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All Mixed Up? It’s Time to Talk About Online Versus TV Mixes



Tone Aston, partner and creative director Rumble Studios explains the distinct differences to sound mixing

All Mixed Up? It’s Time to Talk About Online Versus TV Mixes

When it comes to mixing sound for online and broadcast TV it’s a case of same, same but different. The soundtrack you are working with might be the same, but the way you mix them needs to be different to get the best result. Problem is, most people are using the same mix no matter where it is destined for. That’s why it’s time to start creating distinct versions for each. Here’s how to do it.

In the past, sound designers like me simply created a louder online mix compared to TV. But over the past year we’ve noticed a huge upswing in approvals being made for audio via a laptop and headphones. And that’s changed the game.

We know Covid changed the world – including the way we work and listen to work. It seemed everyone ‘zoomed’ online to nab a sweet pair of new headphones in April 2020 and us sound pros were no longer the only ones fiddling with mute and unmute buttons. The headphone revolution also meant people stopped asking me why the mix didn’t have any bass when they played it out of their laptop (in case you’re wondering, it’s because the tiny speakers are just too small to play bass well). 

There is a huge difference between what you can hear via an mp4 file a sound designer sends you, a file that is direct injected into your ear via those sweet new Bose headphones, and what is broadcast out of the TV bolted to your lounge room wall. 

Firstly, headphones are awesome. There is nothing between them and your ear (except for that ringing sound from your trip to work with Metallica turned up to 11 to drown out that client’s feedback about the kerning on your banner ad). 

What you are getting in those headphones is a broad frequency range. You’re hearing all the high and all the low frequencies. There’s no degradation of the sound and you get a very close, intimate listen to every single sound in the spot. It’s a great sounding version of your spot, except the video is only ten inches and a bit glitchy because of your internet connection, but hey, we all have to compromise sometimes. 

Now, what happens when that spot is broadcast on the TV in your lounge room? 

Firstly, how good is your sixty-inch TV? Best purchase ever, your spot’s vision looks super - way better than that one from your old agency that ran before yours. Nice work, congrats. 

There are a few things to note about broadcast TV. No matter how good and big your TV is, if you’re like 99 per cent of Australians, you won’t have a surround sound set up. While your TV screen is facing you, its speakers are most likely facing backwards to the wall behind it, like a kid sent to the naughty corner. You don’t need a compass to tell you that’s the completely opposite direction to where your ears are. Why put the speakers facing away from the viewers’ eyes and ears? It’s because the TV companies want the sound to bounce off the wall and come back to you - the audio equivalent of hitting a tennis ball against a wall. That’s pretty smart thinking by the manufacturers, but it makes for pretty lousy sound. 

There is another issue too. TV stations don’t play the full frequency range of the audio we mix. That means the sound is compromised. By how much? Well, that depends on which channel you’re watching. Each network’s main flagship HD channel is like a favourite child – they get given so much, their second string digital channel kids miss out. These little sibling channels can lose between 10 and 20 percent of the full range of audio. 

Then you can throw into the mix all the competing noise coming from around you - a housemate cooking, kids playing TikToks on smartphones, a neighbour to the right wielding power tools, or, like at my place - lovely but almost deaf old folks to the left. Their TV is on our shared wall and the audio pumps from those backwards facing speakers directly through the bricks and into my lounge room like Harry Potter on Platform 9 3/4. Sadly, it is never the same show as I’m watching. If it was, I could have that sweet surround sound after all! 

It’s clear that on TV we’re dealing with compromised audio - from the networks, from the box design itself, and from a smorgasbord of external factors affecting what we hear. 

Yet in our happy headphones world, we’re getting all things audio in great detail.

What can you do differently to fix the diff? Create two distinct mixes. One for each medium. The mix aimed at headphones would have more subtlety to it. The sound effects can be lower in the mix, the music not as loud up against the VO, and allow for more dynamics throughout the spot. 

Our broadcast mix should have less of the above, but bring the sound effects up slightly. So many times I’ve not heard sounds that have been painstakingly created with the creative team. They end up turned down and not heard. The music should be nice and loud. Remember, you will lose up to 20 percent of the bottom and top end sound when the spot plays out of the TV.

It won’t take much more time to create two options. The challenge becomes, how do you listen to the TV mix back at the agency? How does the client hear that mix? Can everyone get into the studio to approve that version, then not change it once they go home and listen to it on their headphones?

The best way to tackle this issue is to finesse your headphone mix first. This would be the dynamic mix that allows the VO, music and sound design to live and breathe as you would like, without the pesky broadcast sonic restrictions. Then, massage that masterpiece into the audio mould that is a TV broadcast mix. 

Remember the TV mix doesn’t need to be a 'bad' or 'inferior' mix. As long as we are aware of the limitations of broadcast, we can transfer your dynamic masterpiece into a TV broadcast masterpiece.

Then, whether you are listening on headphones or broadcast TV, it will be a case of different mix, but same, same quality.

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Rumble Studios, Wed, 21 Jul 2021 12:46:50 GMT