Dramatic Expansion

In recent years I’ve become massively into some of the American drama series that are coming out with increasingly large budgets. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and of course House just to name a few. The production levels are very high quality and due to having several episodes (often up to almost an hour long) and several seasons, the number and depth of issues, characters and topics they can cover is huge allowing them to be much like a very long film.

But there is one issue that get to me. As a sound designer, sound is often a thing that excites me or bugs me more than it would most people. In the case of many of the American TV series – most noticeably The Walking Dead – the sound design is usually very high quality and is often used to say something outside of what is portrayed using the image alone. But this high quality sound design is often ruined by what appears to be some crazy ducking compression. In my experience the shows will often have a rather prominent and rich ambient track or wild track that is probably a little overly loud for ambience in the first place. But (to explain to any non audio people) this ambience seems to violently lower in volume when the characters talk and then pop back up again giving some crazy pumping effect which just sounds wrong! Here’s an example. May not be suitable for work and beware of very minor side plot spoilers.

Now my first thoughts were obviously “These mixers are getting paid a lot of money to do a job that I would love to have! How the hell are they letting this happen?!?”. A quick google search and the first hit for “Walking Dead sound design” came up with a rather less than civil rant about the same problem. As well as the individual being slated for being plain rude a number of people more in the know about the way TV production works explained that the broadcasters actually use expanders on the whole audio track and raise the volume of the quietest sounds giving this uncomfortable effect. The reason someone gave was a “misguided attempt to compete with the volume levels of commercials”. Suddenly it all made sense! After this I noticed that the series in which I noticed this the least – for example Breaking Bad (exceptional sound design!!) – I had been watching on DVD. This find made me happy that these sound designers weren’t just letting this happen, but at the same time very angry that the broadcasters put that little value on the hard work these guys have done!

So, moral of the story: wait for it to come out on DVD or Blu-Ray if you want to hear it as it was actually intended!