The problem with Dolby Atmos and cinema sound levels

Feature Simon Brew 15 May 2014 - 05:56

Dolby Atmos is a technology brought in to give cinema sound an extra edge. But are its effects being drowned out by the volume control?

In the quest to give cinemas something distinctive to warrant the increasing admission price, several technologies have been deployed in recent times. So, on top of huge screens - with IMAX sites growing in number - and on top of big blockbusters arriving with a 3D option, there have been some interesting progressions in sound.

Sound is something that is hard to get right in a home environment, after all, without spending a good deal of cash. In truth, many overlook a good surround sound system in favour of a large telly. Unsurprising perhaps, when good 60" screens for the living room are now under £1000 a pop.

Dolby in particular has been investing heavily in new audio technologies for cinemas, and in April 2012, it pulled the proverbial covers off Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos sounds like just the kind of thing cinema sound should be doing. The crude explanation for the technology is that whereas once upon a time, cinemas surrounded you with a number of speakers, Atmos suddenly allows for up to 64 speaker feeds, and 128 discrete audio tracks. As such, properly-equipped Dolby Atmos cinemas add ceiling-mounted speakers to the mix, as well as a greater number around the auditorium. The theory is that you're engulfed in an audio mix, with sound coming at you from all around, as well as above.

This is brilliantly demonstrated in one of the Dolby Atmos demo clips that tends to play ahead of films screened using the technology: a slow, subtle build up of noise, as you get the growing awareness that the audio is all around you. It's really well done.

The problem, though, is that I'm not convinced that Atmos is being deployed in quite the way that it should. And it ties into a broader issue with cinema audio levels.

Anyone who has tinkered with any kind of surround sound set-up will know that it's the placement of the sound that's crucial. Getting the balance of levels is a fine art at times, and it varies on a film by film basis. Atmos, in theory, should all be about the placement. However, with every subsequent film that I see screened using the format, the thing that's coming through more than anything is the sheer volume. That somewhere along the line, the onus is switching from the delicate positioning of sound, to using the separate speakers and blasting you with very loud noise from even more directions than before.

This does tie in, of course, to the ongoing debate about comfortable sound levels at your average multiplex. But I find it particularly disappointing with an Atmos mix, where there's a chance to do something more interesting. Gareth Edwards has clearly taken a lot of care and attention with the sound mix for his new Godzilla movie, but the screening I attended turned into an audio wall of very loud noise, to the point of making my ears ring for some time afterwards. It's been the same with other films I've seen in Atmos, such as Man Of Steel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Gravity, Frozen and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. These were across different venues, so it can't just be an issue with one particular picturehouse. Each, however, seemed to prioritise volume over anything else. And surely that's not what Dolby Atmos was supposed to do?

Directors, as we've seen in the past, have written to projectionists (remember them?) to specifically request care be taken in how their film is projected. But where's the specific request asking for sound to be taken into account? To point out that, for the subtleties to work, the volume knob doesn't have to be cranked up to maximum?

Because sound, after all, can enhance seeing a film in a cinema significantly. I always remember watching Paul W S Anderson's often-maligned Event Horizon in the 1990s, but in a cinema where clearly a lot of care and attention had been put into getting the surround sound for the film just right. As such, the subtle placement of noise was quite brilliant, lifting the experience of watching the film by some distance. I've always had more regard for Event Horizon than most, and the spot-on experience of watching it for the first time in the right room may well have helped there.

Sound, however it's deployed, is a major, major tool in the armoury of cinema, and Dolby Atmos is a potentially terrific enhancement of what's possible. But audio requires the same care and attention as the picture itself, from production to projection, and I can't help but feel that not everything is going to plan.

June and July's range of Atmos-accompanied blockbusters - from Edge Of Tomorrow through to the new Transformers and Planet Of The Apes films - are the next to try and sort this muddle out. I fear that at least some of them are just another excuse to turn the volume knob up again, drowning out some of the effect of well placed audio in the process...

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If this technology is designed for multiplex like Cineworld and Vue then forget it. They can't even project films properly and their biggest priority is churning out over-priced junk food and employing listless minimum wagers who would rather be somewhere else (zero offence intended at you if you are employed by these dreadful companies). It requires managers who care about movies to sort these experiences properly but multiplex only cares about profit. We have a Cineworld coming to our town but I will still drive miles away to use a proper theatre where they actually do care enough to at least try and get the experience right. I don't think I'm straying off topic here, the article is about poor application of installed facilities.

Anybody else worried that these 'ATMOS' systems may start pumping out poison gas to convert the Earth into a Sontaran clone factory? No? Just me?

