I love audio in film. A great film soundtrack, great foley work and clear, powerful dialogue. The thump of the subwoofer and surround sound in cinema gives me a real buzz. If I’m being honest, I love it so much I am one of those ‘annoying’ people who likes to listen to all of the music at the end of a film.
Recently though, I have had a problem with some TV programs and films. There seems to be this growing problem of clashing sound and music interfering with dialogue, so much so that sometimes it can be really hard to understand and some of it inaudible. Short of taking a course in lip reading my remote control comes in very handy for rewinding the bits that I need a second or third listen to.
It appears that I am not alone in the matter, aside from hearing the same complaints from other friends and family members, there are reports in the media of these problems. It is an issue that is googled frequently with over 1.7million results and it is making the mainstream news too. Only the other day I tweeted about the following.
Totally unfair critique! Blue Planet II fans slam BBC’s ‘ridiculous’ choice of exaggerated sound effects https://t.co/gtzn0G63eC
— MediaMusicNow (@mediamusicnow) November 2, 2017
Blame the Sound on the Sound Engineers
Now here’s the thing, because of my job I like to think I know a little bit about sound quality, but one thing I have learnt over the years is that sound is very subjective and what you think you know can change or can at least be questioned. Most sound engineers, especially live sound, will know that you can only please most of the people most of the time. But I must admit, with this problem of inaudible sound some people don’t experience the issue. They are having no problems watching Blue Planet II. However, there are plenty, including myself that get really frustrated when we can’t hear what is being said because of the background music that seems too loud. It is frustrating, you have a nice 50″ TV that looks great but you can’t understand a word! If the music is too loud it must be the sound guys! Right!? Wrong! (ish).
What I mean is, yes, it could be the sound guys or girls and statistically I would imagine that there are programs and films produced that have poorly mixed sound. In the case of mainstream broadcasters, I would suggest that this would not be the situation. Big money is spent on most programs and films for mainstream release and I think it very unlikely that they would skimp on the audio production. In the case Blue Planet II, Hans Zimmer composed the soundtrack, I hardly think they went to all of that trouble and then chucked a final mix together on Friday night to release it Monday. It would have been a long, in depth process.
Variation in Speakers
With any audio mix you are at the mercy of what device the end user hears the audio through. As I said earlier, sound is very subjective. The person with the over powered sub woofer in their car will perceive a very bassy mix, where as the person listening on their phone speaker will hear a very thin sound with virtually no low frequencies. An audio producer’s job is to try and get it to sound as good as possible on all speakers. The problem is that getting a great sound on every device is not possible. So, what is heard over the studio speakers will differ when it comes out of your TV, and the result will be down to the quality of the audio and speakers on your TV.
What’s wrong with my TV then?
The short answer is that it is probably modern. My recent new TV purchase alerted me to this problem. Prior to this, I had no inaudible dialogue issues. However, my new smart TV is about the quarter of the thickness of my old one and the sound is not terrible, but only good in certain genres of TV. Films and cinematic content is hard work. It is often a case of going into the settings and messing with the EQ and that does little to nothing to improve matters. My conclusion is that TV speakers are too small these days and that is the problem. Essentially, the job of a speaker is to shift air and it has to be a certain size to do this. Unfortunately, it seems that speakers in modern TVs are too small to handle a full range of music, sound effects and dialogue. I also have a home cinema in my loft with full 5.1 surround sound and a centre speaker, and I don’t experience the same problem on that setup. The problem is isolated to my modern TV purchased in 2017. While the picture quality has taken a step forward the sound quality has taken a step backwards.
What’s the answer?
It is not the fault of the producers if your TV does not have good enough sound. Annoying as that is, it seems to be the reality. That is my conclusion and I am soon to purchase a soundbar to add to the TV, as I think that will resolve the issue (I will report back when I do).
It seems that slim means small inadequate speakers. With TV’s getting slimmer, I imagine that this might become the norm. Maybe we will see the day when you buy your TV speakers separately, like you do with a computer.
What has your experience been? Perhaps you are an audio producer on the Blue Planet II? Feel free to comment and share.