DYNAMICS PROCESSING and FM RADIO
by Mike Brown
I recall an observation made in 1974 by Desmond Briscoe of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that "50 years of mono [AM] radio have conditioned us all." This is surely so, but twenty years further on and having also passed the 10th birthday of the CD our ears should have been educated to some extent. I believe that much of the current misuse of dynamics processors is due to spurious and inertia-bound thinking...
Industry has become accustomed to being run by accountants and People Who Know Best; someone somewhere has told Them that more people will listen to their station if it sounds louder. Someone also told Them that compression will do that so the edict goes out and must be obeyed. Is there actually any proof that more people listen to a particular station because it's been through multi-band compression? I don't think so, the public is not as susceptible as that.
The sad thing is that now virtually all stations are doing it; everyone is louder than everyone else and to use another well established radio phrase we're "back to square one" aren't we? What madness shall we try next?
Those who hear radio occasionally, rather than actually listening to it may wonder what all the fuss is about so let me say we are not talking about some subtle effect only the "golden-eared" can detect. When a vinyl record with a quiet intro is played the result is laughable: up come all the surface noise and crackles attracted by weeks or years of accumulating DJ's fingerprints, and when the verse or chorus starts and the drums come in what happens? - the only dramatic effects are of all the dynamics and surface noise fairly suddenly disappearing - not quite the effect which was intended! No doubt the same thing happens all the time on ILR stations throughout the country.
Mastering engineers work in partnership with record companies, producers and performers to ensure that records and tapes sound as good as possible and in virtually all cases loudness is a primary consideration. No artist/producer wants their record to sound quieter than others, so, to a large extent music radio presenters and engineers have already had the job done for them. In the ultimate analysis I would suggest that any further audio processing is simply there to make up for the speed and lack of finesse with which some radio programmes are put together.
The homogenous, grainy and congested quality of sound from music stations using ineptly set-up dynamics processing becomes irritating and tiring to listen to after a very short while. Multiband compression also serves to increase the apparent bass content of records which have been well mixed. This cannot be fully corrected by adjusting a tone control or graphic equaliser and is noticeable whether one is listening on a good "hi-fi" system, a ghetto-blaster, a car radio or a Walkperson.
The availability of digital recording has undoubtedly served to increase the dynamic range of some commercial recordings, especially of classical music. Philosophically most performers and record producers agree it is right to preserve this dynamic range and are keen to do so. Perhaps many radio producers and engineers agree that this gives them a problem, if so I would urge them to find better, more traditional ways of dealing with it.
The recording industry could perhaps help by introducing gain-changing data into CDs which could be read and optionally carried out by CD players equipped with suitable decoders, but this is only a partial solution. Ultimately, and with the introduction of DAB in mind, the real answer must lie in the hands of hardware manufacturers. Many radios, CD players and hi-fi systems already boast an array of knobs and sliders, some of which are of little use to most people. Maybe room should be found for a dynamics control so that the individual listener can tailor the dynamics to suit his or her listening environment. This new feature would especially suit drivers, harassed housepersons trying to listen to Woman's Hour and perhaps even DJs in dance clubs who only use faders as on/off switches.
Incidentally, the use of dynamics processors is not confined to radio. I understand that some tv stations have also been experimenting with their use in an attempt to reduce the number of complaints from listeners about the perennial problem of the loudness of commercials. During trials the number of complaints from viewers did decrease, although the number of complaints from those involved in making the actual programmes rose dramatically as sound balances were systematically destroyed. What's the phrase? "The operation was a success but the patient died". Have I missed something here? Surely if something sounds too loud you just turn it down. I've never understood why commercial tv companies consistently have a problem with this. When commercial radio began it was given clear guidelines by the IBA (RIP): commercials should peak roughly 4dB lower than programmes. Obviously, in the event, you use your ears and make a judgement, but that doesn't seem to happen with television. I know commercial spots on tv are prepared in advance and that there is heavy reliance on automation, but that shouldn't mean that when the programme junction arrives you just throw a switch and hope for the best.
Of course the point I'm making in the case of both radio and television is that automatic dynamics processing should not be considered a substitute for operator training, experience and good operating practice. If the broadcasting industries continue to reduce good sound to a consistent, homogenous noise the public will accept it because they know no better but that doesn't justify the practice, it is just the easy way out.
Just recently the benefits of using trained TOs in a seperate MCR was graphically demonstrated when I had cause to go back and listen to an old cassette of Kenny Everett, recorded off-air from Capital Radio during the late 70s. It was a real joy to listen to in comparison with todays badly processed fare.
Perhaps there is some hope after all. The DAB specification does indeed allow the compression to be done in the receiver. The transmitted data can include the necessary instructions for correct compression but it's up to the listener to decide if they want to use it.