Rich Warren: Fix for poor sound balance on TV shows?
Our recent exploration of TV sound elicited this reader question:
"My wife and I are not hi-fi fanatics, but we (especially my wife) have another complaint. Many programs, prominently the PBS programs from the BBC, have very intrusive 'background' music that almost covers up the dialog. She, especially, has trouble understanding the British accents, and feels the music is intrusive and annoying.
"In a related aspect, I think I once heard that the broadcast sound is supposed to have the music on different channels from the voice, assuming you have a multispeaker system, which we don't. Then, one is supposed to be able to de-emphasize the music and elevate the voice if you wish.
"Any truth to this? Is there any reasonable way to correct this if you are essentially a low-tech sort of person who groans at the thought of adding still more electronic equipment?"
It's a long way from the TV soundstage to your living room. Since most TV shows are low budget compared to movies, they often capture dialog during the actual filming/video taping, rather than re-recording it and synchronizing it after the fact.
I once heard the roughs of the first "Star Wars" movie with the dialog basically a place holder, accompanied by all the production sounds of the cameras, robots, footfalls, etc.
After the actual recording of the TV show, music and other effects are overlaid.
Sound mixers face the same problem as those who mix music recordings for CDs. The equipment in the studio, especially the speakers, might not match the sound system or TV speakers reproducing the sound at the listeners' end of the chain.
Contemporary digital TV sound adds another complexity. Dolby Digital 5.1 is the standard for HDTV. This requires the sound mixer to find a compromise between two-channel stereo, since most TVs come equipped for simple two-channel, and 5.1-channel surround sound. A long chain between the mixer in the studio and your TV leaves plenty of room for subtle changes in the mix and overall sound.
To return to the reader's question, Dolby 5.1 specifies that the main dialog be channeled through the center speaker while some dialog providing directional cues, music and most sound effects should be directed to the left and right front speakers.
Of course, if you merely have two speakers for stereo, the dialog is mixed into the left and right channels along with everything else. This could muddy, muddle or obscure dialog.
Thus, buying a simple, inexpensive home theater system, especially a 3.1-channel system without the rear surround channels, will most likely improve the audibility of dialog. Nearly all home theater systems allow adjusting the levels of each channel individually. You can lower the volume of the left and right channels and increase the level of the center channel, which will make the dialog louder.
Some older TV series, such as the original British Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries, are recorded in mono or basic stereo, in which case even a home theater system won't help.
You can find a modest home theater sound system for $200 or less. Depending upon your TV, connections should be fairly easy.
If you burrow into the audio set-up menus of many TVs, you can change the balance between the center channel dialog and left and right, even if the TV is basic stereo. Some TVs even include a "dialog enhancement" setting.
I view some of the British programs about which you complain and fully understand your difficulty. Even with my good home theater system, sometimes I just can't make out the dialog.
Beyond technological issues, BBC microphone techniques and audio standards, along with strong accents by the cast, often leave me straining to understand the dialog. The British tend to believe in more "natural" sound ambience than American TV directors, who usually place the microphones closer to the actors.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at email@example.com.