Don't try to understand it. Feel it.
December 1, 2021 5:32 PM   Subscribe

I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it's not due to hearing loss on my end. It's gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I've defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don't miss anything crucial to the plot.

Knowing I'm not alone in having these experiences, I reached out to several professional sound editors, designers, and mixers, many of whom have won Oscars for their work on some of Hollywood's biggest films, to get to the bottom of what's going on. One person refused to talk to me, saying it would be "professional suicide" to address this topic on the record. Another agreed to talk, but only under the condition that they remain anonymous. But several others spoke openly about the topic, and it quickly became apparent that this is a familiar subject among the folks in the sound community, since they're the ones who often bear the brunt of complaints about dialogue intelligibility. 
posted by octothorpe (127 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow. This explains so much. I thought I was going deaf, seriously.

This effect, combined with music or effects that comes on at volume 11 that initiate a migraine, is why I stopped going to movies probably 10 years ago.
posted by Dashy at 5:45 PM on December 1, 2021 [22 favorites]


The thing that makes it hard for me is the alternating between scenes of barely murmured dialogue and earsplitting action/music scenes. If they’d just pick one level and stick with it you could cope. At home I end up turning the volume up and down and up and down every few minutes, and in the theater it’s a crapshoot - in some theaters I plug my ears during the loud bits and in others I just try to read the context of the quiet bits.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:47 PM on December 1, 2021 [68 favorites]


Wasn’t there a lot of agita over something similar when MP3s suddenly became dominant? So many songs trying to be The Loudest that it was hard to also listen to quiet ones, and really hard to listen to songs with loud and quiet parts?
posted by clew at 5:50 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


*Purposefully makes my movie a muddy, unintelligible mess no one can see or hear* 30-40 year olds are being so unfair about not liking my movies 😡
posted by bleep at 5:55 PM on December 1, 2021 [51 favorites]


I have been about 3/4 deaf for most of my life. With age, heading towards 50% I would guess.

But I hate subtitles.

So I feel this
posted by Windopaene at 6:00 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


Many AMC Theaters now have showings with Open Captions. Still no workaround for "Going to the theater may cause you to die" though.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:00 PM on December 1, 2021 [9 favorites]


Don't try to understand it. Feel it.
I so wanted to pull that from Tenet.

"We Live In A Twilight World."
And There Are No Friends At Dusk."
okay.
Notice alot more sound in the track and found a little of this in The Expanse, S:4.
An early example might be the woodish string and theremin overlays in Midsomer Murders. S:4, 9, 12, 16, 20 and 21.
posted by clavdivs at 6:14 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


The thing that makes it hard for me is the alternating between scenes of barely murmured dialogue and earsplitting action/music scenes.

You’re not alone on this. In audio technology, compression is a process where the highest signal gets reduced and the lowest signal is boosted. Essentially, the loud parts and the quest parts are closer to the same volume. It is, in my view, a big part of why sixties music sounds the way it does, as it was engineered for the crappy speakers in the dashboard of a Ford Fairlane.

If I could get a television that enabled audio compression (or alternately, if I could locate this feature among the 73 buttons on my remote control), I’d die a happier man.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:15 PM on December 1, 2021 [15 favorites]


I keep waiting for people to realize that Nolan is an overrated mess, but not yet, I guess?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:17 PM on December 1, 2021 [44 favorites]


I relate to this strongly. Thanks for getting into this . . .guess I'll continue running subtitles.
posted by ahimsakid at 6:20 PM on December 1, 2021 [6 favorites]


would understanding the dialogue have made the rest of tenet intelligible?
posted by 20 year lurk at 6:21 PM on December 1, 2021 [10 favorites]


It's good to not feel alone! I have been relying on subtitles for everything for a few years now. It helps a lot to understand what I'm watching. Unfortunately, it doesn't help with the quality of the dialogue itself, which is often so mundane and predictable I wonder why I try to follow at all.
posted by ezust at 6:22 PM on December 1, 2021 [6 favorites]


"If the sound guy goes, 'Can you get one more take for me?' they go, 'Nope, we're wrapping. We've gotta move on to another setup.' It's because pictures are the most important thing, and we do a good job fixing sound at the end of the day. So they go, 'We'll fix it in post.' That's literally their go-to answer.


So? Why isn't this being fixed in ADR?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:26 PM on December 1, 2021 [10 favorites]


I had just assumed it was my aging ears, but not being able to control the volume is a major part of why I almost entirely stopped going to see movies in theaters a few years back. Sometimes both too loud and too quiet during the same movie.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:26 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


My ten-year-old always watches movies with the subtitles on because he can’t understand the dialog. I thought it was an odd quirk (we’ve had his hearing tested) until I sat down to watch some Marvel movie with him and realized how much I had been missing.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:33 PM on December 1, 2021 [12 favorites]


This is incredibly interesting.

"Among guest feedback, which is tracked through survey results and through incoming contacts from guests, there has not been an increase in complaints as a result of the audio, regardless of the type of movie."

Wow, AMC, did it ever occur to you that I just quit going to movies in the theater because I either can't understand what's happening or have to wear earplugs? I don't bother complaining, I just quit going.

Also I haven't been to a movie in more than 15 years where I didn't spend every single quiet part of the movie listening to MASSIVE EXPLOSIONS from the next theater over. On the rare occasions I go to the theater, I usually go to an early matinee on a weekday (i.e., when children are in school) and I want to see, like, Little Women. And I spend the entire movie listening to Marvel superheroes scream at each other and blow things up from next door. And sometimes two doors down. It honestly sucks. My largest theater memories of the last ten years are attempting to watch the two leads in historical costume drama have a quiet, tender moment, and LISTENING TO THINGS VERY LOUDLY EXPLODE. I mean, it's so loud it shakes the building.

The last action movie I saw in the theater (although I like seeing action movies in the theater! they're fun on the big screen!) was the Star Trek reboot. I was about 8 months pregnant, and the explosions were so loud they were clearly distressing the fetus, who kept startling and then being agitated. I had to go into the hallway for the climax. My ears rang for like 36 hours afterwards. I was like, Whelp, that movie was fun, but absolutely not worth however much hearing I just lost, and movies should not be so loud THEY SCARE FETUSES.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:35 PM on December 1, 2021 [118 favorites]


Part of the reason with that is because when everything was shot on film and edited with tape, it was a much more laborious process and it was much more technically challenging to do a whole lot with sound design. Everything had to be a very conscious choice and a very intentional soundscape that they create...
Absolutely—think of Robert Altman films like M*A*S*H and Nashville, and Gosford Park, where there's a very deliberate aesthetic decision to fill the background sound with a hubbub of voices, to suggest busyness. It's his trademark. Those movies are really good at getting across the fact of an Army surgery room or a country house party as noisy, confused places where lots of different people are talking across each other. And they're full of mumbly actors (Gary Burghoff!), but you can still catch all the Radar O'Reilly jokes.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:36 PM on December 1, 2021 [24 favorites]


This is extremely relevant to my interests!
posted by Going To Maine at 6:37 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


Wasn’t there a lot of agita over something similar when MP3s suddenly became dominant? So many songs trying to be The Loudest that it was hard to also listen to quiet ones, and really hard to listen to songs with loud and quiet parts?
It sounds like you're referring to the loudness war, which is to do with "compression" but is referring to dynamic range compression (often just called compression) and not what MP3 does* which is audio data compression (also, often just called compression).

* I mean, ignoring all the other audio properties lossy compression techniques can potentially alter. Not an audio engineer, nor a software engineer.
posted by dumbland at 6:38 PM on December 1, 2021 [24 favorites]


Wasn’t there a lot of agita over something similar when MP3s suddenly became dominant?

