Why can’t TV broadcasters get it right and provide the listener with first class audio that doesn’t suck?


This post has to do with what the television public hears while watching a show. On just about everything we hear when watching, there is an overabundance of abuse of the final sound with compressors and limiters destroying the mix that we hear. It’s a constant automatic raising of the background noise between words, and they are all guilty, whether it is a live event with a studio audience, or a reporter on the street, or a multimillion dollar primetime show. It’s also about interviews with a handheld microphone of a reporter, and the distances of boom microphones from the actors in scenes, and finally, the audio level adjustment by the audio engineer. But most importantly, it is about the lack of professionalism broadcasters use in transmitting the material over the air.

I have been a sound engineer for most of my professional life, and recently explained in my allowed patent application about how sound follows the Inverse Square Law in inches as well as in feet or meters, and how sound levels of speech diminish in loudness even over a couple inches.

But lets talk about the hundreds of TV shows we all watch, where in shooting scenes, there is a whisper or two or more, with other actors talking in a normal voice or louder, and all being picked up by a single boom microphone (mic) maybe two or three feet from the actors’ lips. The sound from this, two or three feet away, will never compare with whispering into a microphone from two or three inches away. Of course this procedure of micing several inches away could never work with movies, which, of course, require the mic to be out of the picture. Automatic dialogue replacement (ADR) later in post production could always be used but it would probably double the budget.

Whether it is the local station or the main network feed, the use of a compressor is totally obnoxious on some evening shows. Several times while watching Blue Bloods, in a street scene, if the characters don’t talk for about a second or two or three, the background noise of traffic, horns etc., comes up to the level of the voices and is extremely distracting. I noticed the same thing occurred in their Sunday dinner scene with all sitting and talking at the big dining room table. Again, the boom microphone placement, is far away from the actors, normally increasing the background noise, knives, forks, glasses, plates and even small equipment noise. If there was a brief second or two between lines, it was the same, with all the studio background noise coming up to intolerable levels. Tune in to it the next time you watch it.

Some broadcasters set the compressors to act after a small fraction of a second, pumping up the background noise between almost every word. These actions are probably because the FCC recently ruled that average sound levels on commercials can’t exceed the average levels of programming. And so, the networks or the local station engineers play it safe, and actually over safe, by setting the compressors or limiters at such high levels to limit the peaks from exceeding their maximum power level set by the FCC. I believe it is next to impossible to achieve a happy medium.

But I do believe that the audio mix engineers could be a little more careful about their final mixes of those shows. In the final mix, the dynamic range between the whispers and the music, if any, and/or loud crashes or other loud effects, should be such that in the living room setting of listening to the finally produced show at an acceptable level, which doesn’t bother the neighbors, one needs to hear all the sounds without constantly boosting or lowering the volume. But this doesn’t happen in some shows.

I believe that there is no excuse for this when the professional audio recording and editing programs of today provide a way of separation of actors voices on one track to several tracks. Since the one boom mic is picking up two or more actors and laying it on one track when filming, the mix engineer’s job is to even them all out. This can be done by separating the voices later and putting them on different tracks, so individual equalization of critical sibilance and limiting can be utilized to even out everyone’s voice so each can be heard evenly. This becomes even more crucial since male and female voices inevitably require different equalization for optimum results, as well as different compression.

However, it appears that the mix engineer either doesn’t know any better, or just lets it ride in the confines of the quiet mix studio, where one can hear a pin drop and everything sounds just fine. Another drawback may be that the producer, or director, or whoever is sitting with the script, knows what is being said, and assumes everyone can hear and understand it like he/she does. I have seen this many times in a mix of a singer, where everyone knows the lyric and tends to blast the band and bury the singer. It’s a psychological thing I guess, thinking the singer is loud enough when he/she isn’t.

But when watching a tv show at home, you’re hearing the dialogue for the first time and only once and if you miss it you miss it. And so, in the mix studio, it is not like the home viewer hearing it only once and for the first time at normal living room listening level on cheap(er) speakers.

Perhaps a show’s budget doesn’t allow for the meticulous necessary steps required to increase these low levels. It can be seen that they have gotten it right on some shows, but on some, it is a clear and unadulterated rating of an “F.” In my experience of editing and mixing spoken word, the key is to have the “whisper” audio levels peaking almost or just as loud as the others speaking, which most always sounds normal and acceptable in the mix room as well as at home. Some engineers and directors may swear about the dynamic range of having low whispers being kept true and low as what the mic picked up. But this is not correct. A whisper boosted to a higher level can definitely sound normal to the listener.

In cases where reporters on the street with heavy traffic or other background noise, or at a alive event like a game with thousands cheering and talking, will hold the microphone six inches to a foot away from their mouth and/or shoving it over to the interviewee’s mouth. In these cases the background noise will interfere unnecessarily high with the intended voices. Therefore, in these cases, they should move the mic to at least three inches away, which would eliminate a large degree of background noise.

Once again, the Inverse Square Law takes effect in these situations. Moving very much closer to the microphone will reduce the crowd noise many decibels and raise the level of the intended voices, whereas the engineer can lower the overall, which in turn, keeps the intended voice(s) high and the background lowered.

This is why when we see an artist performing live with a band, they always hold the mic right next to their mouth. And the mic you see is usually the Shure SM-58 with the round enclosure that holds a filter to reduce vocal pops of  the singer. This filter allows the very closeness to the mic when singing. This closeness is to prevent the band from leaking into their mic, whereas it allows a cleaner signal from the artist and a much better final mix.

Going back to recording and/or broadcasting, especially female voices, some tend to boom unintelligible at their fundamental frequencies and the low end also needs to be rolled off, and high end sibilance boosted, especially if they are wired with a hidden mic covered by clothing.

In the final analysis, hopefully they all will get together and come up with some solutions and provide for some easier and better listening at home.

2 thoughts on “Why can’t TV broadcasters get it right and provide the listener with first class audio that doesn’t suck?”

  1. I am glad I found this explanation. Blue Bloods (and some others) have been driving me crazy with the pumping background noise during dialog, e.g. in the Police Commissioner’s office or the dinner table scenes.

    This is just very sloppy sound editing in my opinion on an otherwise great show.


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