Is the background music too loud?

Tuesday 15 March 2011, 00:00

Danny Cohen Danny Cohen

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One of the most common complaints to BBC television in recent years has been that some people find it hard to hear the dialogue in our shows.

They cite many reasons for this, the most common among them being background music being too loud.

As a result of these complaints in 2009, Jay Hunt (my predecessor as controller of BBC One) launched an extensive study into why people were experiencing these difficulties.

BBC Vision's Audibility project was a huge undertaking. It involved using our 20,000-strong panel of TV viewers across the age, geographical and social demographic and a good deal of technical experimentation.

This included an engineering analysis of programmes, remixing soundtracks on clips and much more.

We also worked with the Voice Of The Listener And Viewer, Channel 4 and the Royal National Institute For Deaf People to find out once and for all what it is that can make it hard for viewers to hear the dialogue in our programmes properly.

The results were surprising. It turns out that audibility is not just about background music, as many had thought.

In fact issues range from clarity of speech - namely mumbling, muttering and muffled voices - to unfamiliar accents. Background noise such as traffic was also an issue.

However what we discovered was that it was a combination of factors could really create problems - for example a mumbling actor, recorded in a noisy environment with added music.

What struck me is that many of the problems could be resolved long before a single frame is shot if more emphasis was placed on planning for clear sound.

For example, has the director chosen the right location and what are the implications for getting good sound? Has the person looking after sound had training and the right level of experience? Are the presenters briefed to recap if they feel key messages are not clear?

If a contributor may be difficult to understand, can they be in vision as much as possible so viewers can see their lips move?

In testing, when we remixed sound tracks on video clips; with the music taken down a notch the results were fascinating.

Reducing the music by just one point, four decibels, when the programme is finally mixed allowed many more people to understand what was being said without compromising the editorial vision.

This was particularly true for people who had any form of hearing loss.

One invaluable piece of information I've learned along the way is that age-related hearing loss can begin as early as in our 40s. Many of us are completely unaware that our hearing could be deteriorating and think the issue is with TV programmes.

But for me, this is something we need to be aware of - particularly those making programmes for mainstream channels like BBC One.

The result of this research is that we now have a 'best practice' guide for programme makers available on the BBC Academy's College of Production website.

This gives clear guidance on the small things that programme makers can do to make a big difference to the audience's ability to hear and therefore enjoy our programmes to the fullest possible extent.

My thanks to all our partners involved in this project. It has been a fascinating and very useful study.

Danny Cohen is controller of BBC One.

Further guidance has now been published on the BBC's Editorial Guidelines website.

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    Comment number 21.

    Sound level options surely could be incorporated into a 'red button' feature?

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    Comment number 22.

    So, after testing 20,000 listeners and good deal of technical experimentation, you discovered that "a mumbling actor, recorded in a noisy environment with added music" is hard to hear.

    Your next research, presumably, will involve studying bear faeces in a woodland environment.

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    Comment number 23.

    The advent of coding audio for surround sound has also caused problems. I have found, particularly with some American content, that speech which is almost inaudible against music when listened to via a normal stereo set can suddenly become much clearer when put through a surround system. No doubt some of this will be due to enhanced separation, but I think an additional factor is that those producing content are balancing the audio whilst listening on more sophisticated systems than many consumers have access to.

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    Comment number 24.

    I should like to remove the unnecessary babbling of many sports commentators. TV is not radio, I can actually see what is happening and I can read the speed, times etc, shown on the screen. Skiing is one of the worst; the swishing of the skis, the crowd yelling and the cow bells are all drowned out by the commentator stating that a competitor was a bit off course and not up to his usual standard. He then goes on to win!

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    Comment number 25.

