Tech's Files: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Mar 31, 2010 2:04 PM, By Eddie Ciletti



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I listen to conventional, terrestrial FM radio—in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and car—on average about three hours a day. Making radio sound as good as possible on such a wide variety of systems is both a technical and a political challenge, requiring a range of expertise and diplomacy second only to tax-code reform or audio mastering.

A broadcast engineer’s priorities range from the continual challenges of live programming to creating consistency between sound sources from around the world to balancing seemingly mutually exclusive management demands, such as ensuring that the station has a unique sonic personality and is as loud as the competition. Similar to the volume wars faced by mastering engineers, radio engineers have seen their levels pushed beyond the limit of “nice.” A decent playback system reveals commercial radio’s brute-force solutions that (with the exception of compensating for automotive background noise and worst-case junk radios) shouldn’t be necessary on modern sound systems.

Although the sound of commercial radio is offensively consistent, the bottom line is that I can listen to public radio for longer time periods without fatigue. That said, public radio’s more neutral/less-aggressive approach reveals inconsistencies where the voice-to-voice disparity can be frustrating at times, especially with news programming. The difference between broadcast and music mixing is that a recording engineer would try to reconcile the disparities between host and guests, or between local and network inserts. Radio operators have their hands full—the priorities of being live and not missing a cue (and having dead air) is all too great.

Wake, Wash and Drive
While at home, I listen mostly to news/talk on bass-challenged clock radios, which, while mediocre at best, provide the low-frequency filtering that should be part of the host mic’s signal chain. My car has respectable bass response that can make music a pleasurable experience, until the DJ/host comes on—muddier than two kids playing in the spring thaw. I’d rather not sacrifice bass notes for host clarity—that should be done at the station—and I’d also rather not have to grab tone controls while driving. For music, I usually listen with the loudness on and the tone controls set to flat. (For commercial music programming, I’ll reduce the treble as much as 4 dB while adding a similar amount of bass.)

My three-hour daily airwave diet has prompted me to generate a punch list of potential sonic improvements for all broadcasters, the “research” for which is detailed at mixonline. In a nutshell, the issue addressed is the spectral disparity between talk and music. Hosts should not have more low-frequency energy than a bass guitar or kick drum.

Unnecessarily Up-Close and Personal
Everyone loves to work a mic’s proximity effect for warmth, but this also generates excessive low-frequency energy that confuses dynamics processors into pushing the level down, reducing intelligibility in the process. These five basic challenges explain why compressors “see” bass better than we hear it.
1. Human hearing is bass-deficient.
2. Extended LF reproduction requires large woofers.
3. Acoustic spaces that support LF response are the exception.
4. Monitor positioning is optimized for convenience first and rarely for best response.
5. Powered monitors should have the ability to compensate for the previous four challenges—not just to achieve “flat” but should also offer a Loudness button—or, better yet, loudness compensation integrated into a monitor-level controller. (I realize this suggestion is blasphemous and well outside the box.)

Broadcast engineers should encourage hosts to increase their vocal-miking distance to at least 12 inches. A highpass filter should be applied to remove subsonics below 80 Hz, followed by a shelving equalizer to reduce LF energy below 160 Hz. The host mic should be gently compressed so it’s competitive with heavily processed music (our industry’s most egregious faux pas, Auto-Tuning). If possible, try inserting EQ (a broad, mid-boost centered between 2.5 and 3 kHz) into the vocal compressor sidechain.

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