As discussed in our cover story this month, the CALM Act regulations on television loudness finally go fully into effect later this year. Several years back, during a NewBay Media Surround Broadcast Conference at NAB, several major players began a dialogue about their approaches to loudness control during a panel on the topic. That dialogue continued, and what was once a cluster of disparate approaches has progressed to a large degree of uniformity.
With the adoption of the ATSC A/85 recommended practice for loudness management, championed by the DTV Audio Group under the direction of executive director Roger Charlesworth (who was the driving force that brought that early group together at the Surround Broadcast Conferences), we have an excellent example of an industry policing itself. The efforts towards what became the CALM act may have already been underway, the threat of fine carrying legislation looming, but the broadcast and cable industries recognized their audience’s need, and developed unified procedures to address that need on their own.
Today, those procedures have been broadly implemented and the common practices that once found you diving for your remote when commercials came on or at program transitions are largely gone. My own issues with broadcast HD implementation have largely shifted to video instead of audio—the voluntary video degradation of the primary channel of a station (sub-optimal digital video data compression) when splintering their signal into sub-channels for alternate language or other programming streams (most visible to me when comparing fast-action sports broadcasts between local carriers).
The remaining audio issues are found mostly at the local level, where best practices are not fully implemented, with some preferring a single- box approach to loudness control that eschews careful metering and control for a black-box approach that is based on the worst of what has happened in the radio market— dynamics control through compression and limiting. Thus far, most HD broadcast and cable networks have made major strides in audio quality compared to a few short years ago. The audio systems in place are no longer a poorly funded afterthought, but instead maintain the potential of the format. It would be a shame to lose that progress because local broadcasters and smaller cable operations decide instead to opt for the low road.
Part of the danger of that approach is that the hypercompression (obsessive, destructive dynamic range control) that plagues radio, and the CD format, would infect HD broadcast and cable audio. As mastering engineer Glenn Meadows opines, “CD is not a two-bit medium.” In the quest to be louder than rival product, the potential of CD audio was rarely realized in the mainstream, following the example set by radio, even though A&R departments never learned the lesson that hypercompressed source material did their product a disservice when later attacked again by radio processing. That trend is still in evidence by the delivery format CD, MP3 AAC or full-resolution digital. Part of the allure of the DVD-Audio and SACD movement was that those releasing product on those formats managed to avoid the worst excesses of hypercompression, for the most part, though ultimately failing in the marketplace for other reasons.
As I write, today is Dynamic Range Day, the annual event exposing excess in hypercompression and promoting the potential of music production that utilizes the potential of modern formats for a superior listening experience. This grass-roots movement (dynamicrangeday.co.uk) is to be applauded and supported in its efforts at awareness and education. As an industry, can we not take the lessons learned from the DTV audio loudness campaign and apply a similar effort to addressing the issue of hypercompressed music?