Loudness And Intelligibility Recording In TV Drama

Sound Boom with Blimp

We have been discussing the issue of loudness and intelligibility recently, first with my article asking BBC Sound Problems Continue – Why? and then with Russ’ observations in his article So BBC How Come We Can Hear The Dialogue On Peaky Blinders? Well not unsurprisingly this issue continues to be discussed here and elsewhere. I came across an excellent article from UK based Royal Television Society entitled Sounding off: Inaudible dialogue is rife among dramas written by Maggie Brown in their May 2016 magazine and with their permission forms a significant part of this article as I believe it opens up the key issues with experienced people in their fields…

Maggie starts by picking up on the comments made by BBC Controller of TV Channels Charlotte Moore pledging to tackle the “big issue” of sound that I referred to my my article BBC Sound Problems Continue – Why? The issue of intelligibility has been an ongoing issue for many years and as far back as 2009, the then-BBC One Controller Jay Hunt launched an “audibility project”, involving a 20,000-strong panel of viewers and listeners. But back to the present. Charlotte Moore’s explanation that, after Episode 1 of Happy Valley… “we took everyone back to the edit suite to really make sure, to work very hard to make it crisper, and change these [sound] levels” has not gone unnoticed and has irritated a number of us including myself. Maggie Brown in her RTS article quotes an unnamed sound engineer…

The levels are not a problem. The whole nation can hear an actor mumbling. If you bring up the levels, the actor is still mumbling. There is an entire culture of denial at the BBC. Written guidelines, a set of training videos… are pointless.

Maggie also interviewed UK based sound recordist Chris Ashworth, who I have personally worked with on a number of occasions. Chris has worked on many excellent UK dramas including the BBC’s acclaimed War and Peace and, most recently, Netflix’s The Crown, and he confirms that the belief that sound can be fixed by simply changing the levels has astounded technicians. Chris goes on to say…

I welcome the debate. It is time to get away from the blame culture. A lot of my colleagues feel undervalued.

Chris also concedes that audibility is not just an issue for the BBC: it is industry wide and includes documentaries as well as drama. Nevertheless, filming location drama often presents a unique set of challenges for sound engineers. There is the signal-to-noise ratio – the recorded dialogue against the background noise, including the sound of generators for the lights etc.

Take Chris’ experience of working on War and Peace. The battle scenes, where lightweight equipment and short booms were used alongside hand-held cameras, presented singular problems. So, too, did Jim Broadbent’s scenes as the emotionally repressed Prince Nikolai facing the loss of his son Prince Andrei. Chris explains…

We were using sets inside a very echoey Lithuanian warehouse. We contained it. We used clip-on mics.

Jim Broadbent’s scenes were hailed as a triumph. His method of working is to learn the cues, but not the lines, because he wants to understand what is being said and he is not over-familiar with the script. Chris continues…

Actors who are cast and paid to do the job, turn their back or head, or speak quietly. Some directors like the fact that the audience is straining to hear what is said.

If Chris found audibility problems, he believes it is not his job to directly instruct actors rather Chris marks the place in the script and tells the director.

Tom Harper, who was the Director for War and Peace says that, while he respects the views of sound recordists, in his opinion and experience, if there are audibility problems, “they arise at the broadcast and TV reception point, as the soundtrack is played out on reduced bandwidth to two tiny speakers.”

Diederick Santer, Joint Chief Executive of the UK based drama producer Kudos and a former Executive Producer of BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Grantchester says..

it is a complex combination of factors. Actors mumbling can be an issue, particularly on a show going for a naturalistic look. In real life, people do mumble. In real life, the people they are talking to say pardon, and it gets repeated more clearly. It is down to producers and sound recordists to police this.

It can be, acknowledges another unnamed producer, disheartening for actors, when they are immersed in the part, to be told to do it again, enunciating their words more clearly. They need to bear in mind that the real audience, unlike in the theatre, is absent.

Another program often referred in connection to mumbling actors is Jamaica Inn which lost a third of its viewers following the outcry over hard-to-hear dialogue. Gabriel Byrne’s performance in Quirke was also criticised later the same year for the same issue.

Diederick Santer adds: “For sound professionals, recording on set is tricky.” The use of two or three cameras makes it challenging for boom operators who must stay out of shot: “They have to be creative to find places to put microphones, not in shot or casting shadows. Considerations of sound are almost always secondary to those of picture on set.” He adds that radio mics, often resorted to as a solution, give the flattest of sound. This means that everyone sounds the same. Furthermore, they can pick up the rustling noises made by clothing. In post-production, it is down to the dialogue editor to make sure the best takes are used. They can swap in sound from other takes, mix and match to create the best dialogue track.

