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Audio on Video - Clearing up Noisy Misunderstandings

Digging through the world of DVD Dolby 5.1 Quadra Mag Perspecta Dimension 180 DDS and RSVP.

Reader letters:

My DVD of The Wizard of Oz is labeled Dolby Digital 5.1, but when I play it, it sounds like just plain mono.

There's THX stereo sound on Thunderball. Why aren't the stereo versions of Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger being released?

How come Forbidden Planet, which was CinemaScope and 4 track stereo in 1956, is only in 2-track stereo on tape, laser and DVD?

These questions are very frequently asked, but there are plenty others lately to justify another informal essay, this time on film and video audio formats, history and the anomalies and realities of the tracks we end up with on our home video versions. This is by no means the last word on the subject. Savant is a film editor who's dealt with audio in a variety of formats and seen a lot of different kinds of audio 'delivery systems' in his time hanging around University film archives, commercial dubbing houses and modern mix rooms. But he's no audio engineer and he'd appreciate the corrections of cognoscenti should he prove in error. On the other hand, as a keen fan of all these formats, Savant isn't going to be going gaga over audio in the standard macho stereophile way, quoting equipment call numbers and the like. This is about how the sound in movies got there, with lots of digressions, title-dropping and trivia along the way. Oh, and I'll make sure the above questions get answered, too.

I really think I've seen a bit of everything of film history. An example of this happened when the startup special effects company DreamQuest Images received an old 35mm projector donated by a projectionist friend. Part of the original iron casting, below the film gate, was a platform meant to carry a Victrola 78 rpm record, which, with a belt drive, played the sync audio for the film being shown. Even though I'd read about this system, it sounded so improbable that I was surprised to actually see it; who knows how they ever kept anything in sync with a rig like that.

At UCLA they had terrific projection capabilities in the old Melnitz hall, and through the patience of instructors like Bob Epstein and Stephen Mamber we learned how Hollywood first flirted with stereo sound in experiments like the 5 channel 'quintophonic Fantasound' audio for Fantasia. In 1953, with the advent of Cinerama, CinemaScope and 3D, many films were being recorded in stereo and shown that way for the first time. As this coincided with the beginnings of the commercial 'hi-fi' audio craze of the fifties, the general quality of recording improved. This is not to say that the old tracks were bad; the studio engineers had mixed beautifully modulated, finessed movies. Frankly, the mono tracks for many late fifties movies were extremely clear and sensitive - and since the style of mixing was not to bury dialogue under music and sound effects, easier to understand. Paramount's beautiful VistaVision format yielded prints with mono tracks of greatly improved dynamic range. Although some claim that The Bridge on the River Kwai was a stereo release, Columbia records show only 35mm and mono for that title. When I saw a Tech studio print in 1977, its mono sound was so rich and satisfying as to make stereo seem unnecessary. Maybe it was; the remix a couple of years ago is certainly lively, but the remixers don't seem to know what to do with the everpresent sound of crickets - the stereo remix might be called KWAI - THE CRICKET ENVIRONMENT. To show us how meaningless a gimmick 1974's Sensurround was for EARTHQUAKE, Epstein mischievously screened Von Sternberg's THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934), asking the projectionist to boost the base for the climactic scene of an entire cavalry troop charging up massive wooden stairs in Empress Catherine's Russian palace. The rumble was so deep our stomachs shook - just like Sensurround. The optical recording systems of the time had considerable power, even if they don't have the dynamic range touted by modern digital systems.

We were also introduced to some of the 4-track stereo associated with 20th Century-Fox's CinemaScope (The UCLA Archive's first acquisitions were the Fox and Paramount libraries). At this time in the early 70's we saw the first deterioration of Eastmancolor prints, and heard some problems with the audio too. The Fly sounded great in full 4-track stereo, but the projectionist had to switch to the fallback optical mono track for a couple of reels when the mag-stripes failed to yield any audio. Don't worry though, we didn't miss the spectacle of CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound, the top movie technology of the time, being used on a closeup of three open garbage cans complete with flies whose buzzing circles around the screening room. This charming tableaux in The Fly can now be appreciated on video as most home versions now have the stereo track.

These prints literally had four fat magnetic oxide stripes printed on them, two on each side of the squeezed 'Scope image, straddling undersized 35mm perforations. These 'Scope prints needed to be shown with special sprocket wheels on the projector; I suspect that on many an occasion when a normal film 'swam' up and down and back and forth on the screen, it was because the projector had these special sprockets mounted in error. Just like magnetic tape, the expensively-recorded prints could be accidentally degaussed (perhaps this was the fate of the silent Fly reels). Also, the mag oxide tended to clog in the projector gate, adding an agent to help scratch the prints. With the stripes, the prints were appreciably heavier and, at least when new, went through the projectors more smoothly. On Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when 70mm front projectors had trouble showing stable images of background plates, the problem was solved by mag-striping, at great expense, all the projection plate prints. With the 'fat' mag stripes, the film projected steady as a rock. We had outrageously costly solutions to every special effects problem back then!