I think it goes back further, certainly to CDs, and just radio airplay in general in the 80s and 90s, where the commercials would be so fucking loud, so everything was engineered for that.

The more-or-less stated thesis of David Byrne's How Music Works is that music, the means by which it is produced, and the venue in which that music is performed/played are interconnected. I was trying to explain it, but I found myself getting caught up in trying to sort out the details, so I'll just say: Mozart sounds great in an opera house, not so great in your car on the freeway. Much hip hop sounds great in your car or on your headphones, but is cacophonous in venues where classical music is performed. It's all auditory science stuff, above my pay grade, but the book is good.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:42 PM on December 1, 2021 [20 favorites]


MetaFilter: so loud THEY SCARE FETUSES
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:52 PM on December 1, 2021 [9 favorites]


"It's really a gumbo..." Oh? Does it move to the beat of jazz?
posted by kittensofthenight at 6:56 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


It’s funny to me that my hearing isn’t actually that great but I’m trained enough in sound and recording that I notice problems with the mix and compression A LOT. Interesting that they call out Hulu specifically because I’ve definitely noticed the sound being worse there.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 6:57 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


I also really love professional grumbling and this was a goldmine, I love the shade about sound engineers not understanding that regular people have much worse set-ups.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 6:59 PM on December 1, 2021 [9 favorites]


I've been on "team subtitles" at home for a while, now. It's just simpler than trying to rewind and catch what the heck that just was.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:08 PM on December 1, 2021 [22 favorites]


Subtitles are great for the people they work for. My ADHD is serious enough that the titles drag my eyes away from the pictures, but my eyesight isn’t good enough to actually read them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:15 PM on December 1, 2021 [7 favorites]


I’ve also been on “team subtitles” a long time. My gripe with them is when the subtitles pace ahead of the dialog / action and spoil surprises or jokes. I’ve noticed that more lately, I think mostly on Hulu.

Got a Roku soundbar recently that has some options for “fixing” dialog and loud/quiet movie sounds and seems to work very well.
posted by jzb at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2021 [10 favorites]


We keep the subtitles on, we have kids. I think the real trick is that when you can hear things, you should try to not look at them. That's a real skill. It's sometimes a delight to not have them on, even. But then the kids run through the room and we have to turn them on.
posted by Catblack at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


Hmm, and here I was blaming encroaching middle age, and the aftermath of loud performances by gentlemen such as Mr. Byrne.
posted by praemunire at 7:24 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


I don't go to movies in theater because covid. But rarely rarely even before this thing.

For me, best way to go to a movie is latest show on Mon-Wed night. There are four other people in the theater, and I don't have to put up with brain-dead dolts talking and unwrapping and chawing on god knows what kind of crap. I don't mind going alone, and I don't mind going with you, either, but if you want to talk about the movie -- or anything else -- we're not going to go to a movie together again.

I'm not much on exploding helicopters and/or capped teeth and/or breasts containing enough silicone to waterproof an entire neighborhood. Those are all cute or whatever but if I want to watch them I've got an LCD that's bigger than yours is and that serves the purpose.

A lot -- most? -- of the movies I see in theaters have titles -- I don't speak Swedish or Danish or French or German or whatever else. But I watch a lot of those movies at home anymore also.

My default, for anything I watch at home? Subtitles. I trashed my hearing years ago, loud construction sites, loud concerts, loud cassette players then cd players then mp3 players when on bike rides or running, and I love to *feel* it so I get the loudest headphones I can find, I even had an extra amplifier which was between the mp3 player and the headphones. I'm certain that the stereo in my pickup isn't the loudest in town but I play it way louder than I ought -- did I mention that I love to *feel* it?

So the hearing in all upper registers of my hearing is gone. Used to be I could wake up by an alarm set on a digital watch, that chirping? No more. Unless it's right next to my ear I don't know it's bothering everyone else. I had one watch I really liked, a nice Timex sports watch, and it had an alarm that went off every night 10:57 PM, Kelly would laugh at me and poke me with her elbow, if I was out somewhere I was always forgetting and you'd perhaps be surprised at how annoyed ppl get behind a simple little thing such as that.

But subtitles on my TV -- almost always. I live in a condo, if I turned the volume loud enough to pick up even half what I'm missing I'll be blowing my neighbors out and I don't expect they'd much enjoy it. Plus -- Season One, True Detective -- I don't give a damn how good my hearing would be, there are so many subtleties lost when McConaughey and Harrelson are busting each others ass, particularly McConaughey's role eye-rolling at what a dumbo Harrelson played. I'm currently watching Norsemen (I cannot recommend it highly enough) and again, lots of subtleties would be lost on me.

I got used to titles from all the foreign flicks over the years and I'm glad I did. I was really disappointed when I was in Paris and talking to somebody or other and even normal looking people would gibber-jabber some wacky verbiage back at me, I was looking at their chest for the real words to show up, I was wishing the subtitles would come on; it seems they'd just talk like regular people but no, they've got this silly game...

Okay so not really of course. But it was fun when in Paris to go to a US flick and see the sub-titles in French. The woman I was with spoke pretty good English anyways, still, it was fun. On an earlier date with her, we were in some cafe or other and on the wall was a poster for Delicatessen and I remarked casually but happily "Oh god, what a great movie that is." and her eyes got huge and she grabbed my arm and said "Oh, you know Delicatessen? Oh, you are a good American!" I will always love her for that.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:28 PM on December 1, 2021 [11 favorites]


It's important to distinguish mixing and mastering. Mixing is taking the individual tracks (boom mics, music, fx, whatever) and boiling them down to a specific format (mono, stereo, 5.1, etc). Engineers typically use very bland speakers like Yamaha NS-10s that will show up problems in the mix so they can fix them.

Mastering is taking the mix and applying further processing to make the mix gel and hopefully make sure it works on a variety of devices/setups.

I think one issue in unintelligibility is the misuse of multi-band compression during mastering. If you think of regular compression as a magic person turning the volume up and down to keep the volume even (and you can tell them how fast to turn it up and down, and by how much), in multi-band compression, the signal is split into bass, middle, and treble, and you have three magic people working independently. Then it's put back together on the other side.

This means that if you're not careful, during, say a dialogue scene where there's not much going on in the bass range (unless you're Barry White), magic bass person will whack up the volume of the bass, leaving the dialogue a boomy mess.
posted by kersplunk at 7:42 PM on December 1, 2021 [8 favorites]


I saw Dune at the cinema and there were places I couldn't understand the dialogue. On the other hand the sound design on that movie seemed to be a big part of creating a world with some depth.
posted by piyushnz at 7:43 PM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


Part of the reason with that is because when everything was shot on film and edited with tape,

Complete and utter cover up bullshit. All over to keep the attention of the post-digital viewers the easiest technique is to hide and obviscate. Graphics are designed cleanly - and before released, slashed with a digital knife or eraser to make it hard to read. The cool kids have secret slang that's mumbled, so the very clearly enunciated line on set is fuzzed in post order to increase the coolness and keep the attention of what is perceived by the studios as the cool set. The dolby technologies that can be used subtly is blasted with heavy hands that must just grab a slider and try to push it past 10.

I blame Brando.

(which deserves a smiley) but then mumbling lines is nothing new, and can be effective if used well, but fuzzing everything is not. Maybe it'll be better when everything is 3D/VR?
posted by sammyo at 7:47 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


On my laptop, I sometimes set up VLC to play subtitles at a 5-10 second delay so you can toggle them on by pressing S after missing a line, read the line that was recently said, and then toggle them off. But it's hard because of course the characters are still talking. Better would simply be a "what" key that jumps back 10 seconds, replay those 10 seconds with subtitles, and then turns them off while the show continues. That's basically how I read, and when watching shows without subtitles I often jump back a few seconds anyway if I missed some bit of dialogue or some detail in the scenery. But I don't know of any way to replicate any of that with our normal streaming devices.
posted by chortly at 7:50 PM on December 1, 2021 [25 favorites]


Large sections of the film industry seem to be shooting with minimal knowledge of lighting as well.

