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  • Writer's pictureGerry

Mumbledom


Alan writes ...

I know that it’s a regular grouse of mine, and that my declining hearing is part of the problem, but it’s good to see that many others are also now complaining about the poor quality of speech recording in TV programmes. It’s even been given a name; “mumbledom”.


The biggest issue seems to be with TV dramas, where many viewers are evidently having to resort to subtitles in order to follow the plots. Sound recordists have been getting quite a lot of ‘stick’ for this, but claim that it’s not their fault. They put the blame squarely on directors who think that, for authenticity, actors must mumble their lines in a low voice. Directors say that cinema has set the trend for this, and they are simply copying the style of the big screen. I’m not sure that I agree, because speech in cinemas comes over a lot more clearly to my tired old ears. It could just be that cinemas have much better sound systems that domestic TV sets.


Whatever the explanation, something needs to be done! And, there is quite a contrast with the sound on feature films produced decades ago, where I can still hear every word perfectly. Admittedly, the sound systems in use back then were not capable of reproducing bass notes with the strength that we have today; but it’s over-emphasis on low frequencies that contributes to drowning out of the higher pitches that are so essential for following speech.


So, what about the sound recording on our own films. It usually seems fairly good to me, especially when the microphones have been placed close enough to the speakers, and reverberant locations are avoided. We do, however, often get lazy and just use the on-camera mics, partly because we would otherwise struggle to keep separate mics out of shot. The sound mix can cause further problems, and we often have music rather too loud, at the expense of any dialogue. I suspect that this often happens because we edit using the small loudspeakers on our computers but then listen to the result on hi-fi equipment.


Another grouse on mine (What! Yet another!?) is the way that YouTube apparently change the sound balance to the detriment of any speech. Before uploading, dialogue probably needs to start off too loud, in order to sound right when listening via the internet What about our new radio microphones? We still need to get to grips with making the most of these. The basic quality is good, but there is the issue of where to place them. For documentaries, it’s not a problem (wind-noise apart) as they can be in full view of the camera. For acting films, on the other hand, they must be concealed – usually under clothing. This can lead straight back to sound quality problems, with thick clothing seriously muffling the speech. The professionals have some solutions to this, which we must learn, but even they can run into difficulties. We need to arrange some trials. - Alan







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