    Thank goodness! At last someone is pointing out the "king's new clothes" issue of speech being masked by music and/or background noise. The latter can be intrinsic (e.g. traffic noise during an interview) or deliberately introduced (e.g. telephones ringing and general clatter to enhance the authentic atmosphere in "Casualty.") I'm 62 and still hear reasonably well, I think, but obviously not as well as when I was 32. So yes please, a little more consideration for us older folk. I don't think it would spoil things at all for younger people, as in any case we subconsciously filter out the extraneous noise.

    I agree with the advert sound level issue too - did I read somewhere 15% louder than the programmes? Advertisers are tearing their hair out that we skip them one way or another - do they realise the irritating noise level is one reason?

    A final gripe. Why oh why when a scene changes does the sound from the new scene precede the video by a second or so? I guess it's something to do with continuity, but I personally find it annoying and distracting.

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    Comment number 26.

    If speech is muffled, to the extent that a lot of people are using subtitles to figure out what's going on... then it's crazy to think that it's OK. I'm so glad the BBC has looked into the issue and identified the problems. If I watch an old film, I can hear what's going on because the actors probably came from a Theatre background, and HAD to learn to speak clearly. I love dialogue... but some of the latest films, where actors mumble and whisper to be more true to life means I'd rather wait until I can get a copy and watch it at home rather than in the Cinema, as I sometimes can't follow the story.

    Horizon is one of the programs I used to love to watch as a kid, because I was interested in what the people had to say, a few years ago I stopped watching because it was so difficult to follow - the narrators mumbled and the background music was too loud - exactly what the report found.

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    Comment number 27.

    trekker308 @#20

    Not all of us. I watch using an Arcam AV amplifier linked to a 5.1 (Quad) speaker set up.
    Both my wife and I (40s and 30s) had problems understanding what was being said in episode 1 and did find the music intrusive (i.e. not background) when Brian Cox was talking. We didn't have a problem with episode 2 and commented on the fact. I hadn't realised the change was down to the complaints made, so congrats to the beeb for listening.

    I do agree with other posters though, that it should be possible to allow home listeners to mix their own combination of voice with music and effects.

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    Comment number 28.

    About time the Beeb worked this one out. Not exactly rocket science that over loud background music and other extraneous noises will make dialogue more difficult to hear is it? I am afraid that what has been happening is typical of the "Tristrams" imposing their production values without the application of any common sense.

    In response to Trekker308's comment, I am listening to the sound through very high quality equipment fed by a 24/192 digital to analogue converter from the satellite signal. I can add in variable high and low pass filtration and room acoustic correction but as someone who suffers hearing loss in the 2000 to 4500 Hz range, overloud background music just cannot be filtered out without losing too much of the spoken word sound.

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    Comment number 29.

    "BBC Vision's Audibility project was a huge undertaking. It involved using our 20,000-strong panel of TV viewers across the age, geographical and social demographic and a good deal of technical experimentation."

    All this just to ascertain what was obvious...

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    Comment number 30.

    One other point the BBC sound engineers need to consider is this. The majority of modern slim line tv's both plasma and LCD have loudspeakers with little or no bass response to speak of. Not everyone wants a mass of speakers around the room, with all the associated tangle of wires in order to hear decent sound. All that happens is that the bass sounds are"muddy" and muffled through the tv's speakers alone. So turn down the bass emphasis by 3db at least. Then persuade manufacturers to improve the loudspeakers within the tv cabinets. Slim does not have to be tinny. Sound levelling is only built into a handful of tv's so come on Aunty beeb! Sort out the sound levells!

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    Comment number 31.

    Those of you who recommend that people with hearing difficulties should just switch off the sound, use subtitles and stop spoiling it for "the rest of us" should remember that the deaf do not watch TV in isolation and often have to accomodate the needs of other viewers around them and compromise accordingly.

    It should also be remembered that subtitles disrupt the television picture - for hearing and non-hearing viewers - just as unnecessary, poorly mixed soundtracks disrupt the sound. The quality of subtitling is also extremely variable.

    Subtitles are not the solution to this problem.

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    Comment number 32.