As a former audio engineer (late 60s to early 70s), consumers who vote with their dollars will eventually win. The astronomical cost of filmmaking precludes creating products that can't be seen or heard comfortably.
posted by Bdprtsma at 7:51 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


So? Why isn't this being fixed in ADR?

Yes! That seemed like the elephant missing from the room. ADR is where they re-record actors' voices afterwards because the sound wasn't clear enough.

I've been watching some French new wave films from the early 1960s, and in the commentary they just casually mention that they shot the whole thing as a silent movie, and built the entire soundtrack in ADR -- voices, sound-effects, everything. (Sometimes they aren't even the same actors.) Honestly, it works really well and doesn't seem fake.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:57 PM on December 1, 2021 [12 favorites]


I can't risk what remaining hearing I have left by going to dangerously loud movie theaters, so I've been reading DVD and TV subtitles for almost 30 years, and there's another problem that I'm curious if anyone else has with watching movies, the dialogue is too fast. The subtitles seem to fly by way faster than they used to as if more words are being crammed into less time, especially during action sequences.

PS, this problem is not limited to movies. The Borderlands' video games are saturated with blink and you miss it dialogue and not all of it is close captioned and with no way to replay the dialogue / communications after an NPC has sent you voice mail. It's frustrating as hell and very hostile to gamers with hearing disabilities.
posted by Beholder at 8:12 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


Chortly — Better would simply be a "what" key that jumps back 10 seconds, replay those 10 seconds with subtitles, and then turns them off while the show continues.

The AppleTV boxes with Siri remotes have that exact feature — trigger Siri, ask “what did they just say?” and the last 10s of video will repeat with subtitles turned on.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:12 PM on December 1, 2021 [17 favorites]


Even twenty years ago I used to have the closed captioning on due to badly mixed movies/tv shows and my my hearing being diminished by misspending my youth in factories and loud bands. Now I keep them on for the hilarity. Among the things I have seen:

In late 2001 the Canadian parliament was debating Bill C-36, which was designed to help fight terrorist-related activities. The CC rendered the words "anti-terrorist bill" as "Yankee terrorist bill."

A late-season X-Files episode had the ersatz-Mulder, Agent Doggett, theorizing about the near-unstoppable Super Soldiers they were facing. His dialogue: "Near as I can tell, they are the results of a government program to make ordinary men invincible." The CC replaced "ordinary" with "ornery" which was also accurate and much more vivid.

A news piece about a controversial artist noted that his work "rasies a middle finger to contemporary morays," which called to mind the image of him going down to the pond and flipping off the eels.

A possible subliminal message: Jon Stewart saying "Welcome to the Daily Show!" was rendered as "Welcome to Democrats!"

A 2003 news piece about the Toronto tourism industry post-SARS outbreak included efforts to assure visitors that they would be "safe from czars."

A documentary on Masada mentioned that the Jews retreated there from the Romans in the year 66, and held out until 70 A.D. or 1788, depending on whether you listened or read.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:27 PM on December 1, 2021 [33 favorites]


If I could get a television that enabled audio compression (or alternately, if I could locate this feature among the 73 buttons on my remote control), I’d die a happier man.

Look for a setting called something like "Night Mode" - the idea being when it's late, you'll have the volume down, so it compresses the audio track even more to ensure the quiet parts can still be heard.

For at home, the biggest change I made was adding a centre channel speaker to my stereo setup. In 5.1 mixes, all of the dialog seems to be placed in the centre channel, so if you listen to it in stereo a lot of the dialog loses its punch.
posted by thecjm at 8:27 PM on December 1, 2021 [16 favorites]


I thought I was alone sort of. I live with people who's primary language is not English, and when you add accents.. they want subtitles. Sometimes you get lines that I swear no one in the movie actually said.

This also rears its head when you try to watch something at a respectful volume while others are asleep. Turn up volume to hear the dialogue, action scene bursts in and you rush to turn down the volume.

I saw this meme that also summarizes my problem. It's like reading a book where someone turns the pages for you.
posted by joelr at 8:35 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


I've been reading DVD and TV subtitles for almost 30 years, and there's another problem that I'm curious if anyone else has with watching movies, the dialogue is too fast. The subtitles seem to fly by way faster than they used to as if more words are being crammed into less time, especially during action sequences.

There's been a shift over the past few decades towards more literal transcription. In the past it was considered acceptable to condense particularly wordy passages. Now most style guides advise against it (though you still will see examples.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:36 PM on December 1, 2021 [7 favorites]


This is a nice coincidence. I’ve been having this issue for a long time, both streaming at home and at the theatre.

I just finished setting up a new AV receiver to replace the nice stereo amp I had hooked to the tv, this amp now lives in my home office with a pair of nice bookshelf speakers. Keeping the same stereo speakers, I set the TV to pass through and let the receiver’s algorithms turn whatever Netflix is supplying into 2.1 audio.

Wow. I can understand what actors are sating now! I just realized how much I was missing by switching my attention from subtitles to images and faces.

In my case it was an issue with crappy TV sound processing algorithms (I spent 7 years dealing with smart tv software. Some of the shittiest code I’ve ever seen) and using an amp designed for stereo sound. Apparently Netflix is doing a good job.

Me and my old ears have found a way to enjoy new big Hollywood movies in the theatre. Bring in a good pair of musician earplugs (totally worth the price), get really stoned in the parking lot and arrive 20 minutes late just as the ads end. Enjoy the visuals and the big loud noises. Go home and next morning look up what the fuck the movie was supposed to be about and whether it was supposed to have a plot.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:38 PM on December 1, 2021 [18 favorites]


Now I keep them on for the hilarity.

My favorite was the Game of Thrones episode where they captioned the sound of a horse as [NEIGHS HOARSELY].
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:43 PM on December 1, 2021 [56 favorites]


Unfortunately I have auditory processing disorder and can't understand people in real life either. So add this in and television/movies are nigh unintelligible to me. I'm perfectly fine with subtitles but at that point I'd rather just be reading a book. I watch very little these days and tend to feel pretty disconnected from conversations on current media.
posted by brook horse at 8:44 PM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


joelr’s comment prompted me to run a little test.

I really enjoy British panel shows, specially when there is a big diversity of accents in a single episode. As a non native English speaker, I need good audio to understand what is going on. Never watch them on TV, only with headphones hooked to the PC with the fancy DAC.

Just tried with the new receiver and I could understand everything. From Kevin Bridges to Big Narstie via Henning Wehn.

The receiver does a great job of taking the dialog from the center channel and putting it on the left and right front speakers. I am looking for a good second hand center speaker, not happy to pay full price.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:46 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


For at home, the biggest change I made was adding a centre channel speaker to my stereo setup. In 5.1 mixes, all of the dialog seems to be placed in the centre channel, so if you listen to it in stereo a lot of the dialog loses its punch.

I recall the period when home video releases on DVD transitioned from 2.0 (stereo) to 5.1 (surround) and dialog which had been crisp/clear on my rather nice discrete component 2.0 sound system started getting muddier and harder to understand. Eventually I had to invest in additional gear, particularly a decent center channel speaker so I was at least listening in 3.0 format when playing DVD/BD content.