Some of the other 50's studio archive prints that surprised us with 3-track stereo audio were Blowin' Wild (with a delirious Tiompkin/Frankie Laine song), It Came From Outer Space and War of the Worlds. The latter two are now available in stereo, but it was quite a thrill at Filmex 1975 to hear for the first time WAR blasting in multitrack with a pristine 35mm IB Technicolor print. It sure beat crummy 16mm.

I was disappointed to get my Japanese laserdiscs of The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, both of which had Perspecta-Stereo logos plastered all over them, only to hear them in mono. Then I read that Perspecta was merely a gimmick that allowed theater owners who had invested big bucks in speakers rigs to advertise a 'stereo' that was really just a distribution system that spread a normal mono track around an auditorium. As I understand it, bassy noises went left and right, the midrange stayed in the middle, and the high end of the mono track was delayed and disproportionately sent to the surrounds in the rear of the theater. Something tells me it probably came out like those 'processed stereo' records that put normal songs in what seems like an echo chamber environment.

Blockbuster roadshow attractions with as many as six tracks became common in the late fifties. In films like Spartacus a different philosophy was used in the mixing than now. Today all normal dialogue seems to emanate from screen center; back then dialogue and everything else in a scene panned left and right and into the surrounds depending on the camera position. This became very strange when cutting 180 degrees across conversations in Spartacus. Kirk Douglas' voice would cut from the extreme right to the extreme left, right along with his image onscreen, even if the cut happened right in the middle of a word. If someone entered from the foreground, speaking as he walked, it was not uncommon for his voice to initiate behind the heads of the audience in the deep surround speakers, and move forward. This certainly had the effect of carrying the movie experience 'off the screen', but also could also be distracting enough to bounce audiences right out of the movie itself.

One reason these older tracks get re-recorded is that they are now playing on much better equipment. The old, giant voice-of-the-theater speakers could really blast out some top-volume noise, but the average stereo speaker in a modern home system can reproduce a much wider range. What happens with some of these older mixes is that all kinds of sound-cutting details, previously inaudible, show up. Dialog tracks pop in and out with their presences cutting in and out as well; what sounds really sloppy now was not noticeable, or less noticeable, when the film was new. Today you can more easily pick out lines recorded on location from those looped in a perfect microphone situation.

1975 is the year I've been given as the beginning of the still-dominant Dolby Surround system that decodes a signal into multiple tracks, and the first film released this way was Ken Russell's Tommy. But the big intro for Dolby Surround and the reintroduction to American audiences of high-quality movie audio came two years later with Star Wars. Kids seeing Star Wars for the umpteenth time loved the LOUD track, and audiences everywhere heard a retro symphonic score (listen to Korngold's King's Row sometime) belted out sounding better than in a concert hall. Top-notch audio was in demand as it had never been in the fifties. Now the college audience will check the theater logs for a house whose sound system they like, rather than see their most-waited for titles just anywhere. Where before a concert film like Woodstock was a rarity, now films from Heavy Metal to Mortal Kombat owe a great deal of their success as music shows as much as for the pictures being shown.

Which brings us, if you are still with me, to the actual subject at hand. Today one can take a Dolby Digital mastered film like Tomorrow Never Dies and carefully master it to 5.1 (actually six tracks; the ".1" is a band only a tenth as wide because it only carries the base 'boom' track), and voila, it's a track that sounds as good or better than what you'll hear in a theater. But what to do with all those old films? Fans really do go for fancy-audio releases over mono ones, just as they prefer color to black and white.

