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A Loud Irony Enters the Mix: The Film Volume Issue

An ironic digital cloud hovers over the feature film audio industry. Manyproducers, directors, and studio executives are demanding that engineersmix movie sound tracks louder than ever before, even as theater owners areturning the volume down.

In part, the move toward louder mixes was an inevitable result of theproliferation of digital audio technology for mixing and playing backfeature film sound tracks. Powerful digital tools and quality playbacksystems for theaters now allow dramatic high-volume tracks to retain theirsound integrity from mixing stage to theater. So filmmakers with a big,high-volume story to tell (or a weak story to hide) can get the kind ofbooming tracks they believe will thrill audiences in the theaters. Or sothey think.

In the opinions of industry audio professionals that Millimeter spoke with,such thinking is seriously flawed. They suggest that clients hell-bent oncranking up the volume are harming the art of sound mixing, endangering theears of industry professionals, and fooling themselves since few audienceswill ever hear the sound tracks as loud as the filmmakers intended.

“What is happening is that many of these film sound tracks are coming totheaters so hot that theater officials have to turn down the volume,”explains John Ross, a veteran film mixer and president of Digital Sound &Picture, Los Angeles. “So mixing film sound real hot ends up self-defeatingbecause you end up with an unbalanced mix in the theater with dialoguesometimes inaudible.”

Because of the issues surrounding film volume, many sound pros arecurrently taking part in an informal, but growing, debate over how tosafely retain creative control over the mix.

No Limitsor years, industry professionals accepted 85dB as the standard for soundpressure levels in theaters and on dubbing stages. That standard, alwaysdifficult to enforce, is virtually impossible to maintain in the digitalera; it is routinely violated during audio production work on major featurefilms.

A big reason for this is that studios now have digital tools to make filmsessentially as loud as they like, and theaters have digital audio systemssophisticated enough to play that sound back without distortion at highlevels. Many clients therefore ask mixers to craft sound tracks for certainmovies to take full advantage of this capability and expose them todangerous decibel levels for several hours each working day.

On top of that, other “new” noises are making their way into audiofacilities, according to Mark Curry, chief recording engineer forHollywood-based Music Forever, the audio production and recording companyowned by film composer Anthony Marinelli. “Every studio has computers,”says Curry. “All those machines have audible hard drives and fans and otherthings, unless you have wired them to a dedicated machine room. Thatcreates lots of whines and buzzing from those machines. Sound effects areall played by Pro Tools these days, so even on the dubbing stage, theywheel computers right in. That has resulted in lots of ambient noiselevels, more than ever before. That also causes filmmakers to ask you toplay the tracks louder.”

Defending the EarWhile decibel levels on the sound stage continue to rise, volume in thetheater has been an issue for some time. Concern for the ears oftheatergoers began with film trailers (see sidebar) and now extends tofeatures themselves, which makes theater chains extremely cautious aboutthe volume levels coming out of their state-of-the-art, digital playbacksystems. As a result, theater managers are often turning volume down fortrailers and keeping it low for the ensuing feature, which can wreck theplayback of particular sound tracks.

Theaters may be addressing the issue of audience safety, but many filmmixers and sound designers point out that no one is looking out for theirears. This can be particularly frustrating because audio professionalsoften find themselves risking their ears on the mixing stage for mixes thatfew theatergoers will ever hear.

“When we mix a major film, we do it in the best audio environmentpossible,” says veteran sound designer Claude Letessier, who recentlysupervised sound design for The Thin Red Line. “We mixed Thin Red Line atthe Zanuck stage at the Fox lot, which acoustically, is just about perfect.It’s one of the three best rooms in the entire world. So when a director ora producer comes in there, he or she is hearing the mix in the mostsophisticated place possible, and so they try to push the envelope andsometimes go overboard trying to make it more powerful. But what theyforget is the fact that two-thirds of the people who ever see their filmwill be doing so in a mediocre theater with a less-sophisticated soundsystem. The owner of that theater is likely to turn the sound track down ifit comes in too loud.

“That’s why Stanley Kubrick mixed all his films in mono. He was mixing itso that it would sound good in the cheapest theater under the worstconditions. We have to find a way to convince filmmakers that they need tobe subtle and worry about how the show will sound in Des Moines, not onsome state-of-the-art, digital sound stage.”

But many film projects-particularly those aimed at specific audiences, suchas adolescent boys-continue to routinely push the sound barrier far beyond85dB.

