing jellyfish, or the rocketing explosion of methane from the Deep Sea bed. This helps convey the experience of ‘being there’ that is important for an immersive TV experience. And because sound travels much faster in water than in air, there are potentially a much larger number sources of natural sound that could be heard at any given moment, so a final flourish of ‘artistic license’ is required to focus the viewer on the story.
For me some of the foley sounds were a little too prominent which makes them less believable, I would prefer them to have been pushed back into the beds and atmospheres a little more and I think that would have made them less obvious and reduced the outcry, fuelled by the press.
Are TV Mixes Becoming Too Cinematic?
But back to the complaints about the music drowning out Sir David Attenborough's commentary, certainly with Planet Earth 2, this was an issue. Back at the beginning of this year, I asked Are TV Mixes Becoming Too Cinematic? following a family TV catch up over the Christmas break. One of the two programmes I took a closer look at, because as a family we found ourselves reaching for the remote control, was Planet Earth 2.
A Recap Of The Issues With Planet Earth 2
The filming was amazing and the music was stunning too but the dialog level seemed 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 subtitles 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 for around 1.5 minutes, whereas the commentary is bouncing around the bottom of the comfort zone, hence the need to reach for the remote to adjust the volume.
it seems to me that the trend seems to be changing so that the music is routinely louder than the dialog and so the dialog will have to sit below the overall average for the whole programme when it comes to the integrated loudness for the whole programme.
This got me to thinking, maybe because the dialog is now no longer the loudest thing in the mix, I need to have subtitles on, whereas for old-school mixes, especially drama and documentaries, I never needed the subtitles to follow the plot, so has the trend for louder music and effects contributed to the lack of intelligibility in TV mixes?
It seemed to me the Planet Earth 2 mix was closer to a film mix rather than broadcast mix, 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 and rooms that cannot handle the very loud passages as well.
In my article, Are TV Mixes Getting Too Big For The Domestic Living Room? I started to look into the reasons mixes are becoming too cinematic and one of the main reasons is the size of the mixing space. Could the size of the mixing space be having an impact on TV mixes? if mixing TV content in larger theatrical spaces is producing mixes that are too dynamic, what size of rooms should we be mixing in?
The National Association Of Broadcasters Engineering Handbook states that larger rooms with a higher reference SPL will yield wide dynamic mixes where smaller rooms with a lower SPL will yield more constrained mixes, so it is no surprise then aht when TV series are mixed in a film theatre we are likely to end up with a mix which is too cinematic fro a domestic environment.
What About Blue Planet 2?
As I said earlier on, unlike Planet Earth 2 where as a family we did have to reach for the remote control to adjust the volume and even resort to using subtitles, with Blue Planet 2 we haven't. So I took the first episode of Blue Planet 2, which came in for so much criticism in the press and on social media, and analysed it in the same way as I did for Planet Earth 2 and it is immediately clear from the full program plot that the LRA isn't quite as big. Planet Earth 2 - The Cities had an LRA of 16.5 whereas the 1st episode of Blue Planet 2 has an LRA of 13.1. You can why, the dialog is around -3LU which is a little better than Planet Earth 2 and also the music although pretty loud, isn't loud for as long and so doesn't skew the integrated loudness as much so that the dialog, which should be the anchor, isn't as quiet as it was in Planet Earth 2.
When we zoom into an excerpt, as we did with Planet Earth 2, we confirm the observations from the big picture. On the excerpt of Blue Planet 2, the first section is dialog and the short-term loudness is between 0LU and -3LU, then we get a sequence of music and effects which are meant to be dramatic so have some impact but they do it more carefully.
So overall, an improvement over the episode of Planet Earth 2, which I analysed at the start of the year. I wondered if the Blue Planet 2 mix had changed following the complaints in the UK press so I analysed the 4th episode, so let's start with the full program loudness plot.
You can see the opening has a very loud sequence but as it's in the first 5 minutes or so the integrated average can and does recover. After that, there are only a small number of loud sections, but that longer loud sequence has had a small impact on the LRA so that Ep4 has an LRA of 13.8 as opposed to Ep 1 which has an LRA of 3.1. It would seem that there has been what I call in my Understanding Loudness course, some loudness planning. Also, it would seem the dialog is just a little louder, but overall no big changes from Ep 1 to Ep4 of Blue Planet 2.
These observations are confirmed when we zoom into an excerpt we can see the dialog on the left half and quieter music with dialog on the right-hand half.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that that the numbers for Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 are not a million miles apart, but for us as a family, we did not feel the need to adjust the volume with the remote and certainly didn't feel the need to turn on the subtitles, showing that it isn't always about numbers, but what our ears perceive. So we have to consider why there were so many complaints, or were there? Where there a few complaints that the press jumped on so as to have another BBC bashing session, presenting information from an ill-informed point of view? I would love to know the stats from the official BBC log and compare them with Planet Earth 2.
But I have to say from our experience and from my analysis, there isn't a big case to be made for Blue Planet 2 being a problem. Do share what you think in the comments below.