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R128 and loudness – the Swiss experience

Swiss broadcaster SRG brought in loudness control regulations during 2012 at the same time it moved to HD. Now, as it considers applying R128 to radio, the lesson appears to be full communication between broadcasters, staff, advertisers and the public.

Technologies do not develop in parallel and not all users are early adopters. This is particularly true in broadcasting, where some companies seemingly lead the way while others assess the options before making a commitment. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches: in the first case a broadcaster has to work with a technology that may not be fully formed and then have to integrate new systems later; while in the second there could be new formats to choose from, with the possibility of incompatibility.

Today’s broadcast technology landscape is less problematic, at least for the time being. The main areas for broadcasters in recent years have been the move to both high definition transmission and tapeless operations. SRG SSR in Switzerland adopted HD and file-based working at the end of February 2012, making for a triple whammy by also implementing loudness guidelines based on EBU R128.

Fittingly all this happened simultaneously on Schalttag, as Leap Day, or 29 February, is called in German. Six HDTV channels were launched, based on tapeless operations working to R128 for loudness compliance. As with most things this massive jump did not happen either overnight or in isolation, as Niklaus Kühne (pictured) of SRG’s technical communications department explained during his presentation A Broadcaster’s Experience: Implementation of R128 in Switzerland at the Loudness Summit in London during December.

Kühne said SRG’s approach to R128 and the other technological innovations had “quite a long history”. The roadmap for HD was first outlined in 2006, with HD Suisse – a stand-alone channel run by SRG – launched the following year, which came off air in January 2012 prior to the start of HD versions of the broadcaster’s established services.

SRG officially committed to the EBU PLOUD standard for loudness, R128, when it was announced in 2010. During last year the broadcaster began re-designing its technical infrastructure, a project that Kühne said was “mostly completed”.

All countries have particular circumstances that make instigating new procedures more complicated but Kühne pointed out that in broadcasting terms Switzerland has more than others. SRG is a private company with a public mandate and presents programming in all four national languages of Switzerland – German, French, Italian and Romansh – over 18 radio stations and seven TV channels.

While the technical engineering aspect of Leap Day was important, SRG realised that informing both its own staff and the viewing audience about what was happening as just as important. Which is why Kühne and the technical communications team played a key role in making sure everyone knew what the changes meant and what was going on.

“The HD migration was the ideal opportunity to implement R128 because there are new play-out systems,” he explained. “The reaction of the print media in Switzerland to all this was interesting when it started to happen. The press picked up on the situation and audio loudness became more important than the pictures.”

Kühne says there have been constraints on the project, including dealing with the four languages, different cultures, the commercials industry and, on the technical side, hundreds of thousands of hours of material in the SRG archive that needs to be converted in terms of both HD and R128.

Within SRG Kühne had to cope with different levels of technical knowledge, from engineers to DJs and journalists. “Implementing R128 is not only a technical project but very much about managing communications with different groups of people,” he said. “It is about persuading people to go in the right direction.”

Broadcasters in other countries have found the advertising agencies and their clients resistant to change when it comes to loudness. This is because for a long time commercials have relied on compression and sounding louder than everything else to get their message across. Kühne says in Switzerland now that the ads and programmes match each other on levels, “the industry is happy because there is no more competition on loudness”.

SRG began instigating new technology, including loudness controls, on its live programming, including studios and OB trucks. It moved on to graphics and post-production and, says Kühne, has almost reached it target of 100 percent implementation on television, with radio to follow this year. “We’re almost there,” he concluded. “We’re almost at the end of the road and there are still technical problems. But it is nice that the audience is aware of them and if something doesn’t work we immediately get a reaction.”