Beyond the ear-death experience

Sound experts blame helmers for current loudness syndrome

Even though digital theater sound delivery systems the likes of THX, Dolby and SDDS permit summer pics such as “G.I. Jane” and “Mimic” to be played loudly enough to be imprinted on your DNA, the people responsible for those systems say it isn’t their fault that the pics are blasting away in theaters.

They have created theaters where the sound is reproduced at exactly the same level as the dubbing theater where it was mixed. So they aren’t responsible for the discomfort and potential hearing loss that accompany today’s theatrical releases.

Digital sound they insist, doesn’t make loud movies. Directors with digital sound make loud movies.

“We’re just trying to make sure we’re coping with whatever the filmmakers put out,” states Kurt Schwenk, director of Professional THX Operations, adding, “And that we’re coping with it cleanly.

“THX has always been a set of standards that are implemented in the theater itself. We’re there to convey the filmmaker’s intent to the final audience. That’s our driving purpose. And we do that through minimizing distortion and (solving the sound) isolation issues.”

To address this, THX standards include speaker layout, recommendations for specific types of wall construction to prevent sound bleed-through into and out of the theater.

Then, Schwenk explains, they had to upgrade all of that when digital came along, because digital sound allows for “a much wider dynamic range.”

While he does admit digital allows “louder loud noises, it also allows — where analog did not — for complete silence.” He cites “The English Patient” as a good example.

Despite the potential for subtlety though, Schwenk says, “If the filmmaker’s intention is loud, then with THX, it’ll be loud.”

Drive Carefully

Ioan Allen, VP of Dolby Laboratories is one of the point guys in the loudness controversy. He delivered the seminal white paper, “Are Movies Too Loud?” at the recent SMPTE film conference in March.

The good news he reassures, is that even though he isn’t a medical expert, he believes the noise levels are “nowhere near a health hazard. And we’re way below rock concerts.”

But, he continues, the theaters are getting more complaints from the public. “In a business that’s supposed to be an entertainment business, if you get complaint letters, then you’re not entertaining.

“We got involved in the loudness issue because I felt that (with the Dolby digital sound system) we had invented the Ferrari and everybody was driving it at 180 mph all the time, which is a bit unfortunate,” Allen says.

“Our ‘Ferrari,’ ” he elaborates, “is a perfect engine on a perfect chassis. All that’s happening is that some drivers are abusing it.

“Everything we’re doing is right. But we have a responsibility to tell people to drive carefully.”

In addition, Allen attributes loud movies to other factors such as “directors on some films who just let the adrenaline pump them” during the dubbing.

As the release date approaches, the directors get anxious. “And the adrenaline is really pumping in there and the director says, ‘Make it louder. Make it louder.’ And the mixer is not going to argue,” Allen says.

“He says, ‘OK, but you’ve got a problem.’ And the director says, ‘Don’t worry about the problems. I’ll worry about the problems. Make it louder.’ ” Allen muses after a pause, “Somebody said that the loudness is inversely proportional to the number of days left before the preview.”

Allen calculates that 25% of the big releases this year have fallen prey to this syndrome.

Another contributing factor in the runaway noise problem, according to Allen, has been the evolution of “ride movies.”

That, he says, is “the kind of movie where you know that there’s going to be a ride based on it in some studio theme park in a couple of years.”

“Those movies are inherently loud,” Allen says. “The very nature of ‘chase’ films is that they start out loud and they’re going to finish loud.”

“Inevitably, ‘Twister’ or ‘Speed II’ are going to be loud films because that’s the nature of what they’re trying to do.

“For ‘Twister,’ it would be very difficult to say you should make it quieter because the whole impact is the sound.”

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