The process by which surround audio gets converted to stereo is known as downmixing and it's done by whatever component handles decoding the digital A/V signal and converting it into analog. That could be your DVD/BD player, your A/V receiver, or even your TV. If I recall correctly, there are 'clues' embedded into the digital audio signal specifically to aid the conversion of dialog, normally presented in mono through the center channel, into stereo. But in the end the quality will really be dependent on the decoding hardware. And, honestly, it's really never going to be as good as listening in surround.

All of this said, there are still directors who insist on providing a separate dedicated stereo mix for home video releases on DVD/BD specifically to address these problems.

[Oh, and here's a fun thing to try: watch a film sometime with *only* the center channel turned on. Depending on what you choose to watch, you might be surprised by how little you miss the the other channels.]
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 8:55 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


This seems to be the worst with high-dollar prestige TV dramas. It seems more they spend on the show, the worse it sounds. I’m looking at you, HBO.

To me it seems like music and effects are always too loud, and the actors aren’t particularly concerned with enunciation. They seem to care more about how the character would actually talk than they do about whether we can actually understand the dialogue.
posted by panama joe at 9:08 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


Well, I thought I was just going deaf as well. Maybe I am, but not because I can't follow the dialogue in movies. I hate using subtitles because I read too fast and end up reading the dialogue before the character says it all, while my wife is a slower reader and gets frustrated at not being able to finish before it disappears.

I've also found a 5.1 system to be much better at reproducing dialogue when playing content at home and also being able to have big bass sounds when something explodes. When we watch things on a generic brand TV in the bedroom, I keep wanting to turn the volume up so I can hear what is being said and my wife wants to keep turning it down because it's too loud.

I do enjoy watching a movie in the theatre (I'm well and truly old enough to miss the actual big screen from the days of yore). I love the big sound that you can't really duplicate at home and the lack of distractions so I can really get involved in the story. I don't have trouble hearing the dialogue there, but that's hardly surprising when the sound is so loud to begin with. I do feel like making the sound overly loud shouldn't be the only way to hear the dialogue, though and suspect the true cause of this is that actors are trying to be super realistic (as per panama joe's comment above) rather than enunciating clearly and, well, acting.
posted by dg at 9:28 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


If I could get a television that enabled audio compression (or alternately, if I could locate this feature among the 73 buttons on my remote control), I’d die a happier man.

A lot of TVs do have something along these lines, as “Auto Volume” or “Automatic Gain Control” or something like that (probably a menu item).
posted by atoxyl at 9:29 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


dubbed movies were subtitles are more accurate accurate subtitles from dubbed movies movies dubbed subtitles are subtitled movies accurately dubbed dubbing subtitles creates job(s) regardless of accurately dubbed subtitled movies.
posted by clavdivs at 9:34 PM on December 1, 2021 [3 favorites]


As a production sound mixer for film and television I could go on for far too long about this. (I don’t work on big Hollywood stuff - mostly docs and such with the occasional low-budget feature - but the issues are mostly the same.) Good article. So much of this does have to do with technical issues with specs and formats and the end user playback equipment, but the human element during production is very real as well. The short shrift given sound on set is so well-known as to be a cliche, a running joke among crews everywhere. Some sound folk get pretty touchy about it, but I’ve come to a point where I let producers/directors know they are fucking up the sound (not *me* personally, it’s their movie!) and then relax and do my best. Try to have this conversation while my recorder is rolling so post folks can hear it later.
This is also a function of the ridiculous race to the bottom with budgets in general. *Everyone* on a crew is regularly being taken advantage of if not outright abused (see the recent IATSE non-strike news), and sound is just a part of that.
Sound is often considered an annoyance to other departments. We are throwing a boom shadow. We whine about the generator noise. We whine about the squeaky leather jacket and the jangly bracelet. But this is in fact our job, and if we don’t say anything it will be a problem later. Point is that there is sometimes a default tension in the relationship between sound and, well, everyone, which does not help.
And an absolute lack of understanding of sound by production and directors, as referenced in the article. One anecdote I’ll relate was the barroom scene with our two main characters talking while standing at the bar with fifteen-ish extras standing around them, crossing back and forth in front, etc. I manage to get all the extras’ shoes off, slightly helping the clunking across the hardwood floor (feet not visible in frame), but the floor squeaking is still awful, and why are the stars delivering their lines just above a whisper? After a couple takes I gently ask the director why they are whispering in a crowded bar scene in which surely there will be music added, and sound effects of conversations and glassware etc. Blank stare for a moment until they then go give direction to raise the level some. So that was a win. That moment illustrates the acting problem, the lack of understanding, and one other I don’t think was mentioned in the article - location, location, location. When you scout the beautiful spot which happens to be next door to the scrap metal recycling yard... yeah, we’ll be shooting there. There’s even a group on FB called Not a Sound Problem, a Location Problem that’s just examples of this.
Last thing from me - ADR is expensive and generally avoided if at all possible, at least on the humble stuff I work on.

(This all seems so whiny. I thoroughly enjoy it and get along great with coworkers and even producers! Really!)
posted by zoinks at 10:29 PM on December 1, 2021 [64 favorites]


This was a surprisingly comprehensive article, though there are clearly a lot of different situations where the sound may or may not be good, depending on a huge number of factors. Clearly sound is not getting the attention it deserves. (But colorists will argue that we need to revamp the nation's projectors... anyway!)

But the one that's become far more important in recent years is the home theater and soundbar thing. I have this same issue, dialogue is quiet, action and music is mega loud. Why? I don't think it's the compression - they have tons of room to make it practically lossless, 4K video is orders of magnitude larger. You'd have to compress it to like 1990s home-ripped MP3 quality to make it sound bad.

The problem as I understand it is that dialogue is often packed primarily into the center channel. And soundbars or TVs generally don't have center channels. So you're literally just not getting the main channel where the dialogue goes. I've been looking into getting a 3.0 or 3.1 system for this exact purpose. I got a perfectly good soundbar and it sounds good, bass is great etc, but I can't seem to get it to emphasize speech even with 'speech enhancer' or whatever on, which just makes it sound tinny.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:35 PM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


Now I keep them on for the hilarity.

Being on Team Subtitles got me one of my favorite shirts. Thank you, Gentleman Jack aka Anne Lister, for always lesbian power walking with [jaunty music] in the background.
posted by ikahime at 10:40 PM on December 1, 2021 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: I also really love professional grumbling
posted by clew at 11:32 PM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]


What's crazy is that this was never an issue up until the 90s or so, with our CRT square TVs and VHS tapes. I don't remember any issues with sound back then, even with the tinny speakers from those ancient machines. The technology is so so so much better now--especially in terms of video resolution--but the sound is all over the damn place, even with our fancy 5.1 sound systems and endless menu settings.
posted by zardoz at 11:38 PM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]


A news piece about a controversial artist noted that his work "rasies a middle finger to contemporary morays," which called to mind the image of him going down to the pond and flipping off the eels.

I was once looking up at one of the TVs at a gym, and on the screen was a news piece that the B-roll suggested was about Palestine. The closed-captioning read:

"Yassir Airfart."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:44 AM on December 2, 2021 [6 favorites]


My favorite subtitle is from a debate in Parliament, when Michael Gove was warning against making "that man" our Prime Minister.

Here's how the subtitles reported it.
posted by yankeefog at 1:51 AM on December 2, 2021 [15 favorites]


To be fair, he’s not eligible to stand for Parliament, is he?
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:46 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


I saw Power of the Dog last night at Mexico City's Cineteca Nacional. It was subtitled in Spanish, but I didn't have to worry about following the plot, because the sound mix didn't obliterate the dialogue. (Fantastic movie btw.)

Dune was also playing, and I idly considered a rewatch, because with the subtitles I might actually catch most of the dialogue. But nah.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:49 AM on December 2, 2021


It is, in my view, a big part of why sixties music sounds the way it does, as it was engineered for the crappy speakers in the dashboard of a Ford Fairlane.