I've got to admit that the Cineworld I use regularly (because of the Unlimited card) manages to cock up about one in ten films I've seen projected in either sound or picture terms.

I put this down to the advent of digital projection as it's never been easier to run multiple screens with fewer people and this spreading people thin and leaving showings unattended by a projectionist whilst they are out sorting other screens out.

The problem is that cinema's aren't terribly well built for sound, as the levels have to be high so you don't hear the movie playing through the wall.

Ideally you'd have corridors and thick walls separating screens, but that would require studios letting cinemas make money off the films not just off the pop corn, so they could afford to build something decent.

I usually find I get used to the sound levels after the trailers have been and gone.

As for complex audio tracks minutely calibrated to enhance the movie, it's all rather pointless when there's two young girls sat behind you rustling sweet packets and explaining the plot to each other for the duration of the film, which is what I had for CA2.

Weird, we have a Showcase here and we drive miles to go to a Cineworld as the seats are comfier, the building more pleasant, the floors less sticky, the staff politer and the whole experience is far nicer.

We've also never had a bad screening there.

They do bloody well for people on zero hour contracts.

I wasn't.....now I know why the name is familiar......

It doesn't matter how amazing the speaker systems are - there is always some ignorant **** that will talk through the movie and ruin it. And these days they encourage you to use your mobile phone to do some poxy quiz, so now I have to put up with flashes of light all around me as well.

I stopped going to the Odeon Leicester Square for big new movies years ago, because 60% of the dialogue was inaudible, just muddy and indistinct. I emailed them several times, and was told it's supposed to be like that. Similarly, my local Cineworld regularly messes up the screen size/cropping - when I saw Scott Pilgrim, they forgot to expand the screen fully, so all the cool on-screen captions etc were cut off by a few letters. I had to leave the screen to complain, and the staff guy, who clearly didn't want to bother going to check, just said "it's supposed to be like that". I'm running out of cinemas!

I thought exactly the same thing

I think they can all be a bit hit and miss depending on how well they're managed, I go out of my way to use an Empire cinema as its a better experience all round. I live closer to a Showcase, Vue and Odeon

Sounds like the same screening I went to at Huntingdon Cineworld. Squealing over Chris Evans body.

Staff in Cinemas could give a flying F**K about the viewing experience of the customer, if Cinemas are dying they have no one to blame but themselves...

Funny. We have both in Nottingham, and we prefer Showcase to Cineworld for a number of reasons. One of them actually relates to sound - Cineworld can be deafening sometimes, but Showcase tend to have a more tolerable level. :)

You can't call it the ATMOS System! Its a tautology!

Slow news day?

I sat through the screening of CA2 with a couple behind me, the male of which was explaining the film to his partner in their native language...cinema volume has only gone up in response to the anti-social behaviour of the modern cinema-goer.

me two, I flit between two local Cineworlds because one doesn't show minor films (like the excellent Grand Budapest Hotel) and they both manage to screw stuff up like not widening the curtains, forgetting the run the trailers before a film (which once got a cineworld member of staff a loud cheer during an apology) I even manage to watch 30 minutes of a 3D film because the staff couldn't figure out they'd forgot to apply the special 3D lens or something. Frustrating but made tolerable through the Cineworld offer. If I was paying full price I'd be livid!

Did someone say......Atmos??? ATMOS????? T_T_T_T_T_T omg omg omg

Vote with your feet! If the sound is awful, get up and demand your money back. I spent 5 minutes in Odeon Leicester Square with no sound at all at the start of the film, I asked if it could be fixed, when they said no I got my money back. When there was a problem with the speakers during trailers at Westfield Vue (Shepherd's Bush), I asked the usher if it could be fixed, thinking they'd say no, but I was stunned when they stopped the adverts, did some rebooting, FIXED THE PROBLEM, then started the film from the beginning.

Honestly, I've been very happy since setting up a room for my own home cinema. You can get excellent sound at home for not as much as you might think. Is it more expensive than the movies you would see in cinema for a year? Yes, but it is a fair price to pay for total control over audio/video and seeing films how they are meant to be seen: with excellent video and audio fidelity.

As a mostly deaf person, I'm less than thrilled at Cinema sound. I don't need 128 separate speaker feeds. What I'd really like is the option to wear some special glasses which can display subtitles that won't interfere with everyone else's view of the film.

I live in Sheffield and I find our Cineworld and Odeon to be passable venues for blockbuster fare. But the Showroom here is far and away my favourite building in the city. Special screenings, events, great food and drink, reasonable prices (especially student and OAPs) and a very warm, welcoming staff. A lot of love it poured into the Showroom cinema here and that even comes across in the presentation of sound and vision in the screens.

