Decades of Sound Problems

Times staff writer Robert W. Welkos described nicely the different movie theater sound systems, even managing to mention the volume being too loud (“Creating the Roar for the Crowd,” Calendar, June 1). What Welkos did not mention is an even bigger problem than overbearing volume: how obnoxiously bad many of the final sound mixes are in today’s films.

I recently saw “The Craft” a few weeks into its run (after the theater manager had listened to complaints from the audience and turned the volume down) but as with many current films, the various soundtracks are mixed so that the final track has the music and sound effects much louder than the dialogue. The music and effects in the screening I saw of “The Craft” were at a normal level, leaving the dialogue almost inaudible.

This did not used to be the case. In the ’30s and ’40s the producers (who were often the writers as well) and/or the studio heads ensured that the dialogue was understandable. After all, if you have dialogue by Preston Sturges, Herman Mankiewicz or Billy Wilder, you want the audience to hear it. Not surprisingly, in contemporary films directed by their writers, such as those by James L. Brooks, John Sayles and Quentin Tarantino, the dialogue is crystal-clear. Why isn’t it clear in other films?

First of all, by the time the director and/or producer get around to the sound mix, they have heard the dialogue a million times in the editing room and they know it, so they forget about the audience, which will be hearing it for the first time. The sound effects and music are fresher in their minds than the dialogue and are given preference, especially if there is a potential hit single in the music. Second, the dialogue in so many films is so bad, the producers want to cover it up. Third, in a big action picture, do we really need to hear yet another variation on “Let’s get out of here before it a) crashes b) explodes and/or c) eats us?”

Partly the problem may be generational. Younger producers and directors have grown up with rock music, which is bigger on music than lyrics. This may also explain why bad sound mixes are showing up everywhere else as well. The crowd noise at the beginning of Jay Leno’s show is much louder than his monologue. I stopped watching the miniseries “Dead Man’s Walk” after the first three minutes when it was clear the producers had not mixed the sound so we could understand the dialogue. And my wife and I often turn on a radio broadcast of a baseball game we are watching on television instead of the TV sound since the volume of the crowd noise on TV would have to be earsplitting to be able to hear the announcers.

One of the pleasures of watching a film on videocassette is that one can turn down the volume on the scenes heavily backed with music and raise it if necessary on scenes rich with dialogue–although when you watch a lot of movies this way, you run the risk of getting carpal tunnel syndrome playing with the volume button. And it does not help much when the videos are badly mixed. It has even gotten so bad that when older films are “remixed” for video, the music and effects tracks are brought up to current levels and the dialogue brought down. Why haven’t all those directors who complained about colorizing a few years ago complained about that? They’re probably deaf from their own movies.

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