With mobile and tablet viewing continuing to rise, and flatscreen TVs providing ever less impressive sound quality, dubbing mixers have their work cut out when it comes to keeping everyone happy, writes Will Strauss.
As far as television sound is concerned, the constant advance of technology can be something of a double-edged sword.
On the one hand it has significantly improved how audio is acquired and manipulated. On the other it has aided the move to flatter, smaller, and more portable TV viewing devices that – while more ergonomic, practical, and aesthetically pleasing – feature increasingly smaller speakers and, as a consequence, offer poorer sound quality.
It is a juxtaposition that makes mixing audio for television a bit of a challenge – not least when you consider that as many as a quarter of television viewers now watch their favourite programmes using online catch-up services on mobile, tablet or PC. BBC 1 drama Sherlock, for example, picked up an extra 3.5 million viewers through BBC iPlayer over Christmas and New Year.
“These days, as dubbing mixers, we can work in a bottomless pit of dynamics, with massive foot and headroom,” argues Hackenbacker dubbing mixer and managing director Nigel Heath (pictured). “But the reproduction on iPads, mobile phones, plasmas, and some, not all, flatpanel, plasma, and LCD TVs has never been worse.
“Ten years ago TVs were big CRTs with huge chassis so the base end was extended and it all sounded lovely and rich. Now you’re hearing stuff with a 1in or 2in loudspeaker and some porting tricks to make the bass seem a little bit bigger inside a rattling plastic cabinet. This has changed the way I mix programmes.”
With tablet views for video content on iPlayer now having overtaken PCs it should have changed the way everyone mixes, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Two dubbing mixers that Audio Media spoke to for this article, who both asked for anonymity, said that they were rarely asked to consider mobile viewing, instead concentrating on the significant majority of the audience that watch a show through their TV.
Scott Jones from Molinare also makes the salient point that tablet viewing can actually enhance the experience – thanks to the benefit of headphones.
Flat screen, flat sound
“TV speakers do seem to be getting worse,” he admits. “And the flatter the screen the flatter the speakers have to be, which means not too much dynamic sound comes out. We have to play it and reference it through a TV, but as one director said to me, the [viewers] are watching it on their iPad: but they’re sticking their headphones on and that is better than what is coming though your telly as they can get the full spectrum of sound.”
With all these viewing options, it’s difficult to strike a balance. But there are solutions. Post-production sound mixer and sound designer Scott Marshall from Bamsound says he is often asked to make shows louder or more exciting to give them a greater impact when viewed on smaller devices.
“Of course there are many ways to do this but often they sacrifice dynamic range and sometimes a truly nice sounding mix in order to achieve it,” he admits.
Instead, he takes his lead from the music world.
“[Music] producers will often – in the case of drums particularly – have several duplicates of the same instrument in their mix all EQ’d slightly differently in order for the sound to break through on different speakers and music systems,” he says. “A small laptop has much less bass response than a speaker in a nightclub and so the bass drum is EQ’d differently on copied tracks to bring those nuances through.”
It’s a philosophy that can apply to TV too, he says. “EQ is mostly the answer as I think compression and crushing the audio just makes a mix sound more squashed and washed out resulting in a loss of definition. If I was being asked to mix solely for a small device I would edge and EQ my mix to sit more in the mid and high spectrum and avoid too many low rumbles and sub bass frequencies to allow it to push through better. I only wish there was time and budget to remix shows more than once for different types of output.”
Heath agrees on the point about low frequencies but also points to the disharmony that sees some people view a TV show on their mobile phone or tablet, others watch it on a bog-standard flatscreen telly and a third group get the full sonic experience via a dedicated home sound system.
Again, it is a difficult, but not impossible, balancing act. He cites the example of a recent drama that had a beautiful score including “plot point punctuations that were really just existing on sub-bass for the drama moments”.
“With the best will in the world, there was no way you could make that stuff come out of a phone, iPad or flatpanel TV with no bass response,” he says. “But, if you push it like crazy, anyone listening with an AV system will be catapulted out the backdoor with the house shaking. The happy medium of mixing TV has changed. It has become a split thing.”
His solution, in that scenario, was to add sound effect stings “in a telly friendly area”. Otherwise, he adds, these dramatic moments would “sail by without any punctuation at all”.
“I’m certainly not reinventing the wheel but this is something that we’re doing a little more now, especially in big scenes. I will add something for the iPad market which I didn’t used to do.”
With viewing on mobile and tablet still on the rise, and modern TVs getting ever flatter, there’s every chance he won’t be the only one.