Audio mixing and mastering practices have changed along with casting and directing, leading to issues with dialogue clarity. Using subtitles, special audio settings, or better audio equipment can make things better.
You just want to sit back and enjoy the latest hot prestige show or big budget movie, but you can’t understand what other people are saying. Before making an appointment with an audiologist, try some of these tips first.
Why dialogue is so hard to hear these days
It’s not just that he’s getting older and his hearing isn’t what it used to be; there really is a difference in how dialogue is recorded and mixed in more modern programs. In the past, ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) was widely used to re-record dialogue for audibility. However, this method hurts immersion, which is why many modern filmmakers prioritize music and sound effects in the mix for atmosphere and immersion. Christopher Nolan is perhaps most notorious for doing this in movies like guardianbut it is a widespread modern trend.
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Improvements in sound recording and playback technology have also expanded the dynamic range of soundtracks. So if your volume is set to make explosions and gunshots tolerable, the dialogue volume may be too low to hear.
The actual performances also seem to be changing. With better microphones, actors no longer have to project their voices like they did in the past, so more naturalistic speech is becoming the norm. A side effect of this is that some actors may mumble or mute some words which, as mentioned above, don’t get the ADR treatment later on.
Aside from performances, movies and TV are much more diverse and international now, so you may also hear accents and dialects that you’re not used to yet and therefore can’t fully understand. We will look for possible solutions for all these problems.
This may not be the solution you want to hear, but if you don’t want to miss a single word of dialogue, the quickest solution is to turn on subtitles. Records and streaming media now have subtitles, which can be particularly useful for naturalistic dialogue or dialogue in unfamiliar accents and dialects.
Turn up the center speaker channel
If you are using a multi-channel audio setup, you can increase the dialogue by raising the center channel in the overall balance. Most of the time, on-screen dialogue is played primarily through the center channel, so this can help give you the boost you need to be loud and clear without cranking up the volume of all the speakers in your surround sound setup. .
Switch to stereo mix
If you’re using a stereo speaker setup, but are listening to a multi-channel surround soundtrack, try switching to the stereo soundtrack instead. That track was professionally mixed for stereo speaker setups, while your TV or set-top box is doing its best to downmix the surround track to stereo on the fly and may not be doing a very good job.
Use your TV’s dialogue or night modes
TV manufacturers are well aware of our dialogue issues and many have included special sound modes in TVs and sometimes sound bars that can help.
The mode can be explicitly called something like “dialogue” mode and will attempt to push dialogue into the overall mix. Then there are “night” or sometimes “normalized” modes, which reduce the dynamic range of the audio so that the quietest and loudest sounds are much closer to each other.
This means you can turn up the volume to hear dialogue clearly, without worrying about an explosion or other loud sound effect popping your eardrums.
If you’re watching TV alone, why not use headphones? There are many different headphone options, but it’s worth noting that if you use AirPods with recent Apple TV models, you can get spatial audio and use transparency mode. So it still sounds like the audio is coming from your TV, you can still hear what’s going on around you, and you can benefit from louder volume and better audio clarity.
Upgrade your TV speakers
If you have a slim, modern television, the tiny speakers it contains are likely to be completely inadequate and unable to reproduce the dynamic range and clarity needed to do justice to the audio mixing and mastering in your movie.
So the answer is to upgrade your TV speakers with a sound bar or surround sound system that can do the job. Don’t be too quick to blame the mix if you have tweeters that do their best but fall short.
Watch old movies and shows
If you simply can’t vibe with modern approaches to dialogue mixing and mastering, there’s never been a better time to delve into the film and TV backlog. With streaming and cheap DVDs and Blu-rays, you can go back and watch all the great content you missed or want to rewatch.
While ADR may be obvious in much of this older content, at least you’ll never hit the rewind button over and over again while telling everyone to shut up.