As the FCC gets closer to unveiling the technical specifications that TV stations will have to meet under the CALM Act to eliminate dramatic shifts in volume between programs and commercials, equipment vendors are readying the needed monitoring, control and verification gear. Here's an overview of some of what's available now.
Vendors Turn Up Volume On Loudness Gear
Vendors feel the loudness buzz.
Since the CALM Act was signed late last year, “the phone has been ringing off the hook” for Lancaster, Pa.-based audio processing specialist Linear Acoustic, says field applications engineer Hal Buttermore. “If stations had been ignoring it, they’re not anymore,” he says.
The calls may become even more frequent and insistent. Last Friday, as expected, the FCC launched a proceeding to write the implementing rules for the law, which is aimed at eradicating once and for all the annoying phenomenon — intended or unintended — of the volume sometimes rising considerably when TV programs cut to commercials and promos.
Broadcasters and vendors will not know exactly what is needed to comply with the rules until the end of the year, by which time the rules are supposed to be written and adopted.
But they have a pretty good idea of what it will take. So broadcasters may not yet be buying the needed monitoring, control and verification gear, but as Buttermore points out they are shopping. And vendors like Linear Acoustics, Harris, Wohler, Miranda, Evertz, Ensemble Design and Volicon are ready with solutions, which they showcased at the NAB Show in April.
[For an overview of the CALM Act and the loudness problem, read Part I of this special report, “Despite Lack of Regs, TV Turns Down Volume.”]
At NAB in April, Linear Acoustic introduced the fourth generation of its Aero.air transmission loudness manager, which fits in a two-rack unit chassis and has more processing power and features than previous models, such as offering Nielsen watermark audio encoding.
The top of the line $21,750 Aero.air 5.1 version is a 10-channel device that can process three audio streams and upmix to 5.1 audio from a stereo source. At NAB, Linear Acoustic also showed updated versions of its Aero.one loudness manager, which ranges from $7,000 to $13,000, and LQ-1000 loudness quality monitor, which uses the ITU BS.1770 spec and lists for $4950.The company also showed new versions of its Aero.qc and Aero.file file-based loudness controllers aimed at ingest applications.
With an eye to future compliance requirements, the LQ-1000 can log and store a week’s worth of loudness data and easily export logging data to external media.
The new LQ-1000 has an OLED multicolor display that gives an instantaneous readout of the loudness value or LKFS — blue if the loudness value is too low, yellow and red if it’s too high shown and green if it’s on target.
The unit can also display three different “integration times,” which is the length of the clip that is being measured for loudness. Increments can range from 10 seconds to 30 seconds to infinity.
“For different types of content, you want to measure different integration times,” says Buttermore. “For commercials, you want a quick integration time. But for sports or movies, long-form programming, you want a longer integration time to measure the average loudness of the program.”
Another vendor targeting the loudness market is Harris, which introduced at NAB the APM6803+ Multichannel Audio Processing Station, a multi-function product that uses loudness correction algorithms from audio specialist DTS Neural.
While Harris has sold loudness correction tools for years in the form of 1-rack-unit boxes, the APM6803+ is actually a complete audio processing system on a card, including Dolby encoding and decoding and upmixing/downmixing. It can be integrated into other Harris modular products such as its NetVX encoder and new Selenio “media convergence” platform. The software-based APM6803+ system can range from $2,500 to $10,000 depending on the number of program streams and audio channels supported.
“That’s the beauty of us moving everything over to a software-based platform,” says Stephan Gauthier, Harris product manager for modular signal processing. “We can process multiple streams on a single card, do the 5.1, a 2.0 and a 2.0 [stereo channels] and a mono channel, and can encode it on a single card.”
Gauthier is interested to see what loudness regulations the FCC comes up with, particularly the time period stations have to measure and log loudness.
While stations are free to run different loudness levels for different types of programming and don’t have to adhere to the -24 LKFS benchmark, Gauthier expects that most stations will adopt the -24 LKFS setting for all of their content as a no-brainer way to be compliant.
“The feedback I’m getting is that people want to set it and forget it,” he says. “If it means content has less dynamic range, so be it. Nobody is going to call and complain that the quiets aren’t quiet enough and that the louds aren’t loud enough.”
But Gauthier does have a word of caution: broadcasters could actually use too much loudness correction and significantly affect the audio quality.
“If a network puts loudness correction on 24 hours a day, and the stations are also running correction on the feed, then you’ve got two people correcting loudness and you start really shrinking the dynamic range,” he says.
