Take responsibility for sound quality
Here’s a 20 minute film about audio quality. It features Quincy Jones, Kate Nash, Snoop Dogg and Hans Zimmer among others. It’s a proper high-end production number.
The film’s producer, Harman, has some products to push here: notably its monitoring range and Clari.fy audio restoration technology. But forgive them that – it’s refreshing to see an audio company put fidelity ahead of fashion.
The argument in the film is not perfect though and there appears to be a little confusion between destructive data compression and dynamic range compression at one point.
More fundamentally, isn’t it a little disingenuous for musicians to blame poor sound quality on the limitations of mp3 and low grade audio equipment? After all, the music industry alone is responsible for the aggressive over-mastering that has characterised so much of its output in recent years.
If the chaps in the Harman video want to make the music industry sound better I suggest they bypass the peak clipper in their mastering studio first.
Making things sound better
We might be through the worst of all that now. Films like The Distortion of Sound, a greater awareness of the loudness war and the popularity of higher-end audio equipment like cinema-style sound systems in our homes can all help.
It’s not guaranteed through – decent audio kit doesn’t grow you better ears – so I don’t believe we can leave the push for better sound in radio entirely to our listeners. We control what we send and can take responsibility for some supply-side decisions that will improve matters.
We also enjoy a huge platform on which to demonstrate what good sound is. Ofcom reports this week that UK radio enjoys 21.5 hours of an average listener’s time every week. That’s 21.5 hours in which to deliver consistently attractive entertainment-quality audio to more than 90% of the UK population.
We don’t always achieve that but we do understand how to. We have the expertise and the experience.
We survived our loudness war in the 1990s and learned from it. Today we choose appropriate audio processing settings for each format we operate. We understand the tradeoff between digital bitrate and perceived sound quality.
If you’ve listened to a lot of music on Spotify you’ll know that competing audio platforms do not achieve the consistent professional glossy sound of radio, track to track, hour after hour.
Speech radio is the hardest to get right
The multiple sources in speech radio, including field recordings and unpredictable live remotes and phone contributions, mean that these services are often the most difficult with which to achieve consistently attractive audio.
Yet, even in speech, we’re generally getting it right in radio these days. BBC Radio 4, LBC, 5 Live and the World Service all sound consistently attractive whether you’re listening off-air or to on-demand streams. Listening back to old air checks of Radio 4 (just me then) suggests this was certainly not the case ten years ago.
Podcasts are a different matter though and I suggest an area where radio broadcasters could still make significant improvements in overall consistency of sound levels. Perhaps the same pan-industry collaboration that brought us Rajar, DAB and Radioplayer could also agree some reference points for podcast audio.
The tumultuous levels of NPR
In the US the complicated public radio network is grappling with issues around inconsistent sound. Just look at this this chart that illustrates the variation of levels on the NPR distribution system:
In this programme Adam Ragusea explores some of the problems faced by US public radio and how they’re trying to fix them. He gets into the difference between achieving a pleasant sound balance and the process of mastering.
His programme is an accompaniment to this stunningly brilliant blog post on Current which includes one of the best introductions to the concept of loudness I’ve ever read.
Adam has also compiled this handy reading list of articles on sound levels.
What can you do about this?
A ten-point plan here would be worthless without someone taking responsibility for the overall sound quality of your station.
Taking responsibility is not waiting to be told to do something – it’s caring and acting. The best station imaging producers know they’re not just there to make the production but to think about the overall station sound.
If you’re an imaging producer the chances are only you and your PD consider the total listening experience the way listeners perceive it and only you have the specialist audio skills to know how to control it.
It’s you, then. Take responsibility.