Alert readers may recall that for the
past year I’ve been devoting most
of this column to the CALM Act
and the related issue of audio levels and
loudness in broadcast television audio. As
recently as my last column, I was making
informal measurements of said broadcast
audio for the purpose of assessing what
progress, if any, we’ve been making.
At the same time, Parsons Audio, of
Wellesley, Mass., puts on an Audio Expo every
year, sort of a “mini-AES convention” for
us New Englanders. I often am a presenter.
This year, Expo Director Roger Talkov
asked if I would talk about the CALM Act
and audio-for-video levels these days. For
that talk, I went back and looked at all my
assessments of such audio, starting back in
2003. It turned out to be very interesting,
a quite revealing and useful
perspective for us today. So,
I thought I would share with
you just how much things
have changed over the last decade.
How soon we forget!
WHERE WE WERE IN 2003
In 2003, I took a listen
and informal evaluation of
110 channels supplied by my
service provider. Most of the
channels were analog, levels
were all over the place (18
dB range, 5 dB standard deviation!)
and audio quality was,
ah, highly variable. It was not
a pretty sound, as they say.
That’s where we were a decade
WHERE WE WERE IN 2007
In 2007, as a spin-off of an
evaluation of Modulation Sciences’
Spider Vision Surround
Sound signal level meter (yet
another device created by my
mentor, Neil Muncy), I undertook
to informally measure and
evaluate 184 channels of TV audio:
• 9 channels were HD
• 171 had analog outputs that triggered
Dolby Pro Logic
• 18 had Dolby Digital audio
• 82 channels were in mono, 59 were
in stereo and 43 channels had enough
audio in the rear channels to be called
surround, sort of
• 138 channels seemed to have no audio
problems, while 46 channels did!
Of those 46 channels, 17 channels had
“major” errors (signs of incompetence)
while 29 channels had “minor” errors
(signs of sloppy craft). Only nine channels
were rated “good” or “really good.”
Fig. 1: Range of levels evaluated in 2003, 2009, 2012
So, just five years ago, TV broadcast audio
was really pretty
dreadful, as well as half
mono. I was startled, as
I said earlier, to go back,
recall and then contemplate
just how flaky,
variable and indifferent
the quality of it really
was. Just five years ago!
WHERE WE WERE IN 2009
In 2009, I took a more detailed and focused
look at the levels of nine adjacent
channels on my Favorites list. These were
all digital HD channels. The levels were
still all over the place (13 dB!), though
the other problems were mostly gone. I
also evaluated the difference between
commercials and program and found the
difference didn’t seem to be too bad, although
commercials were still louder and
subject to some pernicious compression
Also, in 2009, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.)
and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), introduced
the CALM Act, which was signed
into law in 2010 and will takes full effect
on Dec. 13.
WHERE WE ARE IN LATE 2012
I measured another nine adjacent channels early in 2012, and happily reported
a significant reduction in levels variance,
from 13 dB to 5 dB, with correspondingly
benign level differences between adjacent
channels. I thought it was a significant improvement.
In September, I measured 58 channels,
lumping them into three tiers (network,
variety and movies). I also undertook another
reasonably detailed consideration of
the difference between the audio levels of
commercials and program material.
This is what I reported to you last
month. I was really impressed then by two
things: first, that both the range and standard
deviation of levels was really tightly
controlled across channels and second,
that the commercials, particularly during
a live NFL broadcast I studied, were well
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
It is reasonable to assume that the observed
change between 2009 and now is
due to the emerging presence of the CALM
Act. Interestingly, that law simply requires
us to obey the industry standards we had
already developed for control of levels but
Now that they’re the law, we seem inclined
to take the trouble to obey them. So
much for self-regulation, I’m sorry to say.
Maybe there is a place for government in
all this, after all.
But beyond that, our broadcast audio really
has improved—a lot! Thinking back to
how crummy it was in 2007 and how truly
dreadful it was in 2003, it is clear that, in
fact, we have really made things better.
Personally, as a music guy and pickypicky
snotty audiophile academic type, I
still find much that I can complain about.
From my lofty and arrogant 24-bit, 96 kHz.
Fs hi-rez purist point of view, you could say
that broadcast audio still sucks. However,
when we get down into the trenches and
start evaluating what’s really going on in
TV audio, it is soooo much better than it
was that there really is no comparison.
So, set aside Dave the Snot. You guys
have done well, really, really well. On behalf
of all the pro, semi-pro, amateur and
wannabe couch potatoes out here, thanks.
Believe it or not, we can really hear the
Here in New England, we still wish people
Merry Christmas occasionally. So, Merry
Christmas, Ho Ho Ho. Believe it or not (I personally
don’t), this marks the end of my 15th
year writing about audio for TV Technology.
Although I’m well into geezerdom, and have
a number of too-long teeth, I hope to keep
this up for a while longer. It’s a really interesting
business, and working with a magazine
of this professional caliber has been a
great pleasure. More to the point, writing for
you has been an absolute ball!
Thanks for listening. And try to stay
Dave Moulton was nominated for a
Grammy once and never ever lets his
cleaning lady forget it! You can complain
to him about almost anything at www.moultonlabs.com. Oh, Happy New Year, too.