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Sounds Like…

October 9th, 2009

‘The Audience Is Listening’ is a logo you’ll have often seen before a movie, but are they, and what are they listening for?  It’s a strange one, and I wondered who thought thx logoit up?   You may also have seen SDDS and DTS, which sometimes appear on posters or lurk at the very end of movies with the bit that says,  ‘Shot on location in the Bahamas’ – on Bond movies at least.  There’s also the more obvious, Dolby Digital, also at the front, currently in the style of an Indianna Jones movie, not sure why that is either.

It’s all about sound, but not as they knew it back in the day. This is LOUD sound and digital, and ‘The Audience Is Listening’ to THX, or more correctly, in THX .

Since the talkies, sound has always been a problem, it used to be the recording of it, but when they got that fixed, it was the playing back and that was incredibly hard to improve.  Though I guess audiences just enjoyed what was in front of them, not knowing how good it could be until one day, they could actually hear what people were saying!

The problem was always in the basic way in which sound is put onto the film alongside the picture.  It’s printed photographically as a clear wavy stripe, on every print that Ray Dolbygoes to the theatres.  Light is shone through the wavy line to a sensor which converts it to sound, but this process limits the range of sound that can be reproduced, particularly at the very low end and the very high, and creates unwanted hissy noise, which is filtered out but at the same time, filtering out the higher notes and sounds.

Just like talkies, 3D, widescreen, and other novelties, studios knew audiences would flock to the next big thing, so everyone was searching for the best sound experience.  They could put it on posters.  In 1965, Ray Dolby, an American audio engineer working in his UK labs, had already developed a system to reduce the sound of tape hiss for record studios.  The breakthrough was that rather than filter out the high frequency hiss – which could also affect the sounds you wanted to be heard, during the actual recording process, the high frequencies were made louder, then when played back, the Dolby system reduced them back to a normal level and so at the same time, lowering the level of the hiss so it was virtually inaudible.

The first film to benefit from Ray’s system was, A Clockwork Orange, and though no doubt the sound was like crystal, especially Walter Carlos’ music, it’s likely the audience and critics alike, were so overwhelmed with Kubrick’s unflinching vision, the sound went without comment.  However, Ray’s family name was soon to become known throughout the world.

So movies had colour, they had gimmicks, so why not,  sound gimmicks.  Stereo was around, in a rudimentary form, but it wasn’t an ‘event’.  Sensurround was an ’event’ invented by Universal Studios and premiered in 1974 on the movie Earthquake. (Hang on to your computer if you watch this clip!)  Oh, and Poster from the movie Earthquakethough the poster indicates it was recommended by ’Adult Entertainment’ it really wasn’t that kind of film!

The idea behind Sensurround was that at various points in the movie, the audience would really feel like they were in an earthquake. They did this by installing special loudspeakers into theatres, at $500 per run, which could blast out the specially created, low frequency rumble at an incredibly high intensity.  Indeed the rumble was a scientifically exact replication of seismic data from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake in the San Fernando Valley, which measured 6.6 on the Richter scale.  Special cue tones were incorporated into the regular soundtrack to set it off, and it worked way better than anyone expected.  Theatres sustained structural damage, parts of the ceiling at the famous Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood fell in, and the audiences watching quiet, tense scenes on Godfather 2 in the next door screen complained in droves.

Some time later, director Steven Spielberg was gaining a bit of name for himself, Jurassic Parkhaving just made the first Indiana Jones movie, and was thinking about Jurassic Park but was jaded by current sound systems and concerned that he couldn’t get the big dinosaur roars he wanted.  So in 1991, he invested in the development of DTS, Digital Theatre Systems.  The Dolby people had already been working on their, Dolby Digital, for four years, but I guess Steven just wanted his own.  Interestingly, one year later, Sony began working on their system, SDDS, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound.

They’re all digital surround sound systems, with generally five channels of surround sound and one channel for deep bass sounds.  Dolby Digital premiered in 1992, on Batman Returns, a year later came Jurassic Park with DTS and just one week later came SDDS on Arnie’s, Last Action Hero.

Today, SDDS is the least popular.  This picture shows about a centimetre of a cinema Various sound systems on a cinema printprint.  From the left is the SDDS track, the grey between the sprockets is the Dolby – you can just see their logo, next is the regular stereo and the dashes are the DTS.  The problem with SDDS isn’t the sound quality but that being on the very edge of the film, it’s easily damaged, and it happens to be more expensive.  Like SDDS, the Dolby is actually tiny dots which are read by a CCD sensor, similar to that used on digital cameras.  The DTS is different.  The dashes aren’t the sound track, the sound is actually from a regular CD, usually three, the dashes make sure they stay in sync.

But yes, it does mean as well as transporting cans of film between theatres, the CD’s have to stay with them.  DTS is supposed to sound marginally better but probably only to dogs or engineers.  Digital cinema of course comes on a hard drive containing everything, so it’s likely Dolby, DTS and possibly SDDS will continue side by side.

THX Car systemAnd what of THX?  Well, sadly I’ve almost run out of space, but suffice to say it’s a specification for theatre design and sound systems, so the sound you hear is like it was in the studio where it was mixed.

Developed by George Lucas and named after, Tomlinson Holman’s eXperiment.  You can now get it in Lincoln cars.  Phew!!

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