Another charming feature was that they really wanted you to know it was stereo. I was listening to Love, Forever Changes in the car recently, and they put the drums entirely in one channel, for example.
posted by thelonius at 3:56 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


20 year lurk: "would understanding the dialogue have made the rest of tenet intelligible?"

I watched it the second time with subtitles on and no. Still my favorite movie of 2020 but it would be charitable to say that it makes any logical sense.
posted by octothorpe at 4:13 AM on December 2, 2021


I was about 8 months pregnant, and the explosions were so loud they were clearly distressing the fetus, who kept startling and then being agitated.

They Might Be Giants wrote a song about this.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:35 AM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


I used to collect incidences of unintentionally funny subtitles on the BBC's Film Review programme. Here's a couple of examples.
posted by Paul Slade at 4:40 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


So? Why isn't this being fixed in ADR?

Yes! That seemed like the elephant missing from the room. ADR is where they re-record actors' voices afterwards because the sound wasn't clear enough.


This is well explained in the article. You can't "fix" everything in post. It's reaching to think we can.
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:45 AM on December 2, 2021


Reading all these comments makes me think of when I realized I didn't actually enjoy eating chocolate bars. I had thought I did enjoy it because I had "chocolate bar is a delicious snack" wired into my brain. It was useful to realize that wasn't true for me.

Sounds like a bunch of people are having realizations like that about watching movies.
posted by clawsoon at 4:49 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


I mean, I am a musician. I can't imagine any scenario of recording live music where a take wasn't great but shrug..."we'll fix it in post."

Fix it in pre!

Sound deserves the same care and attention that anything live on a production set does.
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:53 AM on December 2, 2021


>Another charming feature was that they really wanted you to know it was stereo. I was listening to Love, Forever Changes in the car recently, and they put the drums entirely in one channel, for example.
A tradition that persists with a number of jazz and instrumental recordings putting the soloist on the left channel and the rest-of-band in the right.

I can hope for 'nerd mode' in streaming services so I can prioritise 2.0-channel lossless audio for my backwards setup.
posted by k3ninho at 4:59 AM on December 2, 2021


I'm afraid to mention this, but an example for us has been Doctor Who during the last few years. It started during Peter Capaldi's run, and especially now with Jodi Whittaker's, everyone in my family needs closed captions turned on to catch the dialog clearly. The music and dialog mixing seems to be designed for rooms and speakers different than those in our living room.

I don't like using the word "should", but really, no one should need external speakers to hear a television show, and I wonder about the potential loss in viewers due to the assumptions built-in to that, if that is indeed the case.
posted by kmartino at 4:59 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Yes! We really notice the difference in the compression of audio in Netflix vs. Disney+. Whereas Netflix is generally very good, the dialogue on a lot of Disney+ shows is unintelligible at even the highest volumes. We had to turn subtitles on for parts of the Loki series...
posted by horopter at 5:00 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


Yanno.

I haven't gone to movies in theaters much in the past 20 years because why should I put up with being crammed asshole to elbow with people who talk in the movie and take crying babies with them when I can get as good or better an experience at home [1].

But I go to the occasional movie in theaters because I want to help kick up box office numbers or whatever, and no the problem isn't complicated at all. It doesn't take a carefully considered multifaceted approach.

The problem is that they turn up the volume on everything except the dialog so loud my ears bleed.

Dune was the most recent movie I saw in a theater. People raved about the music, and I can honestly say that I did not hear any music at all. All I heard, for the entire damn movie, was:

BWAAAAAHHHHAAAAAHAAAAAHAAAAHAAAAHAAAAAAAAHHHHBBBBBBWWAAAAAHHHAAAAA

2.5 hours of almost endless, blasting, ear hurting, volume so loud I couldn't tell if it was music, explosions, or what. It's as if Mr. Villeneuve decided he wanted to blow our socks off so he decided what he needed was to make everything so loud I was in pain.

Or... Almost everything. Every single thing about the movie was so loud I couldn't even tell there was music. Except the dialog. That everyone fucking whispered and Mr. Villeneuve apparently instructed his sound people to make sure to turn the volume on the dialog all the way down because he didn't want us distracted from his wall of sound BAWAAAAAAHHHHAAAA with something as inconsequential as what the actors were saying.

Then I watched Dune on my TV. And that speedboat worked really damn well in my bathtub. I was able to turn the volume down and, like magic, there was music! I could actually hear the bagpipes in the bagpipe scene at home, while in the theater all I heard was more BAWAAAAAAAHHH.

Except... The dialog was still fucking muted.

Best movie I've ever read, with the subtitles on I could even follow the dialog!

Solution: stop blasting our eardrums and turn up the damn dialog.

[1] And, with all due respect to Mr. Villeneuve he's totally full of shit. I saw Dune in frigging IMAX and on my TV and it was better on my TV in all ways. Speedboat in a bathtub my ass Mr. Villeneuve.
posted by sotonohito at 5:32 AM on December 2, 2021 [8 favorites]


Subtitles for everything all the time, yeah. I have spent enough time with musicians and sound engineers that I wasn't worried about my hearing, but it's fucking infuriating to not be able to parse dialog. (And to have to either ride the volume control or turn it either too low to hear anything but explosions or have regular painfully-loud decibel spikes.) And this is just on my TV!
posted by restless_nomad at 5:36 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


What's crazy is that this was never an issue up until the 90s or so, with our CRT square TVs and VHS tapes. I don't remember any issues with sound back then, even with the tinny speakers from those ancient machines. The technology is so so so much better now--especially in terms of video resolution--but the sound is all over the damn place, even with our fancy 5.1 sound systems and endless menu settings.

Not so crazy, actually. Back in the day, having a limited and predictable range of speaker setups made it much easier to create a "one size fits all" sound mix. Less variables = easier to account for.

Today, smart tvs have very powerful sound capabilities, and different sound settings have dramatically different profiles, making the "target" profile for a mix elusive.

Not to mention that the default profiles for smart TVs (for both video and audio) are designed for maximum impact in the showroom, not the living room. Most people never change those default profiles either, compounding the issue.
posted by jeremias at 6:12 AM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


Totally agree that one of the underappreciated delights of closed captions is the two-to-three-word descriptions of background music, that are sometimes hilariously descriptive and sometimes hilarious non-descriptive. ([Classical Music] is a bad subtitle for Mozart's Requiem played extra-ominously!)

"They Might Be Giants wrote a song about this. "

whoa.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:17 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


I'm glad to see this article and see other people are having the same issue. It's really interesting about Netflix's compression metric being "could you hear the dialogue track all the way thru" vs other streaming services being not focused on that.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:20 AM on December 2, 2021


An excellent introduction on the development surround sound (as part of 'Apocalypse Now') can be found here:

Apocalypse Now - Birth of 5.1 Sound (slyt)

Interestingly, ends with an admonition by Ioan Allen of Dolby Labs (who helped create the format) that people at home have their surround and sub channels turned up way too loud.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 6:28 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Not to mention that the default profiles for smart TVs I did fiddle around with the settings on my TV and found one that tries to compensate a bit by punching up the dialog and turning down the explosions. It works kind of OK.

But yeah, the default settings are more huge explosion and whispered dialog settings.
posted by sotonohito at 6:31 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Dune was also playing, and I idly considered a rewatch, because with the subtitles I might actually catch most of the dialogue. But nah.

I tend to do rewatches of most big movies with subtitles now. It is funny how often I get penny-drop moments where things suddenly make more sense. Some plots stupidly hinge on one mumbled line.

