Tuesday 22 October 2013

An assault on my ears

Last night, on TV, my wife and I watched an episode of the current season of "The Amazing Race".  In our house we have a modest, but surprising effective home theater system permanently connected to our TV set.  It is in play regardless of what we are watching on TV.  Our TV signal is derived from satellite, time-shfted on our PVR, and the show was on a HD channel with the sound encoded in Dolby Digital.  The sound delivered by this system is normally very clear, but in this case it was an absolute cacophany, and I can only describe it as a shameless assault on my ears.

The Amazing Race sees itself as a non-stop action show, punctuated by the occasional pause for an interlude of weepy all-American sentimentalism.  It plays against a continuous background of "Action Movie!!" orchestral blasts, noisy, percussive, syncopated.  No melody at all, and no let-up in its ongoing intensity.  It is mixed with the maximum possible amount of compression, and presented at the maximum volume, so that it is continuously, relentlessly loud.  It accompanies the action non-stop.

The show also provides a commentary, delivered by a shouting host, interspersed with snippets of interjections from the various participants.  The commentary tracks is separately mixed, and is also mastered with the maximum amount of compression, at the maximum volume.

Since the music track and the commentary track are each fully capable of drowning out the other, the producers have determined that the commentary track must take precedence.  So the loudness of the commentary track is used to modulate the loudness of the music track.  When somebody shouts, the music is briefly backed off a little, and immediately ramped back up after, even if they are just pausing for breath.

The net effect is a relentless assault on the eardrums.  It makes it very hard to follow the dialog without getting a headache, and in fact makes watching the show a less than pleasant experience.  Your brain is not equipped to deal with such heavily compressed and modulated sounds, and goes into overload.  I found myself wondering if the CIA would have gotten into as much hot water as they did if they had used "The Amazing Race" instead of waterboarding.

This was way worse than even the last season (or was it the last-but-one season) of "House", where there was no music track, but in its place the ambient background noises of the set were amplified to the point where it was dominated by hiss.  This hissy noise was then massively modulated by the dialog.  Again, a ruinous detraction from the enjoyment of the show.

These people need to get into another line of work.  Now there's a thought...  Maybe these ARE the same people who got fired from the CIA for waterboarding!