‘The Pub’ #36: How loudness technology can make audio better, with APM’s Rob Byers

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Byers (right), APM’s technical coordinator, works on a mix with Performance Today Technical Directors Craig Thorson and Elizabeth Iverson. The show uses loudness technology in all production. (Photo: Nate Ryan, APM)

Public radio has historically had a well-documented problem: Some programs have tended to be WAY LOUDER than others. A few shows, like This American Life, have often been way quieter than loud shows like On The Media. And within individual shows and stories, some elements can be too soft to be heard or too loud to be tolerated.

It’s still a problem, but thanks to a technological breakthrough, it’s getting better.

As I wrote in a lengthy piece for Current last year, the problem is not that public radio people are dummies who don’t know how to properly mix and master sound. It’s that public radio people typically don’t use as much of the dynamic range-compression effect that commercial radio people use to even out soft and loud sounds. Heavy compression dramatically alters the aesthetic of radio in a way that public radio people find objectionable.

So without heavy compression, how can public radio people make their sound more even? They can mix their stuff more fastidiously, of course. But that’s harder than it may seem, because due to some quirks of humans’ hearing perception, what you see on a decibel meter is not what you actually get in your ears.

The answer is the relatively new field known as “loudness technology.” “Loudness technology actually uses perception,” Rob Byers told me on The Pub. “It knows that your ear hears different frequencies — or perceives different frequencies — differently.”

Byers is an audio engineer, loudness advocate and technical coordinator of broadcast and media operations at American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio. He also writes the “Ask the Engineer” column for the Association of Independents in Radio.

“There are all sorts of products out there on the market right now that take loudness technology and put them in a meter or put them in a software package that will process your audio in a certain way,” he said.

Individual producers can use loudness software to even out their louds and softs more easily and accurately than ever before without heavy compression, and distributors of public radio shows, such as the Public Radio Satellite System and Public Radio Exchange — are using it to make sure that whole shows don’t come over their networks aggravatingly louder or quieter than others.

This is our sole topic on The Pub this week, and while it may seem nerdy, I promise that an hour of listening will equip you to produce noticeably more listenable audio for a lifetime!

Some supplemental material:

  • Here are the free loudness meters that Byers mentions in the show: Hofa 4U (for use with Protools) and Toneboosters EBU (for use with Audition or other programs that use VST effects). Plus, here are some paid options he recommends: TC Electonic Lm2n and Waves WLM.
  • If you’re still scratching your head after you listen to the show, check out Byers’ loudness how-to guide at Transom.

We’re doing a live show in Los Angeles September 25! Seats are very limited, so go here to register your free tickets.

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Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.