15 January 2014

A simple lesson in remastering audio for dvd

I'm having all sorts of fun these days rediscovering all the magic and frustration of DVD Studio Pro. Because yes, I'll have you know that I still author lots of audio/video projects to standard definition dvd.

I did a personal project recently where I took a high def mp4 file of a movie from the 50s (Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry, remastered and released on blu-ray in 2013) and burned it to standard def dvd. It wasn't easy, but I did it.

Somewhere in the process, I noticed that the audio level was super low, so I decided to take a closer look at it. I exported the audio as aiff using MPEG Streamclip and popped it into Soundtrack Pro. What I got was this:

My first thought was 'WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SHIT!?' Where's the level? Why on earth would anybody master their audio levels so ridiculously, unreasonably low? Is there a purpose to it? Did somebody royally screw it up? Those are serious, non-rhetorical questions, so if anybody has an answer (or at least a theory), lemme know.

I don't know if you can see that picture clearly enough, but the average level is somewhere down at -20dB. Regardless of your home stereo/cinema system, you'd have to crank it up to 100% just to hear the dialog, and even then you'd probably have a difficult time discerning the words over the ridiculous hiss of the jacked up noise floor generated by your amps.

You know what it's supposed to look like? Like this:

This is after I normalized it, and then threw a +3dB limiter (Izotope) on it. Presto. Done. Perfect. Healthy level. Took me only a few minutes to make about a 1,000,000,000% improvement of the audio. Sounds great. I'm at a loss for words as to why the original signal level is so low.

Following that project, I did the same thing with Stanley Kubrick's Lolita from 1962. Whoever authored this one to blu-ray clearly had their wits about them, because here's what the untouched, unaltered audio from that blu-ray looks like:

Nice, healthy level. By the way, just for the sake of comparison, here's what music looks like these days:

If anybody can come up with a reasonable explanation as to those low audio levels, I'd love to hear it. In the meantime, I'll be here in my studio, making the world sound better. Thanks.

Brian, Humorless Productions.

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