The Corner

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Television is about to get a bit quieter. 

Beginning Thursday, television stations and cable providers are required to keep the volume of commercials at a level consistent with programming. No more blaring car ads or holiday shopping spots, unless providers want to incur the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission.

 ”Loud television commercials that make consumers run for the mute button or change the channel altogether will be a thing of the past,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who sponsored the initial bill in the House. 

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was a co-sponsor of the act. He told industry publication Broadcasting & Cable: “It’s about time we turned down the volume on loud commercials that startle TV watchers into paying attention.

Ever wondered why the trailers and commercials at movie theaters are so obnoxiously loud? Well, it’s the same problem there as it is on television: The people who made them want them to be obnoxiously loud. Without getting too technical, the fundamental problem here is the deliberate overuse of compression, which more recent digital recording and mastering techniques have made both more precise and much easier to achieve. (This is also ruining recorded music, but that’s a subject for another day.)

What does deliberately overusing compression mean? Think of it like this: If you record an orchestra, you’re going to have a wide range of “loudness” that runs from an individual instrument — an oboe, say — all the way up to a full orchestra hit. Likewise, in a movie or TV show, the range runs all the way from whispers to explosions. This is called “dynamic range.” The trick for the movie theater, therefore, is to set the audio at the right level so that the audience can hear both the whispers and the explosions without either straining to hear what’s going on, or going deaf. Commercials and trailers, however, do not generally need to demonstrate such a range, and may even prefer to present themselves as constant excitement and noise. As Bruce Simmons explains on ScreenRant:

The reason we get “blasted” at commercial time is determined by how the audio levels are recorded when creating their ads. Affectively, the process is called dynamic range compression, or “compression” for short. Compression is applied to reduce sounds that get recorded over certain levels while the quieter sounds do not get reduced. In the process, the advertisers take liberal advantage of the mid range tones to exploit our senses, since those aren’t affected as much.

To sum it up, compression is used to increase the average level of sound, effectively making it louder.

In other words, the continuous overall volume of the mix is pushed up and the range is diminished: The loud signals are made as loud as they can possibly be, and the soft sounds are kept in the medium range. Nothing is allowed to be quiet. Our ears perceive the product of this process as more or less constant loudness, and, after a while, it gets highly irritating.

In Britain this has bcome a real problem in movie theaters, and one whose only real solution lies in convincing the studios to stop it. Currently, the trailers and commercials are recorded and mastered to be louder than the movie by design — and hopefully louder than the other trailers, too, so as to stand out. The theater thus has a problem. Initially, theaters set the volume at the correct level for the movie, only to see their audiences blasted in the previews. Then, they compensated by turning down the volume, which in turn made the movie too quiet. Viewers thus traded too-loud previews and commercials for too-quiet feature films.

On television, unlike at the movies, you have the capacity to turn your television up and down with your remote control. But that’s quite annoying. Hence the FCC’s attempt to do something about it.

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