The sound is often too loud when the cinema isn't filled to capacity. Operators don't seem to realise that there's a difference between having 400 people in a room, absorbing the sound, and a mostly empty theatre with only half a dozen people in attendance. It stands to reason that you'd have to turn the volume down.

Indeed. The only new sound technology I need in a cinema is one that'll make people shut up.

I just saw Godzilla in a theater with Atmos and was concerned going into it that the noise would be too loud (as I'd just read this article before heading out to the showing). Our theater (in the States) was actually a bit quieter than expected, but we didn't notice much of a difference between it and a normal showing. In fact, we felt a bit let down. Pretty convinced that it wasn't properly set up where we were.

The most baffling comment on the internet. A feature like this presumably takes about ten times longer to write than a news story, surely?

That's the point. There's so little going on that's worth reporting about that the author can take time to write a feature like this. It sounds incredibly scathing, but in reality it's just a friendly dig. In this instance anyway, sometimes it is very scathing...

Just to be clear on this: we write and prepare three features a day, each and every weekday, often working on them months ahead. The amount of news that comes in has no bearing on that whatsoever - Simon

My father is nearly deaf and he can hear the movies just fine when we go to our local theatre.

Great article. As George Lucas said sound is 50 percent of the movie going experience. When I've been to the cinema it has usually been the sound that has let the film down. Either too loud, not loud enough, dialogue muffled etc. Each film is unique and the sound should be tweaked accordingly. To have the same settings for 12years a slave and Godzilla would be daft. But I guess that what happens in today's multinational multiplexes. We came out of a showing of the last bond movie and many of us had BAD headaches. The sound was way too loud. Ears were ringing for hours afterwards! Are there any cinemas out there were they take a real pride in giving a great experience in picture and sound? Where they consider levels on a film by film basis? The technology exists . But as this article suggests, it's either not being used properly, or the cinemas just don't care.

This is a site dedicated to movies, TV, Comic Books and games.
This includes cinema's and the experiences of the cinema goer and the technology used to try and make the experience as enjoyable as possible.

If you don't like this type of article, you're in the wrong place buddy.

Because I don't find an article about the sound used in cinema interesting, I'm in the wrong place? I've been a daily visitor to Den of Geek for over two years, I know what the site is about. I clicked on the article wondering what points he would make, because I have no issue with the sound at cinemas.

Just because you don't have an issue with the sound levels doesn't mean others don't, but you feel the need to belittle someone's hard work because you don't agree with it. Sad really.
If you don't find an article interesting, stop reading it and move on.

Sound levels are a problem. Dolby Atmos is not the problem. Sound levels are a problem because of the ego and insanity of film directors. They're so scared that they haven't built emotion into their films, they crank up the levels to make up for it, not unlike almost every rock show (and even some Broadway shows) that I've attended in the last 20 years.

I completely agree that sound levels are over the top. It's because (and this is true in music shows and sound recordings as well), everyone has forgotten about dynamic range. It's the change in sound levels from one scene to another or the sudden explosion that came out of the quiet that creates emotion, not blasting the level throughout the entire film, which just causes tedium and in many theaters, causes the dialog to be distorted and unintelligible.

There's nothing inherent to Dolby Atmos that makes it too loud. Just listen to the Dolby Atmos snipe (the one in the forest with all the sounds of leaves blowing and insects, etc.) The levels are quite fine.

There's one other aspect and that is a theatre may set the sound levels for when the theatre is full, but when the theatre is empty, you don't have all those pesky humans absorbing the sound, so the perception is that the sound is much louder. And now that most theaters don't really have projectionists (they just have button pushers), no adjustment is made.

Whats makes your ears ring is not a system being too loud but one that is distorting. I sell very high end home cinemas and they will play considerably louder than commercial cinemas but you dont have any of the fatigue being described.

I went to the Odeon Leicester Square to hear a Dolby Atmos presentation and the audio system was simply appalling. Additionally it simply smelt in the cinema. I know several well know club owners who were offered speakers for free because of the marketing potential. Commercial cinemas are interested in profit not quality.

... thankfully the sound systems at many festivals show just how good sound can be in big spaces when the right care is taken...

I went to see Edge of Tomorrow in the Cineworld Ipswich (was first constructed as a Virgin cinema in the 90's). Watched it in screen 6, now an IMAX theatre and my ears were hurting by the end. The final battle was just a wall of noise. Volume was far too loud, bearing in mind screen 6 is THX certified.

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