On February 9th, 6.5 million people tuned to watch the hotly anticipated season 2 premiere of Happy Valley, the award winning BBC drama. Despite the gripping narrative, the opening episode of the series was hard to follow. The reason for this? Sound.
Overnight complaints grew among frustrated fans of the crime drama who took to Twitter to express their views. While the majority hailed the first episode of the latest series, comments like ‘sort the sound levels out please…’ were common. Another viewer wrote: ‘Again a good show spoilt by the sound, too much whispering and mumbling.’ The sound was poor with many lines being mumbled. Overall the dialogue was incredibly hard to hear unless the television was turned up to at least half volume.
It is not the first time the BBC has received complaints about sound on their programmes. Costume drama Jamaica Inn, aired in 2014, had almost 2,200 complaints about mumbled dialogue from the first episode. Audience figures dropped by 2 million from the first to the third and final episode. Even the Screenwriter for the show said that it was ‘like listening through mud.’ The BBC was forced to apologise saying the sound levels would be adjusted before the remaining two episodes were aired.
The BBC did not learn from their mistakes and a few weeks later in May 2014 saw them receive complaints about sound on their crime drama Quirke. This was a year after Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, said that the BBC will look into how to prevent actors from ‘muttering’ in its dramas.
The writer of Quirke admitted that he and his wife were also forced to watch the show with the aid of subtitles. Andrew Davies explained that he could hear because he knew what the words were. His wife did not however and asked for the subtitles to be turned on.
Why is Sound the Most Complained About Issue Among TV Shows?
Sound is just as, if not more, important as visuals in the media industry. Dialogue is often the most important method of telling the narrative of the programme. Without clear sound, people will quickly lose interest in what they are watching because they are struggling to follow the narrative. Sound enhances the viewer’s experience and enables them to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in fiction.
To help prevent sound issues it is vital that just as much planning and consideration goes into sound design as to how the production will look.
For instance, the choice of location has a huge influence on sound. Filming indoors pose the issues of room noise commonly formed from electrical appliances such as air-conditioning units, lights, and radiators. As well as noise, the sound engineer will also have to adapt depending on the size of the room. Large venues often result in sounds bouncing off walls to generate echoes.
Outdoor sound recording is often trickier with background noise, or ambience such as traffic, people, and wind. It is important to have the ambience noise recorded to make the production realistic. On the other hand, you have to be careful that the background noise does not drown out the important dialogue. The volume levels can be edited in post-production but it is better if it can be effectively caught at source.
Therefore, for each location a decision has to be made on which microphone to use.
Ultra-directional microphones are excellent for capturing dialogue in outdoor locations thanks to its selectivity at picking up sounds that are directly in front of it. From this you will be able to attach an ultra-directional shotgun microphone onto a boom pole with a wind shield, or dead cat, shielding the microphone from wind noise.
In order to prevent unwanted noise being recorded, it is always useful if the microphone can be positioned as close to the actor’s mouth as possible. The actor’s voice will be louder with the dialogue being crisp and clear. The microphone should ideally be positioned overhead, pointing downwards towards the actor’s mouth. Alternatively a lapel microphone, a small mic that can be attached to the actor, can be used as long as it is hidden from view and is not rubbing against the clothing.
Ambient sound should be recorded separately so that the levels can be adjusted in Post Production and so that it does not overpower the dialogue. It can also help shot transitions to introduce the next scene.
The audience may forgive an error on camerawork but they will never accept poor sound. The dialogue is not only the most effective way of telling the story, but it also informs and creates emotions that the audience will be able to share with the characters. Careful consideration and planning is crucial for clear, legible audio.