When was the last time you turned on the subtitles while watching a movie? Does it ever seem like the music and sound effects, especially the explosions, are as loud as ever, but the dialogue’s barely above a whisper? Does it seem like older movies, movies like Jaws and Star Wars, were easier to understand? Are we just getting older and losing our hearing? That’s one possibility, but if the sound quality of your last moviegoing experience resembles the “Empire Strikes Back meets Christopher Nolan” parody video posted on my blog, your ears probably aren’t playing tricks on you:
Cinematic sound has changed dramatically over the past few decades, in some ways for the better and in other ways maybe not so much. Those changes can tell us a lot about the value of sound, all the different moving parts and new technologies that can be involved in creating just the right audio experience, and how even the biggest names in Hollywood can overlook its importance.
One of those big names is director Christopher Nolan, and his films in general, and the movie Tenet in particular, sparked debate about whether his distinctive use of muted dialogue and booming music is a good or bad thing. But that question didn’t start with him: a Los Angeles Times article from 1996 about the teen horror movie The Craft raises some very familiar-sounding complaints about the trend of music and sound effects drowning out the dialogue, and it suggested that teenagers and new media are to blame. “New media” back then meant loud music videos and the younger generation was Generation X, which just goes to show how long this trend’s been developing.
Christopher Nolan is, however, something of a unique case, and his movies are often at the forefront of cinematic audio trends. According to sound editors who’ve worked with him, he believes in actively engaging the audience and focusing their attention through the use of sound, and his actors, like many Hollywood actors these days, tend to forego theatrical performances for a more soft-spoken, naturalistic style of speaking that isn’t always easy to pick up on a microphone. He’s also very enthusiastic about digital audio’s potential for crafting ambient soundscapes, and his movies often rely on a unique auditory illusion called a Shepard tone to set the pace and create tension.
A Shepard tone is a sequence of tones on three octaves layered together: the highest octave seems to fade as it ascends while the middle and lowest octaves seem to grow louder. Since two out of three octaves are growing louder at any given time, our brains combine them into a single tone that seems to be getting higher and higher, or lower and lower if the tones are played the other way around, without ever really changing. Listening to it can be a dizzying experience, and there’s a link on my blog to a video that lets you hear the effect for yourself. You might also recognize it as a sound that shows up pretty often in Christopher Nolan’s movies, from The Dark Knight to Dunkirk:
One quote from the director in Tom Shone’s book The Nolan Variations, however, gives us a clue about some of the other reasons cinematic sound’s changed in recent years. “I was a little shocked to realize how conservative people are when it comes to sound,” Nolan says, “because you can make a film that looks like anything, you can shoot on your iPhone, no one’s going to complain. But if you mix the sound a certain way, or if you use certain sub-frequencies, people get up in arms.”
Some of my listeners might remember a recent interview with author, guitar coach and session composer Nick Morrison. He also talked about how recent studies have shown that sound can be the most important thing to an audience: changing it affects their experience even more than changing the video. “Once you get better,” he said, “you can’t go back with audio. There’s something in the human ear that, if you hear poor quality audio, it immediately turns off your brain and you stop listening”
Sound has a way of getting lost in the shuffle, even when research tells us that it’s often the most important part of a multimedia experience. As special effects have improved and filmmaking has become more dynamic, with cameras constantly on the move, it’s easy for filmmakers to lose sight of the audio aspect of a film. Sound mixers don’t usually have much authority on the set, and digital audio editing has come a long way, so it can be tempting for directors to settle for an inferior audio take because they know it can be fixed in post-production. And they’re right: it usually can be fixed. But that adds another layer of complexity to the processing and can mean that the dialogue’s being reworked long after it was recorded, when the editor’s probably already memorized it. And once they know what they’re supposed to be hearing, it’s that much harder to tell how it’ll sound to everyone else.
Curious about just what a location sound mixer’s day on the set looks like? There’s a YouTube link on my blog to a very quick behind-the-scenes look at just how hectic things can get:
Once the sound makes it through production, though, it still has a few more hurdles to jump on the receiving end, the theaters and home systems where we’ll be watching the movie. Movies are recorded with a dynamic range between the loudest and quietest sounds, such as a crash of thunder and a low whisper, and that range has grown wider over the years: if it seems like you’re always turning the volume up and down between loud noises and low dialogue, that’s the reason.
Not every movie theater has the latest sound equipment or sets its Dolby volume to the industry standard of 7, which means some theaters will sound worse than others, and there’s no accounting for all the different setups people might have while watching it at home. Even the streaming service you use can make a difference since each one has its own way of compressing the audio data.
So what can we do to create a better listening experience, other than turning down the volume and turning up the subtitles? We have a few options. Many smart devices have an audio leveling feature in their options menu: some call it “night mode,” others call it a “volume leveler,” and others label it “dynamic range compression.” The audio quality will probably take a hit, but it can also mean no more room-shaking explosions. A sound bar can help, as can any audio setup with a center speaker since the dialogue’s usually played separately through it. If nothing else, a pair of headphones will at least bring the dialogue closer to your ears – but it’ll bring those eardrum-rattling kabooms closer too.
There’s really only so much that we can do to fix things at home. As with a lot of things when it comes to sound, it’s up to the industry to realize its full potential, from theaters working to provide an ideal listening experience to studios making sure that audio gets the attention it deserves. When it comes to watching a movie, sound can end up being the one thing we remember most.
You’ll notice there’s new music! From Episode #150 onward, we have some new – created just for us – music by Saw & Sine‘s Nicolae Bogdan Bratis (he was interviewed on this podcast just a little while back!). I love it. 🙂 This episode has a bit of a longer ending outro so that you can hear some more of it, but future episodes will have a shorter outro. Thanks for listening!
Would you consider giving this podcast an honest review? You can do that here: https://lovethepodcast.com/audiobranding. And if you like what you hear (and read!) – please do share it with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks so much!
And if you’re interested in crafting an audio brand for your business, why not check out my FREE download – Top 5 Tips For Implementing An Intentional Audio Strategy at https://voiceoversandvocals.com/audio-branding-strategy/