I'm curious if these sound design and acting choices are driving people to get their hearing checked. I know I have been thinking about it and probably would have it were not for the pandemic (and US health insurance being a nightmare to navigate). The only real new difficulty I have is with TV and movies. Everyday life is more or less fine for a 50+ year old.
posted by srboisvert at 6:33 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


Then I watched Dune on my TV. And that speedboat worked really damn well in my bathtub. I was able to turn the volume down and, like magic, there was music! I could actually hear the bagpipes in the bagpipe scene at home, while in the theater all I heard was more BAWAAAAAAAHHH.

I wear concert ear-plugs when I go to concerts now to protect my hearing (and prevent the short-term tinnitus) and I when I saw Calexico for the 5th time I had my earplugs in and I turned to my friend and said "Holy shit - I have missed so much music seeing them without these earplugs!" He shouted "What?"

I would never have guessed that live performances of loud bands improve with ear plugs but they really do for me.
posted by srboisvert at 6:41 AM on December 2, 2021 [14 favorites]


Not a big rock concert goer, but was at one with friends a while ago and before the music started a loud buzzing was bothering me, no one else could hear it. I do think there are several generations with hearing loss from loud speakers.
posted by sammyo at 6:51 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's crusade against dimming of projector bulbs, back in the olden days. He pointed out that we're simply not seeing the movie as the director intended, if the bulb is not bright enough, but that there was a belief among projectionists and cost-cutting theaters that dimming the bulbs would make them last longer and cut down on replacement costs. It's hard to talk about what happened to movies without being very shouts at cloud and yet, omg, how do they still make so much money, so many billions, when they're such a sensory mess?
posted by mittens at 7:03 AM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


If it's too loud, you care about not destroying your hearing too much.
posted by thelonius at 7:04 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Today, smart tvs have very powerful sound capabilities, and different sound settings have dramatically different profiles, making the "target" profile for a mix elusive.

One of the first things I do with any new tv is turn as much of all that junk off as I can. It's always so ham fisted and it's almost impossible to find a mix of settings that works well for everything I watch.

The more I can simplify the settings the easier it is to set things up so they sound good pretty much all of the time.

Ditto for almost all the smart visual "enhancement" tools, motion smoothing and such.

It's also that TV's default settings are designed to make the TV look and sound more appealing on the shelf at Best Buy in the bright bright ambient light in a big space with LOTS of background noise.
posted by VTX at 7:31 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


I've been watching some French new wave films from the early 1960s, and in the commentary they just casually mention that they shot the whole thing as a silent movie, and built the entire soundtrack in ADR -- voices, sound-effects, everything.

I remember being surprised some years ago when I read that this is often standard practice for any outdoor scenes.
posted by Orlop at 7:37 AM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


Better would simply be a "what" key that jumps back 10 seconds, replay those 10 seconds with subtitles, and then turns them off while the show continues.

This is exactly how my TSL-Roku TV works, if you set it for "on replay" - there's a button on the remote that works on most platforms (Apple TV+, Disney, Netflix, etc.) that triggers that set of actions. I use it frequently.
posted by stevil at 7:41 AM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


I guess I'm outing myself as the biggest square on the Internet, if I haven't already done so years ago, but I've never been able to quite wrap my head around the concept of "amplify the music to such a degree that the audience needs ear protection." Wouldn't it be simpler and more enjoyable to just... turn the speakers down a little?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:59 AM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]


To be fair, he’s not eligible to stand for Parliament, is he?

He's definitely eligible to stand on Parliament, moodily staring out at the city below.
posted by yankeefog at 8:01 AM on December 2, 2021 [8 favorites]


"This is exactly how my TSL-Roku TV works," TCL?

Alas, my TCL disabled Night Mode and auto-sound leveling during an auto-update so, now, especially with Hulu, I have ride the remote to mute the commercials because they are often 10X or more louder than the program material. Nowhere is this more painful than with "Handmaids Tale," where I really have to crank the volume to clearly hear the dialog.

Folks on the TCL forums are very unhappy.
posted by bz at 8:24 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


I see a couple of mentions of musician/concert earplugs besides mine, with no explanation.

They are great for movies and concerts. Makes them more enjoyable and preserves your hearing.

Normal earplugs block all the quickest and cheapest way possible. The volume is muted, but the sound is distorted and becomes muddled. Different frequencies will be blocked/filtered at different levels.

Musician/concert earplugs are designed to lower the volume evenly across all frequencies, so that the sound is muted but not distorted.

Sound is complicated, a lot of acoustic and perceptual knowledge and design goes into this. You kind of get what you pay for. My favorites with a good price/quality balance are the Etymotics earplugs.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:34 AM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


I guess I'm outing myself as the biggest square on the Internet, if I haven't already done so years ago, but I've never been able to quite wrap my head around the concept of "amplify the music to such a degree that the audience needs ear protection." Wouldn't it be simpler and more enjoyable to just... turn the speakers down a little?

Because there are people who demand that level of stimulation in America. Much like most restaurants believe their customers are not having fun if they are not shouting.
posted by srboisvert at 8:37 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


I'm afraid to mention this, but an example for us has been Doctor Who during the last few years. It started during Peter Capaldi's run, and especially now with Jodi Whittaker's, everyone in my family needs closed captions turned on to catch the dialog clearly. The music and dialog mixing seems to be designed for rooms and speakers different than those in our living room.

I quit watching Who after the first Capaldi season because I really couldn't understand a word he said.
posted by octothorpe at 8:38 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Alas, my TCL disabled Night Mode and auto-sound leveling during an auto-update so, now, especially with Hulu, I have ride the remote to mute the commercials because they are often 10X or more louder than the program material. Nowhere is this more painful than with "Handmaids Tale," where I really have to crank the volume to clearly hear the dialog.


Aside from the TCL issue...Hulu sells an ad free version so they have a huge incentive to make advertisements nauseatingly loud. SYNERGY!
posted by srboisvert at 8:40 AM on December 2, 2021


Lots of interesting stuff in this article, but also lots that bothers me:

1. "over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it's not due to hearing loss on my end." That's worth way more than one sentence. A checkup from an audiologist is usually cheap to free (a loss leader for hearing aids, I assume...), and if you're noticing dialog getting harder to hear over the years, it's worth looking into. Even if that doesn't apply to the writer (and I think it could've been an interesting story if they'd explained why), it'd still be a useful discussion for large parts of the readership.

2. The "mixing for streaming" section is confused. I'm sure there's a lot that's interesting to be said about mastering audio for streaming. But notion that you need uncompressed 48k 24-bit audio for your soundtrack is nuts.

3. In general it feels like they're throwing a lot of anecdotes at the wall and hoping something will stick, rather than making any serious attempt to defend their thesis.
posted by bfields at 8:41 AM on December 2, 2021


joelr: Sometimes you get lines that I swear no one in the movie actually said.

Late to the party, but this is often an issue of the closed captioning coming from the final script, but then some lines are cut in post. Sometimes it's really useful to get lines that were part of the story and then cut for time with the editors' assumption that the audience would be able to infer the information in those lines. To me it's a feature not a bug!
posted by tzikeh at 8:51 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


movies should not be so loud THEY SCARE FETUSES.

Heh. My mom has a story about going to see the new release 2001: A Space Odyssey while pregnant with me, and me kicking her relentlessly during the opening sequence music.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 8:56 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


BlackLeotardFront: Clearly sound is not getting the attention it deserves. (But colorists will argue that we need to revamp the nation's projectors... anyway!)

Both of these things can be true at the same time.
posted by tzikeh at 8:57 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


"Among guest feedback, which is tracked through survey results and through incoming contacts from guests, there has not been an increase in complaints as a result of the audio, regardless of the type of movie."