    I find it annoying and think it is lazy programme making, being used as a filler where they can't think of what to say. It must also be expensive when you have to pay for the rights to broadcast it - especially when they use snippets of music throughout a programme.

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    Comment number 33.

    Just getting rid of Sandy Toxic would help.

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    Comment number 34.

    *******************************

    we need a ***CHOICE***: those who want to listen to annoying musak may listen to it, others may turn it off. BBC always banging on about how valuable "interaction" is. OK prove it.

    *******************************

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    Comment number 35.

    It was 'fascinating' that music -4dB made it easier for people to hear the dialogue: you needed to ask 20,000 people to find that out? As for 'editorial vision' - I used to be driven nuts as a BBC radio producer with demands from execs to add more and louder music to my documentaries: it felt more like policy or corporate orthodoxy, it certainly overrode my own editorial vision (and given that my first BBC job was as a freelance assistant musical director on BBC1, preceeded by years as a rock sound engineer, I have robust bona fides as a music fan).

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    Comment number 36.

    It's not just background music that means you can't hear speech - on TV you can often switch off the sound and turn on the subtitles to get rid of that problem. My problem is with presenters who talk too loudly and argue all the time, especially on the radio - it's painful, I can't hear what they are saying and I just turn the radio off completely as I can't be forever jumping up and down to alter the volume. The programme makers need to ensure a better balance between soft and loud voices.

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    Comment number 37.

    Brian Cox says it's wrong for the BBC to listen to the voice of a minority? It's not just the minority of people who made the effort to complain - I'm one of those who didn't complain about the intrusive music. I just stopped watching. I turned off a programme that I was looking forward to watching. The content was totally ruined by the unnecessarily loud music. If the music is more important than Brian Cox's words, then put the words into subtitles, and cut out Brian Cox altogether.

    There is something called 'balance' and even in a digital age, balance is still possible. As is the use of a fader - fade up the music when music is the important feature of a scene; fade down the music when the words of the presenter/expert/commentator/scientist are important. You're wrong, Brian Cox, or perhaps you have a hearing problem. Listen to the audience - otherwise the audience will not be able to listen to you.

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    Comment number 38.

    I am so pleased to hear the sound on the Wonders of the Universe has being redone. I was really looking forward to watching this series and couldn't because of the volume of music. We turned off (and have not turned back to it yet). I am 47 and my wife is 45 and our hearing is normal! I even tried on another telly to see if the set was at fault. On the same subject, on the breakfast news - when the presenters are previewing the news items and weather etc, why do we have to have this single note of 'music' continuing in the background like someone is holding their breath. so annoying and unnecessary. They used to do it on Radio5 Live but have stopped. has the music editor moved programmes? Thanks

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    Comment number 39.

    The background noise on some programmes is totally disruptive. I have lost some upper range hearing through noise damage so ambient background noise makes it difficult to hear speech on programmes. Other factors which effect the enjoyment of factual programmes are cameras spinning round presenters, very fast sequences with no purpose, shots of Betteny Hughes standing on a rock staring into the distance, hand and arm waving, and worst of all, presenters who smile all the time.( Never trust a continual smiler!) The host of other wizzy gimmicks which display a lack of content or the fact that the director is bored. If the subject matter is good enough then play it straight otherwise don't waste money on it. Coast is a good example of the best. Neil Oliver has good presentational style but even he is given the whirling camera treatment from time to time. If it is superfluous or confusing leave it OUT.

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    Comment number 40.

    I Would be interested to know,what the break down of programmes was for this survey ? And were all the shows surveyed British shows ? As i feel it is with American shows,that the Background Music,is a major problem,as it is with Many American Films.
    For example the American Show Prison Break,Which my wife enjoys watching,has unbelievable levels of background music,And while i would agree,that Music in the right place and at the right Tempo etc.,can enhance a T.V Show / Film. It is also true that the margin is a very thin one. And surely all background music does not have to be provided by a full scale orchestra ? Which again seems to be the case in many American T.V Shows/Films.

 

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