From TASA:

“Not all ‘loud’ sounds irritate an audience to the same extent. The irritability of sounds to an audience is frequency and duration specific. For example, breaking glass at 85 decibels is far more irritating to an audience than a foghorn at 85 decibels.

Rather than simply measuring ‘volume,’ the standard seeks to measure ‘annoying volume.'”

Beyond just having aisle after aisle of shiny new recording gear, the AES convention is notable for the brilliant industry minds it pulls together for roundtable discussions and Q&A sessions that an every-engineer like me can attend and learn from.

One of the more worthy workshops I attended this year was on the subject of listener fatigue. Though on one hand it’s a technical issue for the people like me pushing the faders (er, grabbing the on-screen volume curve with my cursor), it’s also something for the creatives who book us to think about on a more philosophical level.

In addition to being in the business of producing the content that fills our airwaves, we’re also consumers of that content. And in the course of that consumption, whether we’ve thought about it at the time or not, we’ve all experienced listener fatigue. This is painfully obvious when we channel-surf (with the volume differences between channels sometimes startling) or even within the scope of one channel when going from a well-mixed drama to a commercial break with a tear-your-head-off, overly bright announcer. (You listening, Menards?) This is an issue that’s already been tackled (having pretty much brought it upon themselves) by the good folks who mix movie trailers and theatrical commercial spots. Enough consumers got fed up with having to pry their heads out of their backrests after an exceptionally loud movie trailer that the powers-that-be started to listen, realizing that if you keep fighting “the loudness war”, you’ll eventually have no more bodies in the seats.

It’s even easier for the TV viewer, remote in hand, to sit on the couch and shut down a spot. He/she just turns it down or (yes, you know it happens, though you’d like to pretend it doesn’t) changes the channel. He/she won’t ever experience the copywriter’s carefully crafted message, the art director’s highly-polished logo, or the legal department’s carefully-worded disclaimer – they’ll be 8 or 9 channels down the dial by the time the last note of the music house’s jingle rings out.

So, what does it have to do with the work you and I do? The work that you bring me to do? The new digital TV standard has in its verbiage something that essentially says that I as a mixer now have to not only stay on top of the electrically measured volume of my mixes (something mixers have had to do all along), but that I also now have to measure it using new tools that reflect the apparent loudness – how loud it’s subjectively perceived by a human being – in order to save the viewer from the dreaded listener fatigue. The hope is also that this saves the advertiser from being channel-surfed away from.

The FCC has now stated explicitly that on the airwaves of digital TV, the loudness war will no longer be waged. So, now we must ask ourselves: if we can’t make a spot grab the viewers by being louder/harsher/brighter… how will we make a spot grab them? Will we trust enough in the message we’ve crafted that we’ll choose to speak it calmly, soothingly?

The digital TV standard, with the power of law behind it, is tossing us in the water. Grab my hand, and let’s start swimming.