The Wizard of Oz, from 1939, is as mono as the day is long. On DVD, even though it is a 5.1 signal, the channels still carry the same mono information. Turner might change all this if they've found a way to remix the movie from scratch. MGM did this in 1966 with their widescreen conversion of Gone With The Wind, to hoots of outrage everywhere. Along with the chopped-down wide image, Selznick and MGM painstakingly re-recorded every original mix track and made a stab at a multitrack stereo presentation. Even though music for films at this time wasn't really recorded in true stereo, it was often multi-miked for the purpose of properly balancing the orchestra. And vocals were often separately recorded, as they are now, and sometimes double-miked as well. Having these separate tracks, a shrewd mixer can often come up with a stereo mix startlingly well-defined. Turner has done quite a bit of this with its musicals, especially under the guidance of George Feltenstein and Allan Fisch in the early to mid-1990's. Sometimes the 'stereo' versions of songs from Singin' in the Rain and The Pirate are inserted in the video presentations, but, aware of the essential revisionary nature of their remixes, the norm has been to isolate the remixed numbers in special chapters at the end of laserdiscs, etc. This shows uncommon respect for the original work. If Ted Turner finds a way, through audio archeology or hi-tech magic to create a terrific new stereo track for OZ, it'll probably be a treat to hear. The worry Savant (and all right-thinking film 'zoids like him) has, is that the original mono track, the one the real creators of OZ put together 58 years ago, might someday be forgotten and lost. This already shows signs of happening with the much-touted 'restoration' of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. One of the holy grails of moviedom, the restorers of Vertigo found it acceptable to record entire new footstep and incidental-noise tracks, and then mix them at relative volume much louder than they ever were in the original. Sure, it sounds good, but James Stewart didn't SCOOT SCOOT SCOOT every time he took a step, in fact often the Bernard Herrmann score was almost alone on the track for minutes at a time. Since no attempt was made to put the original track on alternate laser or DVD channels, Video Savant is just irked enough to suspect that the egos behind the Vertigo restoration really want their track to replace the original.

James Bond films started being made in 1962, but weren't in stereo until late in the '70's - with The Spy Who Loved Me? Moonraker? MGM has,where possible, been rerecording the mono titles in stereo since 1989. The process is simple: you start with the mono 3 stripe mag film master. This has the balanced and final mix, except that the dialogue and the sound effects and the music are each isolated in a separate stripe. Then you replace the mono music tracks with dandy stereo versions (movie music was by the sixties' commonly recorded in stereo for album purposes, even if the film was mono). With the music in stereo you then just spread out the dialogue and effects in an 'acoustic environment', to 'open up' the mix into the stereo dimension. For a laserdisc like On Her Majesty's Secret Service, with its punchy John Barry score, the result is a vast improvement. When the recent stereo job was done on Thunderball, Allan Fisch went all out to hype the mix like a more modern action film. Yes, Connery punching out the widow is at least twice as loud as it was before. But Thunderball is no Vertigo, and I can assure you that the original mono track for these remixed Bond pix are vaulted safe and sound.

Why not stereo remixes for the first three Bond films? Goldfinger would really be a kickin' ride in stereo, but the required 3-stripe masters for these films have not, as of yet, at least, been located. Perhaps they were lost, or never made. On some video versions of Goldfinger, the Shirley Bassey title tune slams on in Stereo, which is possible to do because there are no effects or dialogue at that point to be mixed in. But until the tracks are found, mono is as mono does for these titles. Advertising home video movies often requires that dialog lines be mixed out of context in a montage, which is easy for Thunderball and newer Bonds. But just try and edit Connery saying "Bond - James Bond" from Dr. No with a different music track behind him and you'll tear your hair out - the Bond theme starts loudly halfway through, and there's no way to get rid of it (I have a trick, actually).

The case of the maybe-missing tracks brings up the single most frustrating thing about home video, which is locating missing elements that you cannot always be sure existed in the first place. Film vaults were neglected for decades until Home Video gave studios an incentive to re-inventory their contents and take care of them. In most cases, anything normally vaulted will eventually be found again, once the vault people go through can after mislabeled can of film. That's how it works if the vaults were left intact. There have been some notable fires in MGM vaults in the forties and fifties that wiped out critical material for some classic films. Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog told me that the reason for the absence of a Danger: Diabolik Ennio Morricone soundtrack is that a garage fire wiped out the composer's only tape copies. Arrgh! But far worse is finding out that from time to time entire vaults of Studio film and audio elements have arbitrarily been thrown away in so-called economy moves. Even now some studios devote such an appalling lack of resources to the common vaulting of new elements that one would predict losses and damage to be a common event. The 1956 Trapeze says Stereo right on the poster ... but no stereo elements seem to be in sight. Forbidden Planet's two channel stereo track is the only one that has been located. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, originally mono, could not be transformed into stereo for video because it was discovered that the stereo song masters pertained to the different takes used for the 'original' soundtrack album, and didn't sych up with the songs in the film itself. So, as good as the video sounds (it sounds great!) it's a disappointment. Many an older title would have better audio, if only better elements could be found.

To the people writing in swearing that Forbidden Planet was in full 4 track stereo, I believe you, even though the posters don't say so and (contrary to common belief) not all CinemaScope pix were in stereo. To those insisting that Goldfinger was originally stereo, when it was not, I say phooey. It sounded great in mono ... you saw it in a good theater with your girlfriend ... it won an Oscar for sound, so leave me alone, already.

... again, my information is from my experience. Expert correction is extremely welcome! Thanks to all those who've set me straight before.

Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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