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Promotional ideas and technique. Always radio, always positive.

Are you hearing what I’m hearing?

Vincent Van Gough. Self Portrait (detail). Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent Van Gough. Switched to mono.

Like others in the industry I was disappointed to find that Absolute Radio has put its DAB bandwidth onto a January diet and slimmed down to mono. In an age where higher resolutions, bigger screens and faster broadband sell, this is clearly a backward step in tech.

Demand for national broadcast bandwidth outstrips supply. As Trevor Dann explored in an excellent recent edition of The Radio Today Programme, broadcasters must choose how to allocate that scarce resource. Trevor’s interview with BBC Radio’s Rupert Brun is well worth a listen.

Of course excess demand is a good problem to have. Certainly better than a multiplex that resembles a row of boarded-up shops.

Production monitoring

For us production-minded souls, it’s a good reminder that listeners hear the stuff we make in many different ways, often compromised by the limitations of their equipment, the path between broadcaster and receiver or their listening environment.

Some will be in the car (around 21%, according to Rajar), others listening on headphones, more still on a portable set in the corner of a busy room. 75% of all listening is done at home.

Our production has to be clear and entertaining in all these places, yet the listening conditions of our production studios are enjoyed by very few.

How can we deal with that?

Four ways to listen differently

I asked a few friends of Earshot how they monitored for the real world. Their replies generally fall into four categories.

1. Switch the monitoring to mono.

When you flick the mono switch energy in the L-R or ‘difference’ signal will disappear, favouring the intelligibility of centrally-placed speech and significantly reducing the prevalence of any stereo reverb and wide echo effects. The level of sounds that exist on the far left or right of the stereo picture will fall 3dB when you listen in mono.

My preference is to put the mono sound onto a single speaker. This provides a point source on which to focus (like listening to words from somebody’s mouth) rather than a ghost mono image that floats between two speakers.

2. Turn the level down.

Studio monitoring is deliberately loud to impress women so we don’t miss anything in the mix but real listening is done at much lower sound levels with the radio often just playing in the background.

Equal loudness contours

Equal loudness contours

The ear is most sensitive to sounds in the upper mids, and this is even more true at low listening levels. So low frequencies in music and the top end of the frequency spectrum will be perceived to fall away more as you crank down the speakers, often making the speech elements more prominent.

At lower listening levels our mixes thin out, the oomph and sparkle dies and speech can become exposed on top of the mix, not fully bathed in it as you’d wish.

One solution is to aggressively filter and compress the speech so it can sit lower in the mix and still be intelligible. That’s great if you’re dropping Howard Ritchie into a Capital FM spot (disclosure: I’ve never done that) but less so if you’re making something wistful for Radio 4 (disclosure: I’ve done that).

There is another way to maintain a full wrapped-around mix that doesn’t smother speech and that doesn’t add density or compression: sit the speech elements back down into the mix slightly more than feels comfortable and then eq the backing elements to actively hollow-out some upper midrange space in the places where the intelligibility of the words might otherwise be compromised.

It’s a particularly effective technique when you have speech blocks interspersed with stretches of music – no need to dip the whole track, just the frequency range that will accommodate the speech.

3. Use a deliberately substandard speaker.

I’m a big fan of my active nearfield Genelec 8020s. Punchy little speakers for everyday monitoring and transparent enough to expose even subtle distortions on speech within a mix. Sometimes, however, you might want something downright steampunk to hand.

Vintage bricks at a BBC auction of redundant kit.

Vintage bricks at a BBC auction of redundant kit.

ASC’s original Talking Brick was never built with audio fidelity in mind. There must be thousands of the things kicking about the industry so dust one off and try it.

With the acoustic properties of a tupperware lunchbox, that old talking brick will soon reveal whether your mix is ready for life on the streets.

Some other deliberate degradations you might like to try include:

Play your mix on your laptop, tablet or mobile phone speakers.

Use your cans as speakers – put them into a waste paper bucket or that large ornamental vase you keep in your studio for added muddiness.

Leave yourself a voicemail message containing your production… then dial in to pick it up. You can hear all the words? Good.

Or play your work through anything else you might find in your studio that contains a small loudspeaker:

4. Listen to the radio.

Perhaps it should go without saying but this is probably the ultimate test. Off-air audio has been brought to the boil by your station output processing and you can listen on a range of radios in a huge number of places, just as listeners do.

Just make sure you’re prepared to go back to tweak and replace your audio if you think you can improve on it with a subtle rebalance.

For your listening pleasure

Our work is heard in more places than ever because listeners have chosen to consume radio through multiple channels on a vast array of devices. You’ll remember back in history James Cridland told us it would be like this.

So imaging, promos and ads have to serve all listeners but ideally in such a way that does not reduce the listening pleasure for the minority who truly care about sound and have invested in the equipment that lets them enjoy it.

By thinking about this together and sharing these tips I hope we can find ways to achieve this more of the time for more listeners.

Thank you Dan, Ben, Neil, Lee and Nick for your contributions. If you have tips to share you can join in via the blog comments or our social media channels.

Earshot Creative is on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Steve Martin completed three years training as a sound engineer with the BBC before a career in production, marketing and journalism. He now works with broadcasters and digital media in Africa. Views are personal.