Audio mixing and mastering practises have changed along with casting and direction, leading to problems with dialogue clarity. Using subtitles, special audio settings, or better audio equipment can make things better.
You just want to sit down and enjoy the latest trending prestige show or big-budget movie, but you can’t make out what anyone is saying. Before you book an appointment with an audiologist, try some of these tips out first.
Why Dialogue Is So Hard to Hear These Days
It’s not just that you’re getting older and your hearing isn’t what it used to be; there really is a difference in how dialogue is recorded and mixed in more modern shows. In the past, ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) was used heavily to re-record dialogue for audibility. However, this method hurts immersion, so many modern filmmakers prioritize music and sound effects in the mix for atmosphere and immersion. Christopher Nolan is perhaps the most notorious for doing this in films like Tenet, but it’s a widespread modern trend.
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Sound recording and reproduction technology improvements have also expanded the dynamic range of soundtracks. So if your volume is set to make explosions and gunshots tolerable, dialogue volume might be too low to hear.
Actual performances seem to be changing as well. With better microphones, actors no longer have to project their voices as 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 otherwise muffle some words that, as mentioned above, don’t get the ADR treatment later.
Apart from performances, movies, and television are much more diverse and international now, so you may also hear accents and dialects that you aren’t used to yet and so can’t quite understand completely. We’ll look at potential solutions for all of these issues.
Turn On Subtitles
This may not be the solution you want to hear, but if you don’t want to miss a single word of dialogue, the fastest solution is to turn on the subtitles. Disc and streaming media all have subtitles now, which can be particularly useful for naturalistic dialogue or dialogue in accents and unfamiliar dialects.
Turn Up the Center Speaker Channel
If you’re using a multi-channel audio setup, you can boost dialogue by turning up the center channel in the overall balance. Most of the time, on-screen dialogue is mainly played through the center channel, so this may help give it that push it needs to be loud and clear without raising the volume of all the speakers in your surround sound setup.
Switch to the Stereo Mix
If you’re using a stereo speaker setup, but you’re listening to a multi-channel surround soundtrack, try switching to the stereo soundtrack instead. That track has been mixed professionally for stereo speaker setups, whereas your TV or set-top box is trying its best to downmix the surround track to stereo on the fly and may not be doing a good job.
Use Your TV’s Dialogue or Night Modes
TV manufacturers are well aware of our dialogue woes, and many have included special sound modes in the televisions and sometimes soundbars that can help.
The mode may be explicitly called something like “dialogue” mode and will attempt to boost dialogue in the overall mix. Then there are “night” or sometimes “normalized” modes, which squash down 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 that an explosion or another loud sound effect will blow out your ear drums.
If you’re watching TV alone, why not use headphones? There are many different headphone options, but it’s worth pointing out that if you use AirPods with recent models of Apple TVs 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 higher volume and better audio clarity.
Upgrade Your TV Speakers
If you have a thin modern TV, chances are the tiny speakers inside it are entirely inadequate and can’t reproduce the dynamic range and clarity required to do the audio mixing and mastering in your movie justice.
So the answer is to upgrade your TV speakers with a soundbar or a surround-sound system that can do the job. Don’t be too quick to blame the mix if you have weedy tweeters doing their best but falling short.
Watch Older Movies And Shows
If you just can’t vibe with modern approaches to dialogue mixing and mastering, there’s never been a better time to delve into the backlog of film and TV. Thanks to streaming and cheap DVDs, and Blu-rays, you can go back and watch all the great content you may have missed or want to see again.
While the ADR may be obvious in much of this older content, at least you’ll never be hitting that rewind button over and over while you tell everyone else to shush.