Hahaha these idiots. For several years we were routinely bringing cotton balls to the movies to plug our ears because it was so painfully loud. This was my mom, me, my then-husband. Then we all just stopped going. I don't think anyone ever complained. We just never went again.

Now I and everyone in my circle watch movies at home with the subtitles on. This has had two knock-on effects: 1) There was a time when watching a movie/show in another language was kind of a decision about whether we felt like dealing with subtitles. That's no longer true, so the percentage of our viewing that's in a foreign language is much higher. But 2) splitting your attention between subtitles and the visuals is mentally exhausting, so overall we watch much less often. Like maybe five percent of what we used to do.

Good job guys.
posted by HotToddy at 9:07 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


So many thoughts about this I can’t get into because I’m at an acoustics conference but in my view the biggest issue is how movies and shows are normalized. In the US, we usually peak normalize, so the overall level is basically referenced to the loudest bit. It’s nice in that it preserves the dynamic range well, which is important for emotional salience in movies and overall sound quality, but it does lead to these problems. Further, advertisers take advantage of it by compressing the hell out of their commercials, so when it’s peak normalized it sounds way louder than the rest of the show.

There is hope! The European standard is now to normalize using Loudness Units Full Scale, which is a much more psychoacoustic driven approach and results in a much better balance. With the current political climate in the US, there would likely be an uprising against using LUFS and half the country would take a sudden and passionate interest in preserving peak normalizing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:25 AM on December 2, 2021 [15 favorites]


For our home theater with proper 7.1 setup and calibrated levels, we still have to ride the remote during movies. It's such a pain that I've built a two button "ACTION/Dialogue" controller that lets us quickly select between two volume level presets on the amp.

And we end up turning on subtitles much of the time anyway...
posted by autopilot at 10:42 AM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


Another charming feature was that they really wanted you to know it was stereo. I was listening to Love, Forever Changes in the car recently, and they put the drums entirely in one channel, for example.

There was a point at which panning was a three position switch.
posted by atoxyl at 10:43 AM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: brain-dead dolts talking and unwrapping and chawing on god knows what kind of crap
posted by kirkaracha at 11:10 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


My favorite was the Game of Thrones episode where they captioned the sound of a horse as [NEIGHS HOARSELY].

[NEIGHS HORSELY]
posted by kirkaracha at 11:11 AM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


[Seagulls cawing in reverse]
posted by octothorpe at 11:48 AM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]




Has it really been only about 10 years where this was an issue in movies? Same but for TV?

The loudness wars has already been mentioned in regards to OTA radio back in the 90s and that might be coloring my history of things. Similarly, IIRC, when Tivo first came out it had a great ability to skip over commercials magically and part of their algorithm was detecting the difference in volume. (Ads were roughly 20% louder than shows, so... easy to figure when the ads started and stopped.)

I've been on Team Subtitle for what feels like 15 - 20 years because the constant shift in volumes is just so annoying. (Easier to read subtitles then to adjust volume anytime there is anything approaching "action"... even including a car door shut.)

I've made this rant before (in regards to Steve Albini, specifically), but full range of sound isn't always better than "compression". The album I remember discussing that was PJ Harvey's Dry vs. the 4-track demos of it. 4-track demos is, IMO, a far better album. Leaps and bounds. Almost completely because when it got to a "loud" part, the sound engineer didn't crank the sound.

And, I think, that's what happens in a lot of these movies, as well. Big action scene? Time to turn the sound to 11. But then you can't hear the dialogue when it goes back down.


****

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed the soundscape in Dune. It is one of the egregiously loud movies I have seen in probably 5 years. Yet, it really seemed to work. My partner had no knowledge of Dune going in (never read the books, never seen the David Lynch movie, etc.) and they told me they understood the movie perfectly. When asked about things that I thought one might need background history on, they were able to completely follow.

This is probably me reading into how the film needed to serve the fans and also serve those who were blank slates, if you will... I thought the sound almost overwhelming Jessica when she spoke the litany of fear is one area that perfectly balanced that. Hardcore fans needed to have it in the movie. Newbs may or may not even notice and it does not really affect the plot.

****
this is all to say in grandpa voice: TURN THAT DOWN!
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 1:18 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


Dune hurt my ears. Maybe it's because I hadn't been to a movie in a couple of years, and an IMAX film in even longer, but it was way too loud. The dialog was clear enough but I would have preferred if they had increased the volume on that and decreased it on everything else.

That being said sound can be quite realistic these days. I turned on Netflix on my TV the other day and it started autoplaying a trailer for something and I wasn't paying attention. The trailer involved a car crash but I thought it was happening outside so I went to the window but couldn't see anything. Then I looked to the TV and realized what had happened.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:24 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Like brook horse, I have Auditory Processing Disorder.

Basically, my hearing itself is lovely, but my brain doesn't compute sound in a "normal" way. So stuff like mumbling, crosstalk, muddled sound, variations in volume, well...it's gibberish. My brain processes it as an exhausting gibberish slurry.

I use subtitles, but if something is annoying, I switch it off within a minute. It's rare that I watch things made recently, because the gibberish problem is so severe.

And forget going to the movies - between the incomprehensible dialogue and the migraine from the sound system, it's not worth it.

Entertainment is supposed to be *enjoyable.*
posted by champers at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2021 [5 favorites]


I mostly use subtitles, but there are situations where they just don't help me. Anything on TV that was produced in a short amount of time like a talk show is going to have the subtitles so far behind the speaker and have a huge amount of mistakes both in the words that they use and typos that I find them basically useless. Even in episodic TV, the subtitlers can make decisions like summarizing rather than just writing what the actor said. That can be very distracting, as the difference really bugs me and I worry about that rather than what is going on. It seems to mostly happen in animation. It can also be really annoying when a mysterious person off screen speaks, and you are not supposed to know who it is, but the subtitles tell you.

That being said, they can be done really well. I recently watched Stove League, and that hands down had the best subtitling I have ever seen. Through them, I learned that a quote that a character used came from Barry Switzer. I live in Oklahoma, so of course I know who he is, but learning about him from a K-drama was something I was not prepared for.
posted by Quonab at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Better would simply be a "what" key that jumps back 10 seconds, replay those 10 seconds with subtitles, and then turns them off while the show continues.

Most of the streaming services I use have three options for subtitles: on / off / only on replay. That third option turns on subtitles when you skip back or rewind, and only leaves them on for the repeated section. (Maybe that's just a Roku thing?)

My mom has a story about going to see the new release 2001: A Space Odyssey while pregnant with me, and me kicking her relentlessly during the opening sequence music.

Critical of early Modernism from a young age, I see. Stravinsky agrees.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:45 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Has it really been only about 10 years where this was an issue in movies? Same but for TV?

Mr. Dash and I talked about this today - we both think longer. Last weekend I watched a movie with a very young Heath Ledger and it absolutely had the music interludes at cranked high volume, dialogue still at a murmur. So yeah, longer than 10 years for sure.
posted by Dashy at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


PJ Harvey's Dry vs. the 4-track demos of it. 4-track demos is, IMO, a far better album. Leaps and bounds. Almost completely because when it got to a "loud" part, the sound engineer didn't crank the sound

Heh I totally disagree, I love the massive dynamic range of that album.

people at home have their surround and sub channels turned up way too loud.
They almost always do, too. I think people just want to hear that it’s working and don’t care whether it’s actually doing what it’s supposed to, which is providing depth of field.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:57 PM on December 2, 2021 [2 favorites]


people at home have their surround and sub channels turned up way too loud.

They almost always do, too. I think people just want to hear that it’s working and don’t care whether it’s actually doing what it’s supposed to, which is providing depth of field.