“A lot of these mixes go above 100dB, even up to 108 or 110,” says TedHall, a senior mixer at POP Sound, Santa Monica. “We don’t have a lot ofthat in our studio, because we tend to work on mid-range budget films andindie films, but many major features out there are doing this. That isdefinitely a big concern for people working in our industry becauselistening to those levels 10 to 12 hours a day will definitely hurt yourears.”

Take PrecautionsAs Letessier says, “When your hearing is gone, it’s gone.” That is why someexperienced mixers suggest the selective use of professional earplugs andtaking frequent breaks. Ironically, the march of digital technology hasaltered parts of the basic methodology of sound mixing to the point wheretraditional opportunities to take such breaks no longer exist.

“We’ve lost all those short breaks we used to get with the changeover fromone film reel to another,” points out Christopher Boyes, a sound designerand mixer at Skywalker Sound in San Rafael, California. “It’s all digitalnow. You used to get five to 10 minutes of quiet while the reels wereswitched. Now, you instantly pop to any section of a film with the press ofa button.”

Boyes suggests that mixers and engineers ask for breaks whenever they needthem, no matter who the client or what the deadline. It is a lesson that herecently learned from one of his colleagues. “[Skywalker sounddesigner/mixer] Gary Summers and I were doing a temp mix, and there was achangeover of a few seconds,” says Boyes. “They were ready to start again,but Gary said, ‘No, I’m not ready to mix just yet.’ He asked for 10 moreminutes to give his ears a break. We were behind schedule at that point,but he felt it was important. That issue definitely needs to be part of thediscussion as our industry ponders these issues-mixers have to be allowedto take breaks whenthey need them. After all, you can’t be a good mixer ifyou can’t hear properly.”

Several mixers and sound designers that Millimeter spoke with said thereare already many professionals within their industry who cannot hearproperly thanks to too many high decibels over too many years.

“There is no doubt that the hearing of many people in our business issuffering,” says Randy Thom, a colleague of Boyes at Skywalker Sound.”People are losing their hearing every day. No one is going to admit to itor name names since this is how we make our living, but sure it ishappening. To a degree, you can say it is just an occupational hazard, andeveryone suffers hearing loss over time. But there is too much of it goingon. That’s why you see guys wearing earplugs during mixes. You never usedto see that.”

The earplugs they use are the same ones used by professional musicians.(The House Ear Institute of Los Angeles recommends professional musician’searplugs for audio mixing, particularly the ER15 or ER25 ear-canal moldsmanufactured by Westone Laboratories, Colorado Springs.) Thom says thatsince there are usually two to three individuals assigned to mix most majorfeature films, each responsible for separate sections of the mix, it hasbecome increasingly common for people to wear earplugs when they are notworking on their specific portion of the mix.

Experienced mixers also recommend avoiding the tendency to ignore metersand work strictly by instinct and experience. Failure to consider levelsand sound pressure readings, combined with a failure to take breaks, cansometimes lead to what Letessier calls “a saturation point.”

“You cease to be objective. You lose judgment if you don’t refresh yourears,” Letessier says. “You end up getting used to a certain high level, acertain mix, and that can be bad. You are on the dubbing stage all day, andit doesn’t sound too loud, but people visit the stage for a minute and tellyou they can’t believe how loud it is. Then, you listen to the reel thenext day and you realize that by mixing that loud for so long, you missedthings that you have to now go and fix in the sound track.”

Creative VolumesNo one denies that the creative use of volume and careful manipulation ofsound frequencies is crucial to modern filmmaking. Ross says that there aredozens of well-entrenched industry techniques in place to safely raisevolume for creative effect.

“The problem is sustained volume, which is much different than short burstsof intensity,” says Ross. “People can take 90dB for a couple of secondswith no pain or hearing damage. But when it is constant, that causesproblems. When higher volume is needed for effect, there are lots of waysof doing that safely. For instance, you can make the effect relative from amixing perspective. If something is supposed to sound louder than thatwhich precedes it, you can create a soft section on the track just beforeit and then return to the level you were previously at or go just slightlyhigher and achieve the exact same result.”

Two recent, high-profile films would seem to have been perfect candidatesfor excessive sound levels because they are war films. But Saving PrivateRyan (which won two sound Oscars) and The Thin Red Line clearly demonstratethat the “abuse of sound,” as Letessier puts it, is unnecessary, no matterwhat the film’s subject matter. He points out that while war is, by itsnature, loud, the sound tracks of both films clearly demonstrate that it is”the details, the impact on the characters of the sounds” that matter.

“I admired the sound work they did on Private Ryan a lot,” says Letessier.”That is a movie that should have been loud, and, in certain sections, itwas-like parts of the opening sequence. But it was done in a clever way interms of using the volume to create impact. Sometimes, it got loud, butonly for moments, and then it became quiet as they tried to show you whatwas happening to individual soldiers, what was going on in their minds.That was good creative use of volume.”