The quality impact from unnecessary loudness correction is similar to the cascading compression effect that video gets from being compressed and re-compressed through the transmission chain. With that in mind, Harris is developing hooks to its automation software so the loudness processing can be turned off when a station knows it has good-quality content coming into its plant.
In addition to the AMP6803+, Harris also sells a loudness logger and monitor, the Videotek LLM-1770, and a file-based loudness correction system, the Harris QuiC. Gauthier suggests that to ensure the best audio quality, stations should use file-based correction whenever possible.
“There’s a big difference between file-based loudness correction and real-time,” he says. “Because you have access to the entire clip, you’re able to change the loudness of that clip simply by applying a single gain correction to the entire clip, and you haven’t changed the dynamic range at all.”
Real-time loudness correction has some inherent limitations, says Jeff Riedmiller, director of the sound platform group for Dolby, which designed the DTV audio system to achieve a “Hollywood-to-the-home” audio experience.
“In a real-time loudness controller, you have a short memory,” says Riedmiller. “So the only approach would be to really hammer the daylights out of the dynamics, and constantly change those windows. Obviously, that would have a huge impact on the dynamics and spectral balance.”
Dolby is also concerned about the cascading correction problem. “Ultimately, to minimize that effect the best thing you can do right now is to try to use the processing as far upstream as you can get it,” says Riedmiller.
Dolby has sold loudness-focused hardware for years, including the LM100 loudness meter and the DP600 file-based loudness analyzer and correction tool. The LM100, which has been updated to support the BS.1770 spec, costs $3,000, while the DP600, which has already been used to correct the loudness of some three million cable spots, costs $17,500.
At NAB, Dolby announced it now will license its loudness metering and correction software to third-party manufacturers looking to make products to help broadcasters comply with the CALM Act. Most notable is Dolby Media Emulator, a loudness-estimation engine with Dolby’s Dialogue Intelligence technology.
Video and audio monitoring specialist Wohler introduced its own loudness measurement tool at NAB, the Pandora Loudness Analyzer, a compact device based on Apple’s iPod platform.
The two-pound desktop unit, which can also be rack-mounted and sells for around $2,000, uses an iPod Touch as its touch-screen interface that can be updated in the future through the iTunes store. It accepts 3G/HD/SD-SDI and AES inputs, and can measure up to eight channels instantly with adjustable over/under alarms.
Pandora uses the BS.1770 spec to measure loudness for user-defined period of time, ranging from 400 milliseconds to 60 minutes, and stores logs of each session for compliance purposes.
“That’s important,” says Jeff McNall, director of product line management for Wohler.“Someone goes to lunch and then you get a complaint; that’s a way to fight the ticket.”
Wohler’s broadcast customers aren’t rushing to invest in loudness tools yet, says McNall, but most want to make a decision on equipment this summer.
He tells customers that while not every channel may need loudness control, every one will still need loudness monitoring. He expects customers will buy measurement gear first to see how big a problem they have before investing in more expensive loudness-correction tools. Customers are looking for direction from the FCC.
“People are hesitant to make this investment when they don’t know what the final rules are going to be,” says McNall. “I don’t expect a purchasing rush to happen until two weeks before [the rules] have finally taken off and been mandated.”
Infrastructure, routing and monitoring supplier Miranda has its own loudness-logging tool under development, but is waiting on the FCC rules before finalizing it.
Guy Marquis, senior product manager for Miranda’s infrastructure group, thinks broadcasters are being prudent in holding off on buying logging products. “There are a lot of companies that offer logging, but all the manufacturers still don’t know what is required by the FCC,” he says. “Most of these things are software-upgradeable. But if you’re buying something today that will do loudness logging, the chance you will need to do an upgrade is very high.”
Miranda already sells loudness-correction tools with its line of real-time Automatic Loudness Control (ALC) products, which run on its Densite modular cards and are designed to perform loudness control on the broadcast signal as it goes to playout.
The ALC options include two higher-end models that use loudness-control algorithms from Linear Acoustic (multiband AEROMAX processing) and the German firm Junger Audio (Level Magic processing), which sell for around $4,000 for an 8-channel system, as well as a more cost-effective homegrown Miranda card with wideband processing that starts at $995 for a two-channel system.
“We take a wideband approach to loudness control,” says Marquis. “We don’t split the signal into five bands; we just apply loudness correction to the entire band.”