And not to sound like an apologist for the trends in film sound recording/mixing were discussing here, but setting things that way tends to lead to the center (dialog) channel getting drowned out in 'splody-heavy films. I've gotten in the habit of setting my center to run 3db louder than all the other channels for this very reason.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:30 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


Dialogue has always been hard to understand for me, even as a kid (musicals were the worse, I had no idea what was happening) so I also hate the sound on most movies and always watch with subtitles.
Still, if you're watching at home, with a computer as your source and just a normal stereo setup, at least on linux, you can use software like mpv to mix the center channel with a stronger weight, and to make your own "night mode". I use a modified version of the command given here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/commandline/comments/cka1ra/mpv_with_drc_night_mode_and_better_stereo_audio/
posted by anzen-dai-ichi at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


I'm 41 and was CONVINCED that I'd developed hearing problems because I now use subtitles for about 80% of what I watch. This article makes me feel so much better! (Although annoyed on behalf of Hollywood's sound professionals for constantly being given short shrift.)

I thought the point about actors moving from a theatrical to a naturalistic acting style was pretty fascinating. Just try to imagine Katharine Hepburn or Jimmy Stewart mumbling their lines under their breath. (I'm sure there are more modern examples, too, but I do love old movies!) I appreciate wanting to give a more understated performance, but if the audience can't understand you, perhaps you've gone too far.

Finally, my favorite "hilarious CC" show is Dark, that German Netflix show. It's indeed one of the darkest, grimmest, most intense TV shows I've ever seen, and it was hysterical to see all of the musical cues -- [ominous music], [threatening music], [haunting music], [suspenseful music], etc. The CC team must have needed a thesaurus to get through all of that.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 2:56 PM on December 2, 2021 [4 favorites]


I am very much anti-subtitles-unless-foreign-language, because if they're on I'm reading them whether I want or need to or not, and I hate the distraction. Like others have said about their TVs, my Sonos soundbar has both night mode and a dialogue enhancement mode. If I put them both on, some of the spectacle is lost (no room shaking explosions), but I can live with that. Far better than surfing the volume button up and down.

My 8 year old daughter, on the other hand, puts them on all the time. It helped her memorize the dialogue to entire scenes of Gravity Falls.
posted by schoolgirl report at 3:06 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


[NEIGHS HORSELY]

[FRAU BLUCHER]

Sorry. I'll show myself out now
posted by treepour at 3:14 PM on December 2, 2021 [7 favorites]


PJ Harvey's Dry vs. the 4-track demos of it. 4-track demos is, IMO, a far better album. Leaps and bounds. Almost completely because when it got to a "loud" part, the sound engineer didn't crank the sound

Heh I totally disagree, I love the massive dynamic range of that album.


I obviously started this tangent and don't want it to overtake the thread. But, I would be happy if you want to "memail about this derail" to continue the discussion regarding Rid of Me vs. 4 Track Demos and the engineering/production).

I just realized I mis-typed the album in my previous comment. I think Dry is spot on. Rid Of Me, not so much.

But, to my point, sure there is a great dynamic range on Rid of Me. Too bad you don't hear anything whatsoever for the first 45 seconds of the album. And, then, when you are able to hear things? Albini just doubles everything. So you have to turn everything down again where you can't hear the lyrics anymore. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It's a technique. And, it's a technique (albeit for movies instead of music) that is largely being criticized in this thread. It's not so much an argument about compression versus dynamics but just.... equalizing things. One should be able to hear dialogue and not jump out of their seat 30 seconds later when they hear a car door slam (caveat: unless the car door slam is specifically designed for that in the script).

I'll bounce back to PJ for a second to finish the analogy. Compare Rid of Me to To Bring You My Love (the songs not the albums). Each starts the album, builds up slow and explodes. TBYML sustains and the whole album just sits at that level where Rid of Me goes up and down and the whole album... you just have to have your hand on the volume knob (yes, I am old) the whole time.

I'll take "compressed" in the sense of things mostly stay in a certain range over "dynamic" where one spends more time fiddling with volume instead of enjoying the media. That's what we pay the specialists for, right?

***
(aspersioncast: would truly love to hear from you about how you feel about Albini's work. From what I have listened to, Rid of Me is pretty clean. Everything else is... muddy. On a quick glance Jesus Lizard would be a place I can speak from most easily.)
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 3:32 PM on December 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


He's definitely eligible to stand on Parliament, moodily staring out at the city below.

Eh, Gotham might be onboard with that, but I think V has the “moodily standing on Parliament” sewn up.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:09 PM on December 2, 2021


Most of my stuff is on my laptop these days. I'll sometimes have duplicates of subtitle files -- one that's literal, and one that summarizes. There's just too much talking going on sometimes, but I can't stand missing out.
posted by nonethefewer at 4:27 PM on December 2, 2021


I remember being blown away by (among many other things in that film) the dialogue in Alien. People talk over each other, speak awkwardly, and generally sound like actual people having trouble connecting and getting the conversation aligned properly. But when the discussion is important, they click in and the dialogue becomes much more script-like. That film knew when to make dialogue "real" to provide texture and atmosphere, and when to use it to communicate information to the audience.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:12 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


Quonab, where did you watch Stove League? I remember when I watched it I made a note to try to find better subtitles sometime, because on the version I saw they were unusually bad.
posted by trig at 5:25 AM on December 3, 2021


I’d say it’s been a problem in movies since some time in the 90s, but that’s about when I quit going to movie theaters and started buying everything on VHS (because DVDs weren’t released until 1997).

The last place I worked at did a movie field-trip every year in conjunction with the annual Christmas party, and I went once, because it made my ears hurt and I remembered why I hadn’t been to a movie in a theater for almost 20 years. Never went to a movie theater again, and that was… fifteen years ago? Good riddance. I don’t even understand any more why people subject themselves to the horrible that is seeing a movie with other people.

At home, we like movies with explosions, but I turn on the closed captioning every time, and keep the volume fairly low. My sweetie initially thought that was weird, but she’s come around to liking having the captions. She mostly ignores them, but when there’s something mumbled, she knows she can ask me and I’ll tell her what I read.
posted by DaveP at 5:41 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


I watched it on the Rakuten Viki app on my Roku, if that is even an English sentence. They say in the episodes that the subtitles were done by a Viki team, so you are only going to get them on that service.
posted by Quonab at 5:57 AM on December 3, 2021


(Huh, that's where I watched it, but it was a long time ago so maybe the subtitles were still a work in progress!)
posted by trig at 6:46 AM on December 3, 2021


Turns out using external speakers with my new TV means the remote doesn't change the volume (this came as a surprise; worked fine with the old one), which means I don't even have the option of quickly slamming the volume down to save my ears and my neighbours' tempers when something loud happens. So yep, subtitles.

Does no-one else have trouble with subtitles sometimes going out of synch? I read fast enough that I'm always ahead of the spoken dialogue anyway, but when the subtitles themselves are running a couple of lines of dialogue ahead, it's impossible.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:47 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


Between actual sound issues, and weirdly written dialogue laden with slang, such as JB Smoove's in"Curb Your Enthusiasm," (words that have nothing to do with the actual topic) or Eugene in "The Walking Dead," whose sentence structure would drive a diagrammist to slit their wrists), or people just leaving the last few syllables off a word ("merch" or "do you want to go with?...") I can barely understand many programs. So team subtitles, all the way, despite the many misinterpretations.
posted by etaoin at 1:47 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


One of the absolute best closed caption disasters I saw printed out in a former coworker's office - their name was very badly translated as 'Dying and Bursting' and I'm glad to say they were a good sport about it because I can't think about it without laughing.

#TeamClosedCaption
posted by Space Kitty at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


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