But “this is a slow and time-­consuming job. And shows with tight deadlines or low budgets may not have the resources to do it properly.” Automatic dialogue replacement is an option, where the sound recorded on the day is unusable.

The problem is that the replacement isn’t always convincing… a mumbled or slurred line is uttered by mumbling or slurred lips, so the synch-perfect enunciation on to those lips can look and sound ridiculous. [At the final mix, after adding in the music], as you sit in the audio suite surrounded by big speakers, you can hear every chirp of bird song, every pluck of harp, every lip smack, it all sounds rich and lovely. What I do and a number of other producers and engineers do, is wheel in a crappy telly and play the whole thing in the way that replicates the experience at home… and not compel the audience to switch on subtitles, which I am so often forced to do by badly recorded and mixed shows.

Simon Bishop is a top end sound recordist with credits as diverse as entertainment shows like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and dramas like ‘New Tricks’ and also chair of the Institute Of Professional Sound and has plenty of experience of this thorny issue and said this in Maggie Brown’s RTS article…

There is a huge lack of understanding by producers, younger people, about what makes a good soundtrack. On a TV or film set, everyone – actors, make-up, costume, lighting, camera operators, directors – are there to make the picture experience good. It may be that three out of a crew of anything from 25 to 125 are doing the sound. The camera is king. But, if the sound doesn’t work, you don’t have a programme. There is a complete imbalance.

A lot of this is a people problem. We need producers with balls, who will stand up to the director and actor and say: “This is incomprehensible.” Most of the issues with sound recording could be solved before a frame is shot, if people made sensible decisions from the outset. I mean people taking responsibility beforehand.

Sound recordists know there are numerous actors who are mumblers, who have form. It is solvable. It is a British trait. We don’t like embarrassing confrontations. If an actor chooses to mumble, I can make a perfectly accurate record of it. You will hear mumbling. If an actor has been told [by the director] to speak quietly, we can bring the level up.

But if the fundamental speech is mumbled it will be unclear, because it is unclear, and I would regard it as the duty of a sound recordist to report it up the chain. I say that my Mum only gets to watch this once. If people can’t hear, they’ll turn off.

But what happens if they [directors and producers] don’t listen? Or the shooting timetable is being hurried along? Directors have many plates to spin. If the sound recordist keeps going back to the director, you can end up in a situation where you have lost the ear of the director, who doesn’t want to hear negatives. There are definitely directors who choose to ignore sound technicians – the experts.

Modern production techniques also conspire to make the end result less good. Twenty years ago, shooting on film, rushes would be watched overnight by producers, and the sound [checked] through a loudspeaker.

If there was a problem, including background noise, they would pick it up. In 2016, the producer might watch on an iPad or even iPhone. That doesn’t lend a [proper] appraisal of the sound. That said, 99% of all film and television sound is excellent. Programmes, from Waking the Dead to The Hollow Crown and Wolf Hall, all have beautiful sound.

So there you have it. What do you think?  Sound Recordists like Simon and Chris can report poor dialog but as Simon says once you have lost the ear of the director then surely there is nothing more they can do?

What about Tom Harper, the Director for War and Peace placing the blame on the delivery and the TV speakers? On the other hand Diederick Santer as Joint Chief Executive of the drama producer Kudos believes the issues are at the source and are the responsibility of sound recordists and directors.

Using a reference TV in the dub is a useful part of the checking process but it isn’t just about the quality of the TV speakers, even assuming the dialog was well delivered and well recorded.  You have to take into consideration the environment that the consumer is watching the drama.  There is no point in having quiet whispering dialog  that is too low in the mix so that when someone is watching it at home with the washing machine going in the background the ambient noise in the room is so high that the quiet dialog is lost and I cover this in detail in my Understanding Loudness video tutorial series.

Surely it is for the people at the top of the food chain like Diederick Santer and Charlotte Moore to make it clear all the way down the pecking order that this is important. Actors need to articulate clearly, sound recordists need to be able to do their job well and directors need to respect their advice. Then when it comes to the edit and mix, directors need to make sure that they don’t ask for music and other sounds to obscure the key narrative elements, and support the mixers when they say that it will not work for the consumer. Surely until this thorny issue is grasped firmly and changes made to workflows changed programs like Happy Valley and Jamaica Inn will not be the last shows to get a reputation for unintelligible dialog.

by Mike Thornton – Pro Tools Expert