Few films come to market without mastering their soundtracks and then being shown at theaters with Dolby-standardized sound systems. And after 40 years as a standard-bearer, Dolby could say its sound formats are as much a part of nearly every major 35mm release as celluloid, from production to exhibition and even to restoration.
“Basically, we’ve created a worldwide playback standard,” says David Gray, Dolby VP of production services. “People can mix to a standard and playback to that standard so — in essence — everybody is hearing the same thing.”
While Dolby’s role in the lifecycle of a film initially involved developing recording techniques and noise reduction on film set locations, today the company is primarily involved in post-production technologies and services for soundtracks, as well as in creating the optimal environment for playback of those soundtracks in theaters. Dolby’s trained representatives stay with a project until the end and are on site to supervise sound for just about each and every big film premiere.
“We’re here to support the filmmaker’s vision,” says Gray.
Dolby set these standards by establishing standardized sound replay conditions for theaters and for mixing studios to be sure that movies are consistently replayed as they were originally envisioned by a director.
“They’ve always been at the forefront really,” says Mann Theaters co-CEO Peter Dobson, who, after 39 years of working in film exhibition, still recalls a demonstration done by some Dolby techs at a theater in the U.K. “They literally just trashed this print of a film right in front of us and then restored the sound by running it through some processors. It was just amazing.”
In addition to cinema soundtrack mastering, Dolby created lab quality controls for their clients during the release-print manufacturing process. Trained Dolby technicians systematically sample reels while the prints are being made to remove any defects and oversee the quality of the prints throughout a film’s run.
Dolby then follows the prints to the theaters where they set the bar for playback. In the case of high-profile screenings, Dolby often sends sound consultants to oversee and assist. “During the big premieres they’re always in our projection booths making sure things go well,” says Dobson.
In the theaters, Dolby has introduced a steady stream of technologies to enhance soundtrack playback. The company first created Dolby Stereo, the original multichannel format. In 1986, Dolby SR (spectral recording) was introduced, providing more than twice the noise reduction of Dolby A-type, and, moreover, allowing loud sounds with wider frequency response and lower distortion.
Dolby Digital premiered in 1992, delivering a realistic digital audio via 5.1 discrete channels. The three front channels (left, center, right) deliver crisp, clean dialogue and accurate placement of on-screen sounds, while twin surround channels (left surround and right surround) wrap around the audience and immerse them in the action. The LFE (low-frequency effects) channel delivers real impact for explosions and other effects that can, literally, be felt as well as heard.
Dolby Digital Surround EX, was introduced in 1999, and adds a third surround channel — a center rear channel — to the Dolby Digital format. This creates a greater realism, more precise sound placement, and exciting special effects, since the new channel is reproduced by rear-wall surround speakers, while the left and right surround channels are reproduced by speakers on the side walls.
And Dolby’s record-keeping and emerging technologies are key in helping filmmakers and studios remix the soundtracks of older films. When studios find that prints of older films have been improperly stored or put away without notation about elements of their soundtracks, they sometimes are able to find the missing information in Dolby’s vaults, Gray explains. “We sometimes find through memory or our own notes on a film we have what they’re looking for.”
“Dolby’s biggest contribution to restoration is the deep well of information they have and all the people they have who are so willing to share everything they know with you,” says James Young, Chase Prods. restoration and remastering engineer.
Years ago, Young was working on a print of “Superman” that had a soundtrack that was a kind of forerunner to 5.1 sound but wasn’t immediately easy to understand or analyze. “Dolby not only offered to lend us one of two remaining processors that would work with the print so we could play it back on our own, but they gave us everything they knew about the print so we could work with it,” says Young.
“Dolby has always spearheaded advancements in sound quality and pushed the boundaries of what can be done,” says Dobson. “I expect them to keep introducing new things to make sound better for audiences in the future.”