Monday 13 September 2021

Why are the ads so loud?

Whether you’re listening to the radio or watching TV, it seems like those ad breaks come bursting out of the speaker at double the volume of the programs around it.

It’s annoying, and to make it worse, all the TV and radio stations deny that the ads are any louder than anything else. As if you can’t tell how loud things are by listening!

In fact they are telling the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. To get to the bottom of it, I’ll have to explain a little bit of how programs and ads are made.

Let’s say we’re making a TV or radio program - like a sitcom or a talk-show or a nerdy story about technology. The sound of the program is mostly made up of talking. Sure, there might be some mood music, or even the occasional loud sound effect, but mostly it’s people talking.

Sometimes it’s loud, sometimes it’s soft, and there are natural pauses between words and sentences. The overall effect is that it sounds like real life, allowing you to believe what you hear.

But an ad usually has a totally different focus. Most of the time they’re not trying to make a scene that sounds natural and believable. They’re trying to get your attention.

There are exceptions to this. Some ads are quiet to create a particular effect. But they’re not the ones we’re worried about, are they? So how do all of those loud ads get made?

Generally, the producers of an ad have 30 seconds to get in a lot of information, so the words don’t have those natural pauses between them - they’re all jammed in together.

Then you add music, to give it some energy and fill in all those annoying noiseless gaps where the voice-over person takes a breath. Sometimes, the audio engineer will even “de-breath” the ad, deleting the sounds of breathing so that more words can be fitted in.

If necessary, the audio engineer also adds sound effects or more voices, before mixing them all together.

While the ad is being mixed, it is also being processed to maximise the volume. You may hear terms like mastering, compressing, or limiting, but they all aim to make the ad as loud as it can be for the whole 30 seconds. So there are no quiet parts and every moment is filled with the most volume possible within the limits of a TV or radio signal.

Programs are made to sound natural, with lots of quiet bits to balance out the loud bits. And ads are made to have a high impact, so they’re as loud as possible the WHOLE TIME.

Here's a couple of examples, so you can literally see the difference.

The picture below is known as a "wave form". It's a computer graph of a sound recording, which people in the media business use to edit the sound.

On its simplest level, the height of the yellow line denotes the loudness of the sound. And you can see from this first wave form that there are quiet gaps in between the spoken parts. This is because I recorded it from a TV program, where the producers are trying to recreate real life.

This second picture is a wave form from a commercial recorded straight off the TV.

You'll notice that the maximum volume is the same on both wave forms. But on the second one, there are no quiet spaces. It's loud for the whole 30 seconds.

So you can see whay they sound different. But how can the radio and TV stations still deny that there's any difference?

Now here’s the tricky part.

A TV or radio signal can only carry so much sound. And generally, the loudest part of a program is the same volume as the loudest part of the ads around it. This is what the stations mean when they say that the ads aren’t louder than the programs – that the ad and the program have the same maximum volume.

But because the ad is right up near the maximum volume the whole time, it has a much higher average volume, and human perception says it’s louder.

But what can you do about it? Unfortunately, not much.

The commercial stations are paid for playing ads, so they’ll play any ad that fits their technical requirements for a good quality broadcast, even if it’s loud.

The people who make ads – advertising agencies and media outlets – don’t want to turn the volume down either. They’re competing for your attention after all. Can you think of a business that would like their ads to be quieter than the competition?  They’ll always aim for the maximum loudness that’s technically possible.

So there’s no broad solution in the current commercial environment.  But now at least you know why the ads feel so loud.  And you can prepare yourself with the mute button, or just turn the damn thing off.

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