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Soundie Ben Hooft sounds off about off sound at cinemas Ė he can get better at home on DVD, but thereís no reason why cinemas today shouldnít blow your mind with the clear, dynamic, vibrant sound of music (as well as sound effects).

With the advent of DVD and itís multiple channel sound capabilities it is now possible to have cinema quality sound in your own home. But these days the question is; what is cinema quality sound? Increasingly the quality of sound Iím getting at home from DVD is far superior to what Iím hearing in many major cinemas. Surely, given that our ticket prices are among the highest in the world, premium sound quality should be included.

Multiple channel digital sound is now the accepted standard for motion picture sound. There are three major digital sound formats; Dolby Digital, Digital Theatre Systems (DTS) and Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS). Each format is capable of producing extremely dynamic and realistic surround sound with anywhere between 5.1 to 8 discrete channels of sound (discrete in essence meaning Ďseparateí). Most cinemas today have (or should have) the ability to decode one of these digital formats; they should also have the vast array of speakers needed to appropriately recreate the recorded sound. While most cinemas do have this equipment many in my experience are technically below par or inaccurately calibrated.†

"You donít need the most expensive equipment to get excellent sound"

You can have the best and most expensive equipment in the world but if itís faulty or inaccurately calibrated the equipment quality accounts for nothing. Indeed, my own $3,000 sound system proves that you donít need the most expensive equipment to get excellent sound.†

In all fairness to the cinemas, itís worth noting that they have the distinct disadvantage of having to calibrate their system for hundreds of people in an auditorium, whereas my system is perfectly set up around my listening position. Even with this in mind it is still possible to have excellent sound in an auditorium.

It is the technical problems that are most concerning. Over the years Iíve heard everything; buzzes, crackling, distortion, high compression, lack of bass as well as the overall volume being too high or too low. Iíve even heard audio dropouts caused, presumably, by worn digital soundtracks on overused film prints. There have been many shining examples over the years including The Dish, Looking For Alibrandi, The World Is Not Enough, Keeping The Faith, American Beauty, Finding Forrester, Jurassic Park 3 and now most recently Black Hawk Down.†

(The most high profile example would have to be Star Wars- The Phantom Menace at Hoyts in Chatswood. Youíre probably thinking that was a few years ago now, but sound that bad is not easily forgotten. The overall volume level was 50% lower than it should have been, resulting in flat and lifeless sound. George Lucas would have been appalled, as I was. My recent experience with the DVD of the film proved to be a whole new ballgame with the highlight being the pod race. No longer was it just another scene but a singular experience in itself, and probably one of the best sound sequences Iíve ever heard.)

My recent experience with Black Hawk Down at a Reading Cinema clearly outlined the need for improvement. The sound I heard (which was DTS) was heavily compressed resulting in a highly reduced dynamic range (it also had an irritating buzz in the centre channel). For those who donít know, dynamic range is the difference between the highest recorded sound and the lowest recorded sound. One major advantage of digital sound is its inherent wide dynamic range.†

When Jurassic Park, the first movie with DTS, came out in 1993 the general audience consensus was that it was a lot louder than previous movies. While there is an element of truth to that in actual fact it was really just that the T-Rex was a lot louder than the rest of the movie. The idea of digital surround sound is to create a realistic sound environment thereby increasing your emotional involvement with the movie. In the past, movies like Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan have demonstrated that the use of surround sound with a high dynamic range can play an integral part in the impact of the movie. However my experience with Black Hawk Down and many other movies is that the emotional impact was all but lost due to poor cinema sound.†

"trying to compensate for the dynamic range by compressing the sound"

One possibility that Iíll put forward in regards to this frequent problem is that cinemas (Hoyts, Greater Union and Village as well as Reading) are trying to compensate for the dynamic range by compressing the sound or turning the overall volume level down. Altering the sound either of these ways drastically changes the recorded sound. Compression brings the level of the loud sounds (like the T-Rex roaring) down to the level of the dialogue severely reducing the impact of the onscreen action.†

Turning the overall level of the sound down to make the loud sounds softer and makes the softer sounds difficult to hear or sometimes inaudible. Do you remember in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex was getting closer and you could see the ripples in the water? Well if the overall level was turned down you wouldnít hear those first few stomps, you would only hear the louder ones as the T-Rex got closer. My general rule of thumb is that the loudest sounds in the movie should not be uncomfortable to the ear but just below the threshold. Usually once this Ďreference levelí has been achieved it should not be changed.†

As for the other technical problems thereís really no excuse. Each and every problem that Iíve mentioned previously can easily be detected within the first 30 seconds of the film. Why the problems arenít detected and repaired by cinemas before a public screening is the question. Is it perhaps due to a lack of attention and testing? You be the judge.†

During a screening of Pearl Harbour at a Reading cinema someone forgot to dim the lights at the start of the movie. My initial thought was that they were having a technical problem. Prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt I waited 15 minutes before contacting the front desk from my seat on my mobile phone. I informed them that the lights were still on. The lights were off within a minute. That obviously was an isolated incident but still one that doesnít fill me with confidence. If they didnít notice the lights were still on what chance is there that theyíll notice an audio problem.†

Despite these problems, however Iíve always been prepared to make Reading my first choice when choosing a cinema; admittedly their cheaper prices, big screens and smaller auditoriums are a major drawcard. To their credit, they have also provided very good sound on the odd occasion which suggests that their equipment is up to scratch; the problem seems to be inconsistency. Hoyts, Greater Union and Village display a similar inconsistency. In particular the George Street complex in Sydney, which is run by all three, is a mixed bag in regards to sound quality. Since its opening Iíve experienced varying degrees of sound quality: some of the auditoriums seem inherently poor in sound.

It is important to note that if you do experience sub-standard sound you are entitled to a refund or a voucher. After Black Hawk Down, Reading were good enough to give me both. While I do appreciate the cinemas offering some compensation I would much prefer that they focus their attention on improving the sound. Unfortunately after explaining the problem in great detail to staff at Reading it was still not rectified two weeks later; in fact they were still adamant that it sounded Ďfineí; my 12-year-old brother thought otherwise.†

"There are some cinemas that do impress"

There are some cinemas that do impress. Hoyts Broadway (Sydney) provides excellent sound on a regular basis. Technical problems in my experience are non-existent, the volume is always at the correct level and their bass reproduction is far better than most other cinemas. But if I had to name one cinema that clearly stands above the rest it is the IMAX at Darling Harbour in Sydney. Complementing what is arguably the largest screen in the world is an audio system that is just as impressive; if every cinema sounded this good I wouldnít have written this article.

I would love to see (or hear) the day when the major cinemas can match my $3,000 sound system so the ticket paying audience can experience the great sound I do at home. I have over four years experience as a professional sound recordist and have worked on many television and corporate productions. In that time Iíve developed an acute sense of hearing that is particularly well tuned to picking up audio problems. Itís extremely useful professionally, but what a curse in some cinemas!†

Published May 2, 2002

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For professional sound information or calibration advice, Ben Hooft can be contacted at benhooft@telstra.com

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