Naveed Ahmed, Asst. Manager-Sound & Broadcast Operations, Neo Sports
Good audio entirely depends on the person's ear who works on it, their experience, and references.
Audio is the most neglected element in the television industry. Though it is one of the two elements that make media, but little or no heed is given to it. So much importance is given to video that audio is often overlooked. There was a change from standard definition to high definition then 2K, 4K,....but no measures have been taken to improve the stereo sound except increase in the sampling rate. Surround sound applies only to movie channels and few sports productions and they have really high standards, so let us leave them alone.
Movie and music channels are the only ones which sound good as they are mixed and mastered by some of the best in the industry. What about the rest?
Television content is produced by so many different production houses and crews that the end product (sound) differs in quality from one to the other. Major inconsistency is with the news channels, though their primary content is from the studio, using top-of-the-line audio equipment. It fails to deliver good-quality sound and the same goes for entertainment and sports channels too. Sports production is another area, where in spite of using the best gear, the system fails to deliver quality sound; their only concerns are I/Os and the features a digital console offers, not the quality of sound which should be the priority.
It is not possible to take all the content to a digital audio workstation, process it, and then again bring it to the edits to prepare for playout. Video edit department's only concern is the levels, and even if they are provided with audio processing plug-ins, due to lack of skills and knowledge nothing is done. On-air promos are treated fine but the only content that sounds good is the commercials because they are worked on exclusively in sound studios, where they engineer them to their best.
So how do you handle this scenario with such content with inconsistent audio quality and levels? You ignore the quality part and focus on controlling the loudness with an audio limiter after the playout and before the compression chain. The result is you get your desired levels but with the same flat sometimes substandard audio mixed with some rich-quality commercials.
Ever thought of utilizing this window between content playout and compression chain to actually improve the sound quality instead of just using a limiter? This can actually be done by mastering the audio. Mastering plays a vital role in the music and movie industry, resulting in amazing sound quality. Why not use it in television broadcast too instead of just adding a limiter in the chain to maintain consistency in loudness? An EQ and a compressor before the limiter can result in astounding results. There is no need to drastically tweak the frequencies
and affect the original audio, but just enough to make it sound good – consider it as sweetening the audio. A soft compression before loudness normalization (using a limiter) will make a prominent difference. An experienced sound engineer will know just how much to process the signal without effecting the original content.
Using analog or digital medium for this process entirely depends on choice and preferences. Which is better has been a long-time open debate with both having their pros and cons.
Digital equipment with 24–32 bit processing will be more advantageous. This kind of audio processing, using EQ, compressor, and limiter, will definitely add quality and consistency to the audio. It is a process which needs to be handled carefully, using good monitors and of course by a person with a good ear.