You might think that the music industry is alone in having to deal with difficulties with dynamics and loudness. It turns out that the movie guys have the same problem. In fact, it may be worse. The 8 am session on Saturday was about the loudness wars that cinema technology companies, post production mixers, film studios, and theaters are battling. The paper, “Loudness Wars at the Cinema: Noise Induced Impairment and Getting Our Dynamic Range Back”, was authored by Robert T. Sataloff, M.D., D.M.A., F.A.C.S., Professor and Chairman, Department of Otolarayngology – Head of Neck Surgery, Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Academic Specialties, Drexel University College of Medicine. Normally, I wouldn’t have copied his credentials out of the AES handout but I thought it was compelling that this gentleman is both a medical doctor AND a doctor of musical arts from Julliard.
Unfortunately, he was suffering from a cold and didn’t make it to the conference in person. Instead, he prepared a very thorough video piece on the issue. In spite of the fact the room was filled with very accomplished acousticians and audio professionals, Dr. Statloff included a primer on acoustics, a backgrounder on the hearing, a discussion of the legal definitions of hearing impairment and disability prior to getting into the meat of the subject…and then time was up. The organizers had to stop his presentation right when he was about to get to the crux of the topic. I guess the only thing that the good doctor doesn’t know is how to tell time. His video was well over the hour that was allotted. I will contact the organizers or Dr. Sataloff and see if I can get a hold of the entire presentation.
However, Eelco Grimm of Grimm Audio, in Utrecht, Netherlands took over the rest of the time and presented some very interesting aspects of loudness and movie soundtracks in Europe. He certainly got my attention when he told us about the measures that the government of Belgium was forced to take after a 13-year old female movie patron experienced permanent hearing damage as a result of single exposure to a very loud movie. Yep, exposure to very loud soundtracks can and has resulted in serious damage to hearing in moviegoers.
Eelco did a survey of movie loudness levels in actual theaters and found that they often exceed safe exposure levels. His work focused on developing a series of guidelines that theater owners must follow to protect theater visitors from short and long-term damage to their hearing. Basically, they will survey the content to determine the dialog and action levels and apply a coefficient to the output stage of the theater system to reduce the overall level when required.
The movie industry is challenged by the same things that afflict the music business…at least as far as amplitude levels are concerned. However, there is one significant difference. The movie industry is in control of their distribution chain and music consumers are not. Concerts are the exception but listening at home or in headphones at dangerous levels happens all the time…and our ears are at serious risk.