Dangerously loud? Monitoring movie theater volume

(Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment/AP Images)

The problem

“It is a significant problem,” said Brian McCarty, a respected Hollywood sound engineer with 30 years of experience working on popular films such as the Big Lebowski. He’s also Chair of a committee put together by the Audio Engineer Society to look into movie theater sound.

“We are aware that the current standards are broken in several respects, including volume levels,” said McCarty.

He’s referring to the standard level at which movies should be played back in movie theaters. There are no regulations on volume for film makers or movie theaters, only an industry standard. McCarty explained, “The calibrated level is supposed to be 85dB(c), when using a test signal from the cinema processor. This calibrated level has been in place, around the world, for at least 40 year, and the cinema processors, when calibrated to this level, are supposed to set their volume controls on “7” to playback the calibrated level.”

KXAN found out that standard is difficult to enforce with the switch from film to digital cinema.

McCarty says Hollywood film makers are making movies louder simply because they can. “Many of the sound mixers, pushed by directors, are recording the soundtracks above the calibrated level. Therefore the theater gets a movie that’s too loud,” says McCarty.

Dangerously Loud?

“The thing about loud exposure is it doesn’t have to hurt you to be damaging to your ear.”— Dr. John Bedolla

How loud is too loud? Dr. John Bedolla, an emergency room doctor with Seton Healthcare put the impact of loud movies on the ear in context, “Human beings did not experience sound louder than 90-100 decibels for much of human history until the invention of gun powder and machinery. So, for the vast majority of human existence, our ear has never adapted to loud noises.”

Dr. Bedolla referred to a recent report in the Ear, Nose and Throat Journal showing just how loud movies have become.

“Certain types of high-spectacle movies, such as Transformers, have decibel levels of 90 for almost the entire movie and have decibel levels of 120 for significant periods and at some points get to 130 decibels. Now 130 decibels is a jet engine at about 10 meters,” says Dr. Bedolla.

He suggests more research is needed to determine if loud movie noise even in short bursts can lead to hearing damage. He added, “You may have damage and not even know about it, and it will catch up to you when you are 50 or 60 years and you will have significantly decreased hearing .”

Checking the Levels

KXAN’s search for answers took us to 15 different movie theaters all over the Austin area to check movie sound levels with a decibel app downloaded on a smartphone. The majority of films we monitored, came in just at or slightly below 85 decibels, the industry standard level. Other movies were off the charts and varied at every theater. All of the theaters we contacted declined speaking with us about the audio tests.

  • At the Regal Cinema on Stonelake, the animated film Frozen peaked at a loud 98 decibels compared to peaking at 85 decibels at the Regal Cinema in South Austin.
  • The action packed movie Lone Survivor also registered at 85 decibels when we checked the levels at the Cinemark Theater in Cedar Park but peaked at 101 decibels at the Alamo Drafthouse in South Austin. That 101 decibel reading is as loud as a construction saw a few feet away and above what Dr. Bedolla would consider safe.

“What you should know is that if you were in a workplace, you would not be allowed to be exposed to that level of noise. So anything about 90 decibels or above is potentially harmful. Again, this area is very controversial and the Science is not set but in the face of doubt, the way I play it is to play it safe and wear ear protection.”

Dr. Bedolla is referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as it regulates workplace sound to make sure you’re not being exposed to dangerously loud levels. There is no such regulation in the movie industry.

McCarty’s “Loudness Committee” presented some findings at its recent Audio Engineering Society convention for industry professionals in Rpome. McCarty provided KXAN with a copy of a report, including this excerpt:

“In Belgium September 2010 a 17-year-old girl was struck with permanent tinnitus when visiting the movie Inception. This received a lot of attention from the press and the government. The cinemas are very actively limiting the volume now already…This summer Belgian government will make a law for maximum allowed loudness levels in cinemas. They might put a legal maximum level to the volume control.”
—Eelco Grimm, Sound Engineer, AES 134TH Convention.

Turning It Down

Turning down the volume isn’t always the easiest answer with 96 percent of movie theaters in the country using digital projectors, according to McCarty. He explained, “Of course when the audience complains about the movie being too loud, the theaters turn it down below the calibrated level, and while this reduces the volume, it reduces the volume of the dialogue as well, which then makes the movie hard to understand. Then the audience complains they can’t hear the words.”

It’s a delicate balance that John Stewart knows all too well as a projectionist at the Paramount Theater with more than 40 years experience.

“In the earlier days when the sound was purely optical sound, the dynamic range wasn’t as great as it is now with the digital sound, you can’t please everybody. It’s a judgement call,” says Stewart.

More Changes

As technology continues to evolve in Hollywood, so does the quest for even better sound quality. McCarty says something needs to be done, “Under my committee at the AES we have a project underway now to document the issue and propose solutions.”

Part of the solution could result in the committee currently working with an audio company to make adjustments giving movie-goers the experience they pay for at the movie theater without jeopardizing their hearing or the powerful sound quality movie makers strive for.

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