No Free Pass for Podcasts …

I think it was in the mid to late 1980’s. I was still living home, totally fixated on what was happening with Television devices, programming and transmission. Mainly the advent of MTS Stereo compatible TV’s and VCR’s. I remember waiting patiently for weekly episodes of programs like Miami Vice and Crime Story to air. I would pipe the program audio through my media system in glorious MTS stereo. For me this was a game changer.

vice

I also remember it was around the same time that Cable TV became available in the area. I convinced my Mom and Dad to allow me to order it. Initially it was installed on the living room TV, and eventually made it’s way on to additional TV’s throughout our home. For the most part it was a huge improvement in terms of reception and of course program diversity.

However there was one issue that struck me from the very beginning: the wide variations in loudness between network TV Shows, Movies, and Adverts. In fact it was common for targeted, poorly produced, and exceedingly loud local commercials to air repeatedly throughout broadcast transmissions. Reaching for the remote to apply volume attenuation was a common occurrence and a major annoyance.

Obviously this was not isolated. The issue was widespread and resulted in a public outcry to correct these inconsistencies. In 2010 The CALM Act was implemented. The United States and Europe (and many other regions) adopted and now regulate loudness standardization guidelines for the benefit of the public at large.

If there is anyone out there who cannot relate to this “former” problem, I for one would be very surprised.

Well guess what? We now have the same exact problem existing on the most ubiquitous media distribution platform in existence – the internet.

I realize any expectation of widespread audio loudness standardization on the internet would be unreasonable. There’s just too much stuff out there. And those who create and distribute the media possess a wide scope of skills. However there is one sort of passionate and now ubiquitous subculture that may be ripe for some level of standardization. Of course I’m referring to the thousands upon thousands of independenlty produced Podcasts available to the masses.

In the past I’ve made similar public references to the following exercise. Just in case you missed it, please try this – at you own risk!

Put on your headphones and queue up this episode of The Audacity to Podcast. Set your playback volume at a comfortable level, sit back, and enjoy. After a few minutes, and without changing your playback volume setting – queue up this episode of the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast.

waves-1

Need I say more?

From what I gather both programs are quite popular and highly regarded. I have no intension of suggesting that either producer is doing anything wrong. The way in which they process their audio is their artistic right. On the other hand in my view there is one responsibility they both share. That would be the obligation to deliver well produced content to their subscribers, especially if the Podcast generates a community driven revenue stream. It’s the one thing they will always have in common. And so I ask … wouldn’t it make sense to distribute media following audio processing best practices resulting in some level of consistency within this passionate subculture?

I suspect that some Podcast producers purposely implement extreme Program Loudness levels in an attempt to establish “supremacy on the dial.” This issue also exists in radio broadcast and music production, although things have improved ever since Loudness War participants were called to task with the inception of mandatory compliance guidelines.

I’ve also noticed that many prolific Podcast Producers (including major networks) are publishing content with a total lack of Program Loudness consistency within their own catalogs form show to show. Even more troubling, Podcast aggregation networks rarely specify standardization guidelines for content creators.

It’s important to note that many people who consume audio delivered on the internet do so in less than ideal ambient spaces (automobiles, subways, airplanes etc.) using low-fi gear (ear buds, headphones, mobile devices, and compromised desktop near fields). Simply adopting the broadcast standards wouldn’t work. The existing Program Loudness targets are simply unsuitable, especially if the media is highly dynamic. The space needs revised specs. in order to optimize the listening experience.

Loudness consistency from a Podcast listener’s perspective is solely in the hands of the producers who create the content. In fact it is possible producers may even share common subscribers. Like I said – the space is ripe for standardization.

Currently loudness compliance recommendations are sparse within this massive community driven network. In my view it’s time to raise awareness. A target specification would universally improve the listening experience and ultimately legitimize the viability of the platform.

For the record, I advocate:

File Format: Stereo, 128kbps minimum.
Program Loudness: -16.0 LUFS with acceptance of a reasonable deviation.
Loudness Range: 8 LU, or less.
True Peak Ceiling: -1.0 dBTP in the distribution file. Of course this may be lower.

Quick note: when I refer to Podcasts, from a general perspective I am referring to audio programs and videos/screencasts/tutorials that primarily consist of spoken word soundtracks. Music based Podcasts or cinema styled videos with high impact driven soundtracks may not necessarily translate well when the Loudness Range (and Dynamic Range) is constricted.

For further technical insight, please refer to “Audio for Mobile TV, iPad, and iPod” – Thomas Lund, TC Electronic.

-paul.

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7 thoughts on “No Free Pass for Podcasts …

  1. Hi Paul, An excellent article and I couldn’t agree with you more, apart from perhaps 64kbps mono purely for file size and download times/bandwidth on mobile devices.

    For my own podcasts I aim for -16LUFS and -1dBTP now and I’m working with Ray Ortega from the Podcasters Studio to try promoting this loudness paradigm for podcasters.

    I did a similar comparison of a few different podcasts on my blog a little while ago if you’re interested: http://www.richardfarrar.com/a-quasi-technical-analysis-of-the-top-podcasts-about-podcasting/

    Regards, Richard

  2. Hi Richard,

    Good to hear from you and thanks for the comments. I saw your great article, and I’m glad we’re in agreement with regards to advocating standardization.

    As far as the 64kbps mono-for-mobile issue:

    Your points make sense. However I still feel with today’s bandwidth and the capabilities of modern devices – efficiency is somewhat less of an issue. Back in the early days of podcasting producers strived to sort of conserve as much server space as possible. So mono 64kbps files were targeted. I never endorsed it.

    The problem I have with this is that most podcasts, or let me say many podcasts contain music assets that were originally mastered in stereo. I’m referring to Intro’s, Beds, Outro’s, etc. Generic terms, but I think you know what I mean. When you bounce carefully mastered music to mono, and then transcode to lossy @64kbps, there is obvious degradation in sound quality. In my view this compromises the overall fidelity of the audio.

    Keep in touch.

    -paul.

  3. Thanks Paul for writing this up, it gives me a few more things to think about as far as producing and editing my podcasts go.

    One comment on the file format though is that the availability of affordable, high-speed Internet is not universal if you have a global audience. My podcasts are listened to in many countries where file size really does matter. I have made the decision to compress my files at 64kbps in mono, which for me and my audience is a good balance between quality and size.

    Thanks again Paul.

  4. Hi Bill. You’re welcome.

    My disdain regarding 64kbps mono files as Podcasts is based on the inclusion of music in most Podcasts. I’m referring to Beds, Intro’s, etc. My guess is 100% of these assets were mastered as stereo files and meant to be played back in stereo. So bouncing to mono and then transcoding to low bit rate lossy not only degrades fidelity, it also ruins how the audio was meant to be heard.

    OTOH I understand why it’s done for the reasons you describe.

    -paul.

  5. I totally don’t mind that you used my podcast as an example. Now that I understand loudness normalization better, I’ll be implementing it in The Audacity to Podcast and all of our network shows.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for stopping by and understanding that there was no ill will intended. You’re stuff is excellent, and I’m glad you’ve embraced this issue of loudness compliance.

    -paul.

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