Sound pros push for aural upgrade

Standards, studios and exhibitors must all support audio improvement

While movie theaters are under pressure to upgrade to stay ahead of rapidly improving home theater systems, most of their energy has gone to projection, not to sound.

Theaters have spent vast sums switching to digital but didn’t couple that spending with a comparable upgrade for audio. Many reasoned their existing sound systems already draw auds, especially for the tentpoles supporting studio slates, and the new digital soundtracks that come with d-cinema would be upgrade enough.

But not all sound pros are happy with the aural experience in theaters. According to some sound engineers, the technical standards for theater sound, and the theater sound systems they’re supposed to govern, are obsolete and need an update.

Brian McCarty, a seasoned sound mixer and music producer, goes so far as to call current standards for bigscreen sound “acoustically incorrect,” meaning the standards don’t ensure the soundtrack will be reproduced faithfully.

“Sometimes it’s not even close,” said McCarty. “If we don’t move quickly, it could cause a rupture in the standards. Right now European theaters are becoming impatient. They want to move forward. We’re all on the same standard now but they could move ahead without us.”

Theater sound standards are set by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE). But it has been more than 30 years since SMPTE set forth a recommended set of standards for theatrical sound.

The Audio Engineering Society, which normally focuses on concerts and live events, leaving the movie biz to SMPTE, is pushing hard for SMPTE to revisit theater audio standards.

McCarty, an AES member, said “This is an unprecedented moment in theatrical sound and our members feel they have something to add to the discussion.” The standards established decades ago were the best SMPTE could do at the time, he said, but they didn’t lay out a reliable means getting great audio to auds’ ears. Today he wants to be part of making sound right, as fast as possible.

McCarty has been obsessed with movie theater sound for decades. When McCarty was a boom operator for “On Golden Pond,” he spent hours standing around in water recording dialogue so it would be clearly understood. Months later when he went to see the film in a theater, he was mortified to find that with the sound system in that theater, the dialogue was incredibly difficult to understand. Since then, McCarty has wanted to help revamp the standards for theater audio.

“We were all working so hard to get the best possible sound recording we could,” says McCarty. “I realized then it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t consistent, acoustically correct standards that established how things should sound in a theater.”

McCarty is most unhappy with the fact that today’s standards don’t ensure that when a film is presented in theaters it will sound as the filmmakers meant it to sound. McCarty believes this is a hardship for both filmmakers, who have to do their work, then hope for the best, and audiences, who don’t always hear quality sound.

SMPTE and AES are communicating with each other and many in the tight-knit sound community are members of both organizations. Brian Vessa, chair of SMPTE’s B-chain study group, and executive director of audio at Sony, said his org is looking at the new possibilities that have opened up due to new technology. “We’ve been talking to everyone from exhibitors to equipment makers to gather ideas and get this process going.” SMPTE’s B-chain study group, which focuses on movie theater sound system measurement and adjustment techniques with the hope of improving sound quality and consistency across theaters.

Not even a new set of standards from SMPTE might effect much change for movie-goers, though.

“They (SMPTE) can recommend whatever they like but we have to pay for it,” said Mark Collins, director of projection technology for Marcus Theatres, “and none it matters if studios decide to go in another direction.”

Collins points out that standards for 5.1 soundtracks have already been established in the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). The DCI was an independent body that included studio input. It established tech specifications for d-cinema systems; its specs were turned into formal standards by SMPTE.

But 7.1 mixes are becoming more common, and then there are special mixes like the Aura-3D 11.1 mix that was used in limited engagements of “Red Tails.” It’s those special mixes that pose the real challenge for theaters, said Collins.

SMPTE can adopt standards for advanced formats like 7.1 or Aura-3D but exhibitors are leery of upgrading until studios provide a steady flow of movies in those formats. Once it’s clear the studios are embracing a format, then it’s up to Collins and his peers to decide whether to invest in equipment to support that format.

Collins recalls when competing sound formats like SDDS and Dolby Digital traveled on the 35 mm print of a film. “We really got burned the last time and we don’t want to go back down that road again,” he said.

That wariness is deeply ingrained in exhibitors, who for a century have been encouraged by distribs to shell out for new technologies (Kinemacolor, Cinerama, Sensurround) that never caught on.

SMPTE and AES have to overcome a lot of inertia to get real changes at theaters. Dolby, another major player in theater sound, has yet to announce its next move. Exhibs are, as usual, moving cautiously. The majors are evaluating their options. Collins thinks the studios will seek a format that is easy and fast for their sound teams to use so their bottom line doesn’t suffer.

“It’s a never-ending process with new technology,” says Collins. “I imagine we’re all asking ourselves how much this is going to cost us because if it doesn’t make financial sense, then we just can’t do it.” tech