Alignment level

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The alignment level in an audio signal chain or on an audio recording is a defined anchor point that represents a reasonable or typical level. It does not represent a particular sound level or signal level or digital representation, but it can be defined as corresponding to particular levels in each of these domains.

For example, alignment level is commonly 0 dBu (Equal to 0.775 Volts RMS) in broadcast chains and in professional audio what is commonly known as "0VU", which is +4dBu (Equal to 1.227 Volts RMS) in places where the signal exists as analogue voltage. Under normal situations the "0VU" reference allowed for a headroom of 18dB or more above the reference level without significant distortion. This is largely due to the use of slow responding VU meters in almost all analog professional audio equipment which, by their design, and by specification responded to an average level, not peak levels. It most commonly is at −18 dB FS (18 dB below full scale digital) on digital recordings for programme exchange, in accordance with EBU recommendations. Digital equipment must use peak reading metering systems to avoid severe digital distortion caused by the signal going beyond 'full scale' or maximum digital levels. 24-bit original or master recordings commonly have alignment level at −24 dB FS to allow extra headroom, which can then be reduced to match the available headroom of the final medium by audio level compression. FM broadcasts usually have only 9 dB of headroom as recommended by the EBU, but digital broadcasts, which could operate with 18dB of headroom, given their low noise floor even in difficult reception areas, currently operate in a state of confusion, with some transmitting at maximum level while others operate at much lower level even though they carry material that has been compressed for compatibility with the lower dynamic range of FM transmissions.

Alignment level as used in the EBU[edit]

The EBU uses the term "alignment level" not for levelling any real audio signals. In the EBU documents "alignment level" just defines -18 dBFS as the level of the Alignment Signal (1 kHz sinus tone generator resp. 997 Hz in the digital domain).

The reason for alignment level[edit]

Using alignment level rather than maximum permitted level as the reference point allows more sensible headroom management throughout the audio chain, so that quality is only sacrificed through compression as late as possible.

Loudness wars have caused a general fall in audio quality, initially on radio stations and more recently on CDs. As radio stations competed for attention and to raise the listener scores their ad revenue is based on, they used audio compression to give their sound more impact. They used level compressors, and in particular multi-band compressors that compress different frequencies independently. Such compressors usually incorporate fast acting limiters to eliminate brief peaks, since brief peaks, though they may not contribute much to perceived loudness, limit the modulation level that can be applied to FM transmissions in particular, if serious clipping and distortion are to be avoided. Digital broadcasting has changed all this: stations are no longer found by tuning across the band, so the loudest stations no longer stand out. Low noise level is also guaranteed regardless of signal level, so that it is no longer necessary to fully modulate to ensure acceptable clarity in poor reception areas. Many professionals feel that the more widespread adoption and understanding of alignment level throughout the audio industry could help bring modulation levels down, leaving headroom to cope with brief peaks, and using a different form of level compression that reduces dynamic range on programmes where this is considered desirable, but does not remove the brief peaks which add 'sparkle' and contribute to clearer sound. CDs in particular have suffered a loss of quality since they were introduced through the widespread use of fast limiting, which, given their very low noise level is quite unnecessary.

Digital audio players such as the iPod, demonstrate the need for a common alignment level. While tracks taken from recent CDs sound loud enough, many older recordings (such as Pink Floyd albums which notably allowed lots of headroom for stunning dynamic range and rarely reach peak digital level) are far too quiet, even at full volume setting. Older audio systems typically incorporated 12dB of 'overvolume', meaning that it was possible to turn up the loudness on a quiet recording to make maximum use of amplifier output even if peak level was never reached on the recording. Modern devices, however, tend to produce maximum output at full volume only on recordings that reach full-scale digital level. If extra gain is added, then playing a modern CD after listening to a well recorded older one is likely to deafen, requiring the volume control to be turned down by a huge amount. Again, the adoption of a common alignment level (early CDs allowed around 18dB of headroom by common consent) would make sense, improving quality and usability and ending the loudness war.

Making compression a listening option[edit]

The incorporation of (switchable) level compression in domestic music systems and car in-car systems would allow higher quality on systems capable of wide dynamic range and in situations that allowed realistic reproduction. Such compression systems have been suggested and tried from time to time, but are not in widespread use — a 'chicken and egg' problem since producers feel they must make programmes and recordings that sound good in car with high ambient noise or on cheap low-power music systems. In the UK, some DAB receivers do incorporate a menu setting for automatic loudness compensation which adds extra gain on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, to allow for the fact that these programmes adopt lower levels than, for example, the pop station Radio 1. Some television receivers also have a menu setting for loudness equalisation, aimed at helping to reduce excessive loudness on advertisements. However, there is no common agreement to reduce compression and limiting and leave these tasks to the receiver.

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