For years, many people have complained about something that affects them on a daily basis: why are TV commercials so much louder than regular and traditional television programs? There are some technical answers, of course, but to give you an idea, a typical example is when at night you’re watching a movie on TV, all of a sudden the commercial break comes on and BAM! The volume goes through the roof and you’re desperately looking for the remote control.
This scenario has been a reality and even totally normal for millions of people over and over again. Well, simply put, there are two types of sound that are regularly engineered. What we call movie or film sound is different from TV ads or commercial sounds, let’s see the differences.
In a movie or a film, the idea behind crafting a well-thought sound design is to present an idea or a scene in an artistic fashion. You want to be able to include highs and lows; you want to be able to bring in brightness and darkness; essentially you want to be able to have variations in different levels between sounds, colors, and tones. That’s the art of photography mixed with the art of sound. That’s what cinema is. In movies, we try to make sure that everything has a sort of a cohesive blend to it.
Commercial sound on the other hand, which is what you would hear in a television commercial or even on a radio station or right before a YouTube video is very different. The whole idea behind a TV ad sound settings is to grab attention and to hold it as long as possible. Often a technique sound professionals use to do this is maximizing the allowable bandwidth audio.
This means that in normal cinema audio there’s a certain range of sound between the loudest noise, which is what is commonly referred to as the peak sound, and the quietest noise, which is called the noise floor, the beginning of noise that you can actually hear. In between the peak sound and noise floor, we have what is called the dynamic range — the variation between the highest and lowest.
Typically, something that sounds ‘good’, musical, and even natural, has a dynamic range of about 50 dB, so the difference between the quietest and the loudest is 50 dB. Of course, this is just an example, but it provides you with the context to understand how sound is engineered for movies.
In a commercial sound, the difference between the loudest and quietest is typically about 6 dB, of course much more narrow. In order to do this, sound professionals take the audio that has been created for the commercial and they use a technique called multiband compression, and what that does is it splits up the audio into different slices: the bass, the mid-range, and the treble, and then it maximizes each of those tones to its full digital allowable limit. Broadcasting has a very strict standard: if you go beyond the limit and your audio creates distortion, which is going to be audible in the broadcast, then you’re breaking the law.
There’s a limit to how far you can push these levels, and what advertisers in conjunction with sound professionals have figured out is that if they take an audio file and squeeze it up to the absolute limit allowed by broadcasting, the resulting sound will be louder than anything else that is also broadcasted through tv, radio or video platforms, which make people quickly turn their heads to evaluate the source of this much louder sound.
More often than not, these really densely packed audio tracks that are in commercials are in between regular television programming; however, after years of complaints based on the fact that these ads were having the opposite effect on people, making them turn down the volume or even the TV.
Many attempts have been made in order to make commercials less loud, and it is indeed happening but rather slowly. In reality, everything seems to be loud now, so nothing is, per se, ‘loud’ enough. It just seems like noise. In fact, some other producers have decided to go the other way around and make commercials less loud than the actual TV programming so people turn their heads whenever a commercial comes on, perhaps wondering what’s wrong with the TV, focusing their attention on the message being conveyed.
Now, both approaches have proven to be highly inefficient, and it has also been proven that, due to how short a commercial is, as a producer or a commercial director you need to maximize the power of the interaction between audio elements and the moving images, not solely relying on volume. Crafting sound for an ad is an art in itself too, and it needs to be approached differently than you would approach crafting the sound for film.