WRITTEN BY BRAD MEYER
SOUND EFFECTS EDITOR, BOOM BOX POST
With the recently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer smashing existing viewing records and crashing sites like Fandango due to a rush for pre-sale tickets, it is no secret that the hype is strong with this one. On December 18th of this year, hoards of people will be heading to the theaters to witness the newest addition to the Star Wars universe.
Diehard fans know there is a lot to look forward to, but there is another addition to the Star Wars universe that is easily overlooked: Dolby Atmos. Most theaters still show films in 5.1, but with Atmos becoming increasingly popular as part of a premium film experience, it is worth noting how far technology has come since the first Star Wars film in 1977. Therefore, I would like to focus this week’s blog post on the evolution of mixing formats and how they impact the audience experience.
Mono made it’s way into theaters in the 1890’s, somewhat replacing—or at the very least supplementing—live musicians playing alongside the screen in theaters. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities including the birth of the Talkie. Pre-recorded dialogue from the set of the film could now be played to audiences instead of just a musical composition. The one channel may seem simple to us now, but this was no doubt a huge change for audiences of the time period.
Dual mono included a left and right channel, with the same information in both. Even though the same sounds may have been coming out of each speaker, with a larger wall of sound coming at the audience it allowed theaters, and in turn the audiences in attendance, to become larger.
Stereo is still widely used today, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Similar to dual mono, stereo is a dual channel format; however, unlike dual mono, each stereo channel is independent, allowing for the ability to pan.
The human brain allows stereo to do its job effectively. Due to a “phantom center”, your brain can create a stereo image— think of when you are listening to a piece of music with your headphones on, and the snare drum smacks you right between the eyes.
Stereo was an important innovation for the film experience because the newfound panning abilities allowed there to be sound anywhere in the 180° sound field. This in turn allowed sound designers to be more creative with their design. Believe it or not, in 1977 when the first Star Wars film came out, this is what a large majority of theaters were equipped with.
In my opinion, cinema stereo is one of the most important innovations in mixing formats to have ever happened to film. Cinema stereo has three independent channels with different information in each. This allowed for a huge change in the way post-production audio was approached because it made dialog separation possible. With an independent center channel, dialog could have (for the most part) it’s own channel leaving all other design in the left or the right, and that led to more dialog clarity.
Although surround stereo never really caught on in many theaters, it is an important evolution from cinema stereo and helped lead to the birth of 5.1 surround sound. Surround stereo is quite similar to cinema stereo, but with a fourth independent channel in the rear. Part of what led to surround stereo never quite taking off was its impracticality, and the extreme amount of money that most theaters around the country would have had to fork over to replace their existing systems.
5.1 surround is what most theaters are equipped with today, and although the technology existed in 1977 when the original Star Wars film came out, because of impracticality and high costs, it took a while for the industry and theaters to warm up to the idea. Thankfully, it did.
With six independent channels – left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and the LFE (Low Frequency Effects) – 5.1 made the theater experience richer than ever before. Unlike stereo surround, the rear channels in the 5.1 format could each have different information. With the addition of LFE, audiences were more enveloped than they ever had been. Continuing with our Star Wars theme, it is important to note that this is how the majority of audiences will be hearing Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the first time.
7.1 & 9.1 Surround
7.1 surround is essentially the same as 5.1, but with 2 extra channels, totaling in 8 independent channels. 9.1 Surround takes the same principle and adds 2 more channels on top of that, totaling in 10 independent channels. Both of these formats allow for more expanded panning options than earlier formats.
Relatively speaking, Dolby Atmos is extremely new in the film industry, and is catching on surprisingly quickly. It seems these days that every large budget film comes out with an Atmos mix. Atmos allows for up to 64 independent channels and speakers, and 360° coverage including overheads, surrounds, rears, and multiple LFE channels. Atmos is able to accomplish this because it does not necessarily “burn” audio information to a fixed number of channels like more traditional mixes do. More stationary sounds like ambiences and dialog are often premixed in a more traditional format, often 5.1; however, most effects and special pans are not. This allows for incredibly precise, targeted panning options, which pushes the audience experience even further. Dolby says by February 2016, there will be over 2000 locations worldwide equipped with Atmos capabilities.
Whether you are a Star Wars fan or not, the way we hear our favorite movies is constantly changing and being challenged, expanding the possibilities of sound designers, mixers, and audiences alike. So next time you are at the movies, I challenge you and open your ears to the evolving world of cinema sound!
QUESTION: WHAT IS THE LAST FILM YOU SAW IN DOLBY ATMOS? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THOUGHT IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW!
Image credit to Unsplash.