Pump Down the Volume

Are motion pictures getting too loud? The short answer: Yes. The long answer: Definitely yes.
Reviews from three recent movies that came out earlier this summer mentioned the sound. Pretty cool if you’re a sound guy, right? Keep reading…

In one television review, the commentator mentioned that he would have liked to cover one of his eyes so the movie would only be half as bad, only he couldn’t because he was using both of his hands to cover his ears. The next reviewer said that seeing one particular film was “an ear-shattering and mind-numbing experience.” The third, and most descriptive review, said, flat-out, that this is the kind of a movie that will have sound-sensitive audience members heading to the hills or to the theater manager begging for earplugs because it’s the loudest movie ever made. Now that’s a review!

Do you think it’s time we should start paying attention to these types of remarks? I do.
Who is responsible for movies being too loud? Well, that’s a question that I’m sure will garner some debate. Having broken most of the rules pertaining to loud movies as much as anyone, I feel some of the responsibility begins with me. You see, nowadays, the mixers are usually given a chance to rough out the mix before the filmmakers come in. If we present them a track that’s already steaming, they have nowhere to go but up.

Our experience over the years has taught most of us to prepare the tracks with room for some ups and downs. It’s a nice place to start until the filmmakers come in and the mix takes on a life of its own.
First it’s “raise those gunshots,” but now the explosions seem small so we raise them, too. “Add some boom to that car crash,” but now the skids and metal impacts seem low, so we jack them up. “The building falling over just doesn’t rock the theater,” so we raise and boom that sound effect as well. But now when we look back (for some reason) the gunshots seem low again. Do you get the picture?
It’s at about this time that phase two begins. Mr. Composer (or his representative) says, “I’m having trouble hearing the low strings, and somehow we’ve lost the melody.” So we go ahead and crank the music up, too. Just about then, everyone begins to realize that we now can’t understand the dialog anymore. Hmm, do we lower all the stuff we just raised? Don’t kid yourself — we just shove that dialog fader to the top and we’re off to the races. That takes care of the first 30 seconds of a movie, but we’ve got two more hours to go. Yeehaw, we’re on a roll!

You see, for whatever reason, many filmmakers believe that they need to rip people’s heads off to make an impression. They pump up the volume of their movies as if they’re competing in the sonic Olympics where the highest volume level wins. They remember seeing movies early on in film school that rocked their world and feel that they want to do the same. The only trouble is that most of those films were nowhere near as loud as films are today. Those were the analog days — the good old days when, even if a filmmaker wanted you to blow the roof off the theater, the best we could do was shake it. Then came the digital age — cleaner, faster, and, oh yeah, louder!

Ironically, most filmmakers tell us they can’t imagine how we do this job each day. They only have to endure this torture for a couple of weeks and then they’re out of here. In most cases, we start another film the next day and the process starts all over again.

Imagine going to a rock concert 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for several weeks at a time — that just about sums up a sound mixers life. They work at extraordinarily loud levels all day — and sometimes all night — blasting out their eardrums to appease filmmakers only to have the final product turned down so that theater owners don’t lose good paying customers. And who could blame them?
The reality is that most theaters turn down the level of the movies they run by several decibels to accommodate the many patrons complaining of the excessive levels. I asked one theater manager when he stops lowering the level of a movie. He said, “I keep turning it down until people stop complaining.” The filmmakers, knowing this, have the sound mixers pump up the level so that when it gets turned down it will still have as much impact as possible on the audience.

One solution might be a Federal loudness standard for motion pictures and that all filmmakers should be mandated to comply. They’re already doing it in on feature trailers, and it seems to be working well.
Now, it’s time for my confession. I’m the guy who mixed the third film I mentioned — you remember, the one that supposedly sent patrons in search of the manager for earplugs. Together with my mixing partner we continually cautioned the director that we felt the movie was getting too loud. Even for an action adventure we hit levels we were very uncomfortable with. It got to the point where everyone on the stage, including the mixers, were wearing earplugs. The director, who is an extremely nice guy, just kept saying that his intention was to pummel the audience for two solid hours so that they would leave the theater exhausted. I can assure you that he achieved his goal.

I believe that there should be a limit to how loud movies are, and also laws protecting the men and women who mix them. I know that seems harsh, but we’ve tried every other trick in the book and it hasn’t helped. Perhaps, in the mean time, the best solution is to move the filmmakers to the front of the console, closer to the screen. That way, when they ask you to blast out some track, it hits them first. After a few hours of this ear-shattering and mind-numbing experience, they may be more likely to believe you that it’s getting too loud.

You see, there was a time when you could start out mixing films at a young age and comfortably retire in your early sixties. The way things are going, most mixers will be lucky to see fifty — or, I should say, hear fifty.

Surround Professional Magazine