Audio consultant Lon Neumann works with stations to get loudness under control.
Now that the FCC is enforcing the CALM Act, which protects against excessive loudness levels of commercials and other content, broadcasters are being careful to comply or risk getting fined. There’s a sense of nervousness in the air. The Commission appears to be deadly serious about ensuring compliance, due in part to the fact that the No. 1 complaint members of congress get from their constituents regards loud commercials. It’s also worth remembering that this bill passed the Senate with unanimous approval.
The enforcement process will begin with consumer complaints. When the Commission detects a pattern or trend of complaints, it will initiate an inquiry. The FCC then notifies the broadcast entity (including cable and satellite) being cited, and it then has 30 days to conduct the prescribed testing and report back to the commission. If the testing reveals a problem, the broadcast entity has a short time to fix it and report back. If not clearly documented as being fixed, a fine of up to $10,000 may be levied.
Lon Neumann is a veteran audio engineer and current consultant (Neumann Technologies, in Los Angeles) who has worked as a field applications engineer and sales support for such audio equipment companies as Linear Acoustic, Enders & Associates and DTS.He now works with local stations to make sure they have the necessary safeguards in place. He said most broadcasters have made the necessary upgrades to their audio monitoring equipment, but there are still many procrastinators.
“There are clearly broadcast entities that need to refine their processes,” he said. “A quick scan of the dial shows me that there is clearly a lot of work to do still. As far as I know, nobody has complete data on just who is and who is not yet compliant.”
Many smaller cable channels are behind the curve, Neumann said, especially those that have not yet made the conversion to AC-3 (“Dolby Digital”) audio processing. Many of them are still operating with MPEG 1, Layer 2 audio, where dialnorm metadata doesn't exist.
“This seems to be a function of their perception of being constrained by limited budgets,” he said. “In actuality, there are now standards that apply to such situations, and it doesn't require huge investments. It does require having an interest in getting it right, along with adequate knowledge or assistance. A hefty $10,000 fine will quickly demonstrate the frugality of having invested the resources to circumvent such a penalty.”
While the passing of the CALM Act over a year ago addresses much of the problem of local commercials that are too loud, the mandate does not solve everything.
“It's always hard to know what we don't know,” Neumann said. “One issue that particularly concerns me is that of the proper alignment and calibration of loudspeaker monitors. The guidance for doing so is called out conspicuously by the ATSC A/85 document, which now has the power of law by virtue of the CALM Act. The problem is that it’s a cultural issue. It's never been part of the broadcast culture to pay much attention to the loudspeakers.”
For example, Neumann said he “too often” visits stations where a Master Control operator will have the monitors turned down or off because they're considered to be a distraction or even a nuisance. And in many such situations, he said, Master Control is the closest thing to Quality Control that exists in the plant.
“To successfully change such pervasive attitudes in broadcast will require nothing short of a full cultural upheaval,” Neumann said, “but it really is important. That's why the topic is one of the four main concepts presented in A/85. It’s that important. If broadcast entities (including cable and satellite services) don’t have such expertise in-house, they need to reach out to services that can provide it for them.”
So, as a consultant, what advice does Neumann give to stations on how to get in compliance with the least amount of cost? He said that when it comes to local stations, there are generally two primary areas of interest — the news and local commercials. The two are distinctly different.
News inherently includes live audio from the announcers. At minimum, live production requires two things: calibrated monitors and a loudness meter.
On a moment-to-moment basis, nothing is more valuable than properly calibrated monitors. When the monitors are calibrated to the correct reference (and that it is exactly the same every day), the operators quickly become very proficient at judging loudness by simply listening. In live production, that is very much to the point.
Loudness measurement cannot be done with conventional meters, such as VU meters or PPM meters. It requires a proper loudness meter that is compliant to U.S. standards — not the European variants. This is a little tricky because some large vendors have mistakenly thought that the European versions are more advanced and thus better. But buyer beware. This is not Europe. Here in the U.S., we adhere to the ATSC standards, not the European EBU standards. Our approach for long-form content (“programs”) here in the U.S. is to measure the long-term (e.g., 10 seconds) average of the normally spoken dialogue — not music and not sound effects, nor abnormally spoken dialogue such as whispering or shouting. Those things are expected to be softer and louder than normal dialogue, so they are to be excluded from the measurement. The simplest way to do that is with intelligent operators.
Putting these two things together, the mixer knows mostly by listening when things are normal and should then occasionally confirm by a glance at the loudness meter during a section of normal dialogue. The loudness meter is important as a reality check. But on an instantaneous basis, the mixer will be using his/her ears for taking action.
Local commercials are a different story, Neumann said. They are not live and, frequently, they are not produced in-house. The best place to deal with these commercials is at ingest rather than at playout. Confirm the loudness as correct when it comes in the door, and it will be correct when played out. Automated offline computer-assisted "scaling" of content is the best way to go, but typically out of reach for local stations. Not to worry. Acceptable results are available from other means — processing.
“An important point to keep in mind is that commercials are measured with a different technique than programs are,” Neumann said. “Rather than measuring the loudness of dialogue, commercials are to be measured by taking the average of all the content for the full duration of the segment. By the way, this also applies to other interstitials such as announcements and promos.”
Are there pitfalls stations should look out for when installing new equipment?
“The thing that worries me the most is over-reacting — clearly an unintended consequence,” Neumann said. “The last thing we want to see is excessive processing, especially where it is not needed. The techniques that were mentioned above in the preceding section will often be supplemented later in the chain by a ‘safety net’ processor at the final playout output. There's a lot of sense to the security that provides, as long as it is properly adjusted so as to not be doing anything more than providing protection against the occasional transient outlier. Especially with content provided by a network (including commercials), there is generally no need to be processing. A safety net is not a bad thing. Just don’t let it get in the way of delivering the content with its creative intent intact.”