Who’s to blame for the BBC sound complaints?

Producer Matt North offers up a few possible reasons why some UK TV dramas continue to frustrate viewers with inaudible dialogue, and his thoughts on what can be done to prevent future controversy…

The complaints regarding the sound quality and intelligibility of BBC drama resurfaced recently with the airing of the second series of the critically-acclaimed Happy Valley(pictured) – prompting much discussion among both the general public and audio professionals. It’s the third series in a little over two years to receive a large number of similar sound-related grievances, so why are viewers still experiencing dialogue audibility issues? Why hasn’t the cause been identified and resolved?

Actually, it’s not quite that straightforward. The audibility issues could in fact be a sum of many contributing technical and attitudinal factors coming together, rather than there being a singular source to blame. Mike Thornton has outlined some of these potential factors in his article over at Pro Tools Expert, which I would highly recommend reading. But rather than simply repeat what has already been highlighted, I’d like to offer my thoughts on a couple of points that have arisen from these discussions.

Look who’s talking

One of the main causes lies in the performances of the talent. When the complaints over mumbling actors in 2014’s Jamaica Inn hit the media, many reports began to question the work and competency of the location sound recordist, which really angered me. Actors’ mumbling is most certainly not a sound problem, it’s a performance problem; the sound recordist should never be held accountable for poor performance, delivery or intonation of the talent. Can you imagine trying to point the blame of an extra picking their nose on a director of photography?

As audio professionals, we know that it is the primary role of the sound recordist to obtain the cleanest recording of the dialogue as possible (usually in the face of many adversities), as well as identifying and attempting to solve any issues that will ultimately affect the quality of the soundtrack. Sadly, I can only imagine that such concerns over intelligibility are most likely dismissed by directors when they’re raised on set. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told “we’re running behind on schedule, there’s no time for a retake” or “we’ll fix it in post” when raising a particular sound issue. While I appreciate that directors have many crucial decisions to make on set, they also have their own feed of the mix just the same as they have a video monitor to analyse the visual aspects of the performance, so they should be aware of and be able to pass judgement on any potential audio complication.

Missing the point

Another angle on this is the overfamiliarity with the dialogue that could be taking place in such situations. By the time it comes to turning over on set, the director most likely knows the script inside out and this could ultimately be a subconscious reason for any dismissals of mumbling made by the sound department. When we know what is being said, it is much easier to cognitively unpick and decipher certain intonations or slurs in the dialogue. The viewers at home however will never see a script and maybe not enough thought is put into how the viewer will initially perceive the dialogue of those on screen (not to mention the terrible speakers on modern flatscreen sets that it is most likely to be consumed through). Although today’s technology allows viewers to pause and rewind, forcing them to do so because they are missing key points of dialogue will severely damage or indeed break the immersion in such dramas.

When reading certain tweets about the complaints from disgruntled viewers, many complained about having to crank the volume to understand the dialogue, only then being forced to dive for the remote moments later. Some have argued that this is due to the recent changes to loudness metering and the EBU R128 broadcast specification now in place, but I would argue that this is completely untrue. While the regulations have opened up the previously out of bounds headroom for use (from -10dBFS to digital zero), in turn liberating dubbing mixers to create more dynamic mixes, the specifications still require the mixer to mix in a calibrated environment with acknowledgement of a comfortable range of listening for viewers. Indeed, the concept of loudness metering is to avoid the ‘remote diving’ (especially between programme content and advertisements) but the programme is mixed for consumption at the same listening level throughout. Therefore, I think it’s unfair and inaccurate to blame the complaints on the recent loudness regulation implementation and rather the issues really do lie before this stage of the production process.

In conclusion

There are, of course, many other technical factors and potential causes that could also be attributing to these issues but I think, overall, one thing remains clear. A conversation needs to take place with production teams and sound professionals on how we can proceed to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future. I know it is an unfortunate old adage that sound comes second to picture and while I don’t think these complaints are necessarily going to change that, hopefully they will initiate a more understanding attitude to both the sound production process and the challenges faced when trying to record the highest quality dialogue on set.

Matt North is a freelance audio producer, specialising in high-end corporate and branded content. Based in Norwich, UK, he primarily offers post-production sound mixing, design and restoration services to clients internationally, but also has professional experience in location sound recording for film and TV.

Twitter: @mattnorthaudio

Picture: BBC/Red Productions/Ben Blackall