Similarly, Letessier is proud of the work he and his colleagues did on ThinRed Line. The audio goal was to demonstrate “the little things, the smallinformation” swirling within the hellstorm of Guadalcanal. “We wanted youto hear a little fly, the quiet of the jungle before the battle starts, thefrightened breathing of a soldier, things like that,” he explains.

Pressure, PressureStill, Ross says there are “many pressures on mixers to turn the volume upon the stage.” He attributes this, for the most part, to filmmakers’desires to make the best films that they can. He says it can be difficultto say no to an important director. “All you can do is try to explain tothem the self-defeating aspect of their request to bring the volume up toohigh. The bottom line is, this [digital] technology is still pretty new,and filmmakers want to use it like any cool, new toy.”

Filmmaking is, by its nature, a creative endeavor where standards shouldvary from project to project. Virtually no one wants any government agencyto begin regulating the audio business, so a strong industry dialogueappears to be the most logical way to address this issue, mixers anddesigners say.

That dialogue, they hope, will lead to what Boyes calls “an era of simplecommon sense” by filmmakers and those audio professionals who work forthem. “We need a real strong dialogue among ourselves,” says Boyes. “Weneed to have some kind of even approach to dealing with clients to let themknow that we agree that movies have gotten too loud. I think a realeducation process has to happen, and, if it does, it will be a realdefining moment for film audio as we start the new century.”

Years ago, OSHA set the following guidelines for the maximum durations ofsafe high-decibel exposure in the workplace. The regulations state thatexposure to levels higher than 115dB is never safe even for short durations.

Sound Level Duration Per Day

90dB 8 hours

92dB 6 hours

95dB 4 hours

97dB 3 hours

100dB 2 hours

102dB 1.5 hours

105dB 1 hour

110dB .5 hour

115dB .25 hour or less

Source: House Ear Institute

In theaters, the issue of safe volume levels has focused mainly on filmtrailers, which filmmakers routinely mix louder than their films forpromotional reasons. In March, the Trailer Audio Standards Association(TASA), a consortium of theater owners and studios, announced TASA Standardaudio volume limits for trailers. TASA plans to phase those guidelines intoplace over the next year. After years of resisting lower sound levels fortrailers, studios finally agreed. The studios hope that theater owners willstop lowering sound levels, a development that has been impacting theintegrity of feature film mixes in recent years.

Still, film mixers say that volume limits in theaters alone are unlikely tostop filmmakers from cranking things up on the mixing stage.

“Many clients want everything pushed,” says sound designer ClaudeLetessier. “When you tell them that the volume they are asking for will beplayed 5dB to 10dB lower in the movie theater, they don’t always acceptthat. They have doubts that their sound track is mixed properly unless youplay it loud for them.”

At the same time, concern is spreading over how to best protect the hearingof industry professionals. Currently, there are no government regulationsregarding noise levels in the audio workplace specifically. TheOccupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did set guidelinesdecades ago for safe levels of decibel exposure in the general workplace(see accompanying chart), but those guidelines make no distinction betweena mixing stage and a jackhammer.

The House Ear Institute of Los Angeles-the organization whose researchhelped OSHA set its standards back in the 1940s-is currently researchingthe subject of audio safety in partnership with the Cinema Audio Society.

Dilys Jones, communications director for the House Institute, says mixersand engineers routinely experience “long duration exposure” to unsafedecibel levels during lengthy work days. “No one ever studied film industrypeople before to see how their hearing is being impacted,” says Jones.”Now, as technology has gotten better and more people get into theindustry, the problem is becoming more obvious. Since there are fewguidelines about decibel levels, what safety equipment they should use, orhow many breaks a day they should get, they are putting their hearing atrisk. We are trying to create a discussion forum within the industry toraise awareness of this problem. We are working with recording mixers,engineers, composers, directors, and producers to educate them about thedangers of long-term exposure to high sound volumes.”

Jones says it is unlikely that OSHA will create strict standards any timesoon-few within the industry are likely to complain since they need to earna living. She adds that researchers need to “better understand thedifferences between long-term exposure to different kinds ofsounds-machinery as opposed to music exposure, for instance-before any kindof regulations are proposed.”

Along those lines, Jones emphasizes what many industry people toldMillimeter: Film professionals are best served by regulating themselves andby emphasizing audio safety in the workplace.

For information about the hearing conservation programs and research beingconducted by the House Ear Institute, call (213) 483-4431 or see the Website at