Streaming and the need for continued innovation


Jon Schorah - new TV-Bay Magazine
Read ezine online
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In a fast-changing world, audio producers need to adapt quickly in order to keep up.

Media consumption is changing - fast. Almost without anyone noticing, we have passed the tipping point. Only a few years ago we were discussing streaming as an emerging technology; yet now, according to a recent Deloitte survey, streaming has overtaken live TV as the preferred viewing method in the U.S. YouTube viewing figures continue to surge. In 2015, 18-to-49-year-olds spent less time watching TV and more - much more - time watching YouTube; in fact, YouTube viewership rocketed up an astonishing 74% in the same year. These trends are also mirrored in the music industry, with 2015 being the year in which digital revenues finally overcame physical media and download volumes began to dwindle. We already live in a world where media is predominantly streamed.

Streaming services are flexible

The dominance of streaming services has repercussions for the listener. Among younger viewers, media is primarily streamed using mobile devices or PCs - laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Not only do many of these devices suffer from poor playback quality, but the media is often consumed in a less-than-ideal environment in which background noise can be a significant issue. This raises questions and challenges for audio production. Preserving dialogue intelligibility in a noisy environment can be difficult, and highly dynamic material can make quieter sections of audio difficult to hear over the ambient background noise - causing the listener to constantly reach for the volume control. Whilst it is relatively simple to re-purpose audio for different environments using advanced offline processes (such as our own DynApt algorithm) to adapt the loudness range of the production, it can be difficult to know what to aim for in such a complex consumer environment. Preparing a soundtrack for consumption on the subway via a mobile phone is a very different proposition than designing sound for a home-cinema 5.1 system.

Slowly, a streaming standard designed predominantly for mobile platforms is beginning to emerge. Coming alongside the accepted broadcast standards of EBU R128, ATSC A85 et. al, AES TD1004.1.15-10 is the first to define a recommended practice for streamed audio, with a louder recommended average loudness level between -20 and -16 LUFS. This louder target level takes into account the more challenging mobile listening environment, as well as the likelihood of encountering a playback system with insufficient gain to replay lower-level content at a suitable level for clarity.

At the moment, most delivery services make no distinction. The same stream is supplied to all, inevitably leading to compromise somewhere along the line. One approach being investigated by some of the major broadcasters is to produce high-quality, dynamic original content, and then re-purpose this for mobile streaming services using a high-quality process such as DynApt to adapt the content for the web version. One complexity that still needs to be resolved, however, is that many televisions and hi-fi systems are now "web equipped," meaning the listening environment is not easily determined by the chosen method of delivery.

Streaming services use audio data compression

When delivered as a data stream to the consumer, today's audio is often heavily compressed. In the world of television production, we are all familiar with the EBU and ATSC recommendations for maximum true-peak level, designed to ensure that codec distortion is kept to a minimum. However, with the meteoric rise of streaming, the landscape has shifted yet again, and audio data compression is reaching un-imagined ranges of bit-depth. Again, whilst it is possible to optimise original audio content for different codecs and bit-depths, what is the ultimate goal? As with audio dynamic considerations, do we need to be considering different versions for different delivery bandwidths?

Consumer choice

Today's digital supply chain is immensely complex, and consumer behaviours are diversifying exponentially. There is certainly an argument to be made for producing original content to the highest possible standard and then re-versioning it for less-than-ideal environments from this point. However, at the moment there is almost no room for the user to return information about the listening environment in order to select an appropriate stream. It's simple to imagine a situation where the same user, in the same environment, might even desire a different stream with differing audio dynamics at different times of the day. In fact, one national radio station is indeed considering exactly this, having identified that its listeners prefer less audio dynamic during the breakfast/drive-time slot (due to increased background noise) and increased dynamics during the day, during which a more controlled listening environment is able to take advantage of a wider loudness range.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that technological innovation is causing a vast increase in diversity of consumer habits, and production practices need to continue to innovate at an accelerated rate in order to keep up. Clearly, today's consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and ready to rapidly adopt services that offer the most advantages for their own listening experience.

Consumer choice

Today's digital supply chain is immensely complex, and consumer behaviours are diversifying exponentially. There is certainly an argument to be made for producing original content to the highest possible standard and then re-versioning it for less-than-ideal environments from this point. However, at the moment there is almost no room for the user to return information about the listening environment in order to select an appropriate stream. It's simple to imagine a situation where the same user, in the same environment, might even desire a different stream with differing audio dynamics at different times of the day. In fact, one national radio station is indeed considering exactly this, having identified that its listeners prefer less audio dynamic during the breakfast/drive-time slot (due to increased background noise) and increased dynamics during the day, during which a more controlled listening environment is able to take advantage of a wider loudness range.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that technological innovation is causing a vast increase in diversity of consumer habits, and production practices need to continue to innovate at an accelerated rate in order to keep up. Clearly, today's consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and ready to rapidly adopt services that offer the most advantages for their own listening experience.


Tags: iss123 | nugen | audio | streaming | youtube | Jon Schorah - new
Contributing Author Jon Schorah - new

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