December 13, 2012 at 9:47 am

Loud TV Ads Are Illegal as of Today, But Here’s How They Did It

the calm actRemember television advertisements — those paid-for messages that whiz past as you fast-forward your DVR, the way you can’t do with online ads? They’re about to get a little less unpleasant.

President Barack Obama signed a bill last year barring television advertisers from blasting you with television advertisements that sound significantly louder than whatever show you’re watching. It goes into effect today as the CALM Act (.pdf).

Volume is a tricky thing to explain, because the human ear interprets it fairly subjectively, but some reports aren’t even trying. As the music geeks that we are, we figured we’d try to help.

The secret to television advertisers’ apparent loudness was audio compression — not in the sense of a compressed MP3 file, but in the sense of audio with a reduced dynamic range, with everything compressed right up to the maximum.

This sort of audio compression works by smushing soft and loud sounds together (thus “compression”); then, advertisers amplified the compressed signal until it couldn’t get much louder. So basically, all the sound in an advertisement sounds about as loud as the loudest thing in whatever you’re watching.

This has bothered television users for years, because when the ad comes on, the volume often leaps to such a degree that viewers were forced to grab for their (apparently DVR-less) remote controls.

So how was this problem solved, once the political will was established? Basically, there’s an app for that.

As of today, television broadcasters in the United States are required to install, utilize, and maintain “equipment and associated software” in order to ensure that television programs and advertisements have the same average volume. Only two stations (one in Georgia and one in Maine) have filed for one-year exemptions, but it goes into effect everywhere in the country as of today.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the opposite of compressed audio: music with a large dynamic range — in other words, music with a lot of distance between its softest and loudest sound, with lots of gradations in between.

Previous formats with expanded dynamic range include the failed physical standards DVD-A and Super Audio CD. Neil Young’s upcoming Pono music format aims to buck the trend towards dynamically-compressed audio formats with higher-resolution music that, as Beck puts it, could restore “the air that was in the room of whatever instrument or musician that was being recorded,” though some wonder if such a thing is possible.

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Photo: Flickr/brizzle born and bred

  • Barry Euphorik

    Wish they would do that over here in UK. The amount of times i have to turn the TV up and down during a prog because the adverts are louder im surprised the batteries in the remote control have lasted as long.

  • SonicSedition

    Ahhh who watches commercials. There is a new fangled contraption called a DVR