At NAB, Miranda also introduced a high-density loudness correction product, Axino, aimed at cable, satellite and IPTV operators and designed to be installed in a headend or uplink center. It is a powerful IP-based platform that is capable of grabbing more than 100 program feeds, and can fix commercial loudness problems as well as excessive channel-to-channel and program-to-program variation.
Like other vendors, Marquis points out that loudness correction doesn’t have to be performed if stations are willing to dynamically adjust the dialnorm value on their audio encoders to match the loudness of content. He says that one of Miranda’s Canadian broadcast customers, Tele-Quebec in Montreal, actually uses such “agile dialnorm management” on a regular basis. But such stories are few, and Marquis expects that most U.S. broadcasters will wind up settling on static dialnorm matching the target loudness of -24 LKFS.
“In theory it’s possible to use, in a broadcast environment, agile dialnorm management as opposed to static,” he says. “But there’s a high risk of losing the dialnorm value from the ingest point to the playout point. Servers might not support it, or perhaps somebody in production played with the levels for a good reason. But there’s always a reason why it could go wrong.”
Another vendor with an established loudness-correction product is infrastructure heavyweight Evertz, which has been selling its card-based Intelligain Loudness Processor for the past four years and has over 3,500 installs to date worldwide.
Like other Evertz products, Intelligain was engineered in-house with the company’s own algorithms, and it can now be incorporated in a range of gear including master control switchers, frame-synchronizers and the like.
“Dolby-E and Dolby AC-3, we OEM that. Everything else is organically done by the company,” says Tony Zare, Evertz product manager for modular products.
IntelliGain was designed around the BS.1770 spec from the beginning, says Zare, who has spent a lot of his time educating customers about loudness prevention. “Since 2007, I’ve been traveling the world talking about loudness,” he says. “A lot of people weren’t up to speed with what 1770 is about. But now it’s become more mainstream.”
The three-part IntelliGain system measures loudness first, and only performs a correction if the loudness doesn’t match a facility’s target, says Zare. “If the input loudness already matches the target, then IntelliGain just becomes a wire that the audio is passed through, so you can maintain the dynamic range and maintain fidelity.”
Zare believes that IntelliGain’s performance is competitively on par with other loudness-correction systems, but that Evertz’s advantage is in the “hook and handles” into other Evertz products and the ability to do integrated monitoring with Evertz’s existing VistaLINK network management software.
At NAB, Evertz released the IntelliGain Compliancy Logger, an optimized piece of software that will capture loudness data for proof of compliance. While the FCC has yet to finalize its compliancy rules, Zare is confident the new logger will be able to support the new requirements and says it can be easily integrated into existing plants. “Anybody using VistaLINK is already 95% of the way there,” he says.
Looking at the base of existing IntelliGain users, Zare estimates that 40% of loudness correction is performed at ingest. With that in mind, Evertz is integrating file-based products for loudness control that can work in the compressed domain.
Another infrastructure and signal processing supplier, Ensemble Designs, has updated its LevelTrack Automatic Gain Control product to support the BS.1770 spec in addition to traditional VU measurement. The product, which works with the company’s Avenue signal processing modules, runs around $3,000 per program stream. It applies gradual changes to the overall level of an audio signal.
With a nod to the CALM Act, Ensemble Designs has also developed Audio Compliance and Monitoring Software as an option that can be added for compliance verification and archiving. The data logged through the new compliance tool can be accessed remotely through Ensemble’s Avenue PC control software.
“Up to this point, stations have just had to deal with viewers and make sure they’re happy,” says Ensemble Designs marketing czar Cindy Zuelsdorf. “Now with the CALM Act, they have to get into compliance logging and maintaining the loudness data.”
Monitoring specialist Volicon is targeting that new requirement with Observer Loudness Monitoring, a new feature in its flagship Observer product that provides continuous measurements of program loudness (as per BS.1770) and true-peak signal levels.
Observer customers generally maintain a content archive ranging from 30 days to two years, along with all the associated metadata the Observer system captures, says Ed Hauber, Volicon director of sales. So the new loudness logging tool can easily pair metadata relating to loudness values and associated dialnorm numbers with an actual clip of the content itself, Hauber says, along with basic metadata regarding channel, date and time.
“When a user is told of a discrepancy, they can use this tool to go back to a specific daypart and time, see the values pinned to that media, and export a forensic copy of the media as it was aired,” Hauber says.
In Part I last Thursday, TVNewsCheck offered an overview of the loudness problem and the CALM Act. Read it here.