Noises off 

1 January 2004

From all I hear and read it is evident that traditional audio skills in broadcasting are inexorably disappearing, thanks to the usual problem of the bean-counters knowing their cost but not their value. The thought, skill and care which contribute to the high quality of sound we hear when we tune into the Prom concerts on radio or television, but such excellence has sadly become the exception rather than the rule.

In general, radio sound has degenerated into little more than a homogenous noise. The vast majority of music radio in the UK has become the victim of excessive multi-band compression in the sacrifice to the omnipresent God of Loudness. Such compression destroys definition, increases distortion and creates a tiring sound.

In my view, there is little need for it except as a substitute for good operating practice. I recently heard tapes recorded from Capital Radio in its early years which graphically demonstrate how good FM radio can sound if you employ a Technical Operator to control the output of the station rather than a relatively cheap 2U box. Equally, the argument that a station which sounds louder will attract more listeners is one I have never understood. I do not know of anyone who uses loudness as the primary criterion for deciding their listening habits. Personally, if I want to hear something louder I am happy to use the volume control provided for the purpose.

Of course VHF-FM has never really been good enough for reliable stereo reception under all conditions, and more people now listen to FM while on the move than can have been dreamt of when the network was built in the 1950s. But now there is DAB and so far I have heard very little about how DAB dynamics will be handled…

DAB is being marketed as a boon to drivers, though the wide dynamic potential of digital will probably not be welcomed in this environment. The obvious answer is to transmit the full dynamic range and allow the listener to select an appropriate ‘decoding mode’ to suit their situation. A number of different algorithms could be provided and everyone from hi-fi purists to drivers and housewives would be happy.

This only leaves the question of relative levels between different domestic digital sources… if future home entertainment systems offer digital pre-amplifiers, how will the ‘dynamics of the new frontier’ compare with carefully maximised CD or DVD sources?

Finally, have the broadcasters given any thought to whether the application of HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) is appropriate to, for example, DAB?

So many questions, so little time. And probably very little enthusiasm. Those of us who care about such questions are beoming a dwindling minority. Nothing new in that of course, but as in most areas of industry those with an interest in maintaining and improving standards are losing their influence.

Is all hope yet lost? DAB could be excellent, but what are its chances if it just ends up sounding like FM but without the crackles?