That’s not a duck


One of the audio features added to Windows 7 goes by the formal name stream attenuation, but it is more commonly known to people in the audio world as ducking. Ducking is the process of lowering the volume of background sounds in order to draw more attention to the foreground sound. For example, when you're watching a big battle scene in a summer action movie, your ears are assaulted with the sounds of weapons fire, objects exploding left and right, but when the hero turns to his girlfriend-of-the-moment, the sound level of all the death and destruction drops a bit so you can hear him say something tender, or maybe inspiring, or maybe inspiringly tender. Something like that. And then when the moment is over, the sound level returns to normal and once again the sound of things blowing up overwhelms your eardrums.

Sorry, I got a bit carried away. Where was I? Oh right, ducking.

Ducking is the process of temporarily reducing the volume of background sounds in order to make foreground sounds easier to hear. Here's a presentation from the 2008 PDC by Larry Osterman which covers the technical part of ducking.

When the feature was added to Windows 7, the icon on the Communications tab of the Sound control panel was a yellow rubber duck. Those audio folks think they're so cute.

Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), the icon was changed to a telephone handset.

The subject line of this article is an inside joke: When visiting one of my friends, I would sometimes speak to his three-year-old daughter in German, because they say that exposure to multiple languages is a good thing. At one time, I asked her a question, I forget what it was, and she responded, in English, "That's not a duck!"

None of us could figure out what she was talking about, but it has been a catch phrase among us for over a decade.

Comments (19)
  1. Tom says:

    I hate to say it but this is probably the worst "feature" of Windows 7.  It could've been fine, if only it had not been enabled by default.  This confuses people to no end.  They go to use two separate audio apps at the same time (for example game + voice comm software) and wonder why the volume on one of them drops really low, seemingly at random.  They have no idea this feature exists.  Windows doesn't tell you it's doing this behind your back.  The setting for it is buried in the Control Panel.  And it coexists poorly with other audio problems people have.

  2. -dan says:

    The problem as always with Windows is not the feature – I think it's cool, the problem is people don't know  that and I'm 100% convinced MS hides settings on purpose.  Everyone I know gets frustrated trying to find out how to do this and undo that because the settings are nowhere where you'd expect them.  On the plus (sometimes negative) it's the only time I get a call from these people.  LOL

  3. Paul Hogan says:

    That's not a duck.  This is a duck!

  4. Ceci n'est-pas un(e?) canard.

    Coincidentally I blogged about this very UI two weeks ago:

    blogs.msdn.com/…/windows-audio-render-volume-settings-from-specific-to-global.aspx

  5. jader3rd says:

    I don't think that's true for DVD's I wish it was. One thing that I noticed (and commonly reoccurs) is that we'll be watching a DVD and we can hear everything except for the dialog. It's very annoying.

  6. @jader3rd DVDs typically use Dolby audio; Dolby decoders typically have a setting that allows you to switch between "theater mode" (high dynamic range) and "night mode" (low dynamic range) and may also have a "dialog normalization" setting.

  7. Mason Wheeler says:

    …wait. Is that why it's so difficult to hear Messenger's notification when I'm playing a fullscreen game, leading to friends being all mad at me for not responding to them?

    Grr…

  8. Joshua says:

    Haha, technically precise and apparently useful feature that everybody complains about because some people use the audio for background notifications.

    Microsoft does not have a prophet on payroll.

  9. Joe says:

    I've worked in the movie industry and never heard the term until now. Makes me wonder when it came into being and whether it's regional.

  10. Brian G. says:

    @Joe: my understanding is that (Raymond's example notwithstanding) the term is more in use for communications-related tasks and not so much the film industry.

  11. Clayton says:

    @Joe, Brian:  I've come across the term in video game development.  In the sense of "duck the background music and ambient noises when this sound effect / VO / etc. is playing."

  12. lefty says:

    @Paul Hogan:

    That's the first thing on "Old New Thing" that made me laugh out loud in a long time.  Not that I read ONT for the jokes, but still – thanks.

  13. Nick says:

    Steam has had issues with Win7's audio ducking for quite a while now; they just finally fixed it in the last update.  It took me several days to figure out why all of a sudden my music would get really quiet for a minute or so and then return to normal, and I *knew* all about the new ducking feature (read Larry's original blog posts about it long time ago).

    I agree with the first couple comments about feature discoverability in Windows, but I don't pretend to know a solution.  While more dialog boxes is (almost) never the right answer, maybe a prompt the first time ducking occurs (similar to the accessibility dialogs) would help people know about the feature and disable it if they want to.

  14. Someone says:

    I had to turn this feature off, on it's own it's fine. But it's activated by default, and many audio sensitive applications implement this themselves. Voice program A will push all other sound down by 50%, then windows will come in and do it as well(expect for a different app).

  15. Worf says:

    @jader3rd: If you have problems with dialog on most DVDs, turn up the volume on your center channel (dialog is placed there on purpose), and reduce the volume on the left and right channels.

    If you are not using a surround sound system, check the 2 channel outputs of your DVD player. Some of them map only the left/right audio of a 5.1 stream to the 2ch outputs. Others mix the center channel into the left-right (which also allows Pro Logic decoding). If your DVD player does the former, that's why dialog is so low as the center audio is missing and only a little of it bleeds to the left/right channels. You may have to play around with the connections to see if maybe switching to PCM only (digital) rather than bitstream, or using the analog outputs work better.

  16. Voice program A will push all other sound down by 50%

    Interesting… that's not supposed to be possible.  You can control your own audio sessions' volumes, but not other apps'.  Can you send me more information offblog? mateer at microsoft dot com

  17. Joshua says:

    Sheer speculation, but double yours and half master (master is reachable) should do it.

  18. Well, except that "yours" only goes from 0 to 100… if you're already at 100 the only way to go higher is to clip.

  19. Matthew Chaboud says:

    For those wondering about the commonality of the term "duck" in audio, it's *extremely* common in film-audio post, only slightly less so in live sound and studio engineering.  Corporate and fixed-install guys should know it straight off.  

    I can't speak to the frequency with which one encounters this term outside of the US and the UK, but it's absolutely a term that pros in the industry will know.  Having been in the film/studio/live-sound tools industry for over a decade, I can simply say that they chose the right term for this feature.

    Now, whether or not users actually want auto-ducking on their computer?  Well…

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