Bad sound only affects streaming TV series — not shows broadcast on linear television channels. Despite this being a well-known problem, some streamers don’t seem to want to solve it.

On August 17, 2023, the Water Cooler, VideoAge’s twice-a-week digital feature, ran an article titled “Losing the Good Sounds of Voices.” Little did we know that the loss of good sound is a problem that doesn’t only affect radio voices, but is becoming endemic to made-for-streaming television series as well.

Try this experiment at home: Tune in first to a broadcast network, such as New York City’s Channel 2 (CBS), Channel 4 (NBC), Channel 5 (FOX), or Channel 7 (ABC), either during a local hour or during a network show. Then switch to any streaming service’s series, leaving the sound level untouched. You will inevitably, like me, reach for the remote control to increase the sound level. You might even have to double the volume. Since the sound will still come out garbled and the dialogue will come out as whispers, you will then activate the subtitles, hoping that the words will be easy to read (meaning not white lettering against a white background or black fonts against a black backdrop). There is also the problem of the font being too thin and unreadable, but this is a different issue for a future editorial.

The sound problem is so pervasive in streaming services that 40 percent of Netflix viewers reportedly use subtitles regularly, while 80 percent activate them at least once a month.

Now, there are several reasons, or justifications, for the bad sound, which is a known issue among sound engineers in the entertainment industry. Many say that it is generated at the production level, and/or at the reception level, but neither one makes sense since these issues are not manifested with made-for-broadcast shows. Indeed, in those TV series the sound is good even when shown on streaming services.

At the production level, the justifications for the mumbling sounds are: foreign accents and portable microphones that let actors speak more softly. Then at the mixing the sounds are optimized for a surround sound reproduction, which is fantastic for explosions, but not so great for voices.

Joe Lewis, head of Audio at the London-based The Voiceover Gallery, an agency that sources voiceover talent, sound engineers, and translators, had this to say: “Too many people use great mics but don’t pay attention to the actual sound. The gear is there to assist you, it won’t do your job for you.” He continued: “Over-use of compression and EQ [equalization],” are also issues. “Although these are great tools they are often misunderstood, and over-processed sounds can result in muddy sounds.”

For the bad sound at home, the new TV sets are also to blame. As those sets have thinned in the era of HD screens, most internal speakers are built at the bottom of the set or backward from the rear. That means that the sound isn’t directly going to viewers, and may be getting dampened or absorbed by the TV set’s surroundings.

Smart TV audio settings, which offer the option to automatically control the volume, could potentially help since they can turn the dynamic range on or off, thereby reducing the difference between loud and soft sounds.

But the fact remains that the bad sound affects only TV shows for streaming services and not those broadcast on linear television.

(By Dom Serafini)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)

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