The first instinct for controlling “Too Loud” in the movie theater is “Turn it down.” We drive to the movie theater. We pay for our ticket. We sit for a while in soft lighting (wondering if we’re going to be bothered by the sound and smell of our neighbor’s popcorn all night).
Then the room goes full dark and a movie preview music begins all mystery-building-like with cool, dark logos and – Bright and Loud!!! Turn it down!!!
Sometimes that may be the correct response. But probably not most of the time. “Too Loud” might really be “Too Distorted” – something wrong with a speaker or amplifier. Or it might be “Too Loud For Your Age” – the chronologically-enriched may have certain frequencies that don’t sound as clear as they do for a younger audience member, and some of those still-functioning frequencies may be distorted through years of abuse.
What To Do?
The solution could be choosing a different seat. In an auditorium with a big slope, or ‘stadium seating’, the sound is often actually louder in the 2nd half of the room! You might be surprised to find that closer to the screen is less loud and more clear because the speakers are above you and pointed toward the middle, and there are fewer confusing reflections from the rear and the sides of the theater. And because the new digital projectors give such a stable picture, sitting closer isn’t as uncomfortable as it was when we had to watch with the jitteriness of film.
The Real Problem
Most often, people say: “I can’t understand a thing anyone is saying!”
Adverts Louder Than Movie
Loud is also often due to the way that the advertisers overdrive their message. They have 60 or 90 seconds to tell their message, and too often they tell it too loudly. They forget (or don’t care) about that shock of going from relaxed, dark and nearly silent.
Most often, we just wait for the movie before judging the movie itself will be better. But that is 20 minutes of competing trailers away! Jeesh! Trailers grab attention with their movie’s most exciting moments – which are often their loudest moments. Why aren’t there some rules?
There are. Look up TASA some time. Nearly everyone – worldwide – actually follows this industry standard for the audio level of trailers and advertising. But, they also might use a technique called “compression” that makes all the energy seem like it is coming straight through your skull.
Introducing: Ear Theory
In none of these conditions is the appropriate move “Turn It Down”. It might make some things softer, but the exciting parts of the movie won’t be as good, and the entire movie will sound like it is being played though a tin can. The high pitch and low pitch sounds will be gone, and surprisingly, that will make it harder to understand the dialogue. Oops!
The reason this happens is because human hearing is very sophisticated. The system needs to hear soft sounds like a mosquito, all while hearing several different things at the same time and knowing the direction that each are coming from. At the same time, it needs to protect itself if it hears things too loud. And perhaps most importantly, it needs to understand what people are saying.
Put all these things into a dynamically adjustable system (‘elastic’ might be the science term), and that system will favor the center and give less to the other areas. This characteristic is the phenomena called “Loudness”. If you study sound, one of the first things you learn is that everything has a relative – not a firm – relationship to something else, and this relationship changes all the time. There will be anther more technical article following this one, so write in with questions and comments.
Mix In Theater Theory
In practice, it means that for your theater owner to fill this stadium seating challenge with quality sound, there needs to be a lot of amplifier and speaker power. Then, that power needs to be balanced so more amplification power at low and high frequencies is available to keep up with middle frequencies as they change. It is just the way the human hearing system responds. When the audio is turned down, it turns down evenly electronically, but not evenly to us. Our system favors the center, meaning that the high and low frequencies are perceived to have gone down a lot more.
You’ll have to try it sometime in your car or home. Just be careful. If you want those ears to work well into your 80’s, don’t break off any of the 15,000 little hairs that are transmitting sounds from the outside to the inside of your head.
The last complicating factor is that very often the audio level has already been turned down. There is enough anecdotal evidence to say that most movie theaters have turned down their audio processors from the optimum level – the level they were designed and set up for. That level follows a set of Recommended Practices from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
Technical Stuff – Cover Your Eyes
In order to duplicate as closely as possible the artistic intention of the Director, there is an audio level for the equipment that the industry uses to help keep the audio sound consistent from post production to theaters. The standard level is at ‘7’ on the audio processor. This allows for an optimum amount of what is called “headroom”, so that extra energy during the exciting parts can be delivered without hitting a ceiling that makes the sound ‘crack’. Technically, the standard level is created when everyone calibrates their rooms for ‘7’ on their audio processor (which is 85 decibels (dB)) and the upper headroom is set for 105dB.[You might hear some reporter say something on TV, that they measured a theater at 125dB. Realize that it just isn’t likely. Ask the TV announcer to photograph the room full of amplifiers, because that is what it would take to fill a room at that level. Remember, sound is always measured relative to something else. The difference between 105dB and 125dB is 100 times as much power and 4 times as loud – it would take a jillion amplifiers to make that happen.]
More Technical…Really…Just Ignore This Stuff
A practical example, for the last explanation before starting part II.
If the level is already turned down one notch – from 7 to 6, for example – that is a 3.5dB decrease. What the ears and brain receive is 3.5 dB at the center. But it will perceive a lot less at the important high and low pitch areas. “Who cares?”, you say.
A Monologue On Dialogue
We might have been taught that the pitch of the sound of a typical man or woman’s voice is around 150 and 300 cycles per second…which is true. That pitch – those frequencies – are just about an octave below the center of the piano.
But that is just a generalization. Say the word “Notice” out loud. Notice that the sounds seems to start somewhere between the nose and mouth as a kind of ‘hmmm’, then the ‘o’ sound leaves the mouth directly, and the ‘t’ and ‘c’ sounds are all over the place with tone and force. In fact, there are many sounds in each word, many that are the high and low tones that people use to make the words understandable.
The most extreme case, but one that happens all the time, is the ‘s’ sounds. Say the word “sibilance” and you’ll possible be saying and hearing frequencies as high as 8,000 cycles per second. Let’s see… Double the number for an increase of an octave; 150, 300, 600, 1200, 2400, 4800…that’s more than 5 octaves and well into the area that needs twice or more power to deliver the same amount of perceived sound. So, you turn down the center of the sound, but the human perception thinks that the high frequency sounds that we use to differentiate words is turned down far more.
This is odd, counter-intuitive and worth knowing. Perhaps the solution is to move to a different seat, and tell them to “Turn it UP.”
We’ll branch off of this as we enter Part Two – The Apocalypse of Loud.
What we briefly covered:
- Age related Distortion
- Trailers and Compression
- Director’s Intent
- Previous Solutions
Next up… Gee, it’s pretty loud everywhere?!?! I heard that there are countries that have banned loud movies. (False, no countries have done this.) A little more tech talk. A little more on what can be done.
Ask questions now. Send corrections now.
Thanks and good luck to us all.