IT'S IN THE MIX by Greg Kintz
In film buff circles when the phrase "mag sound" is mentioned we often associate that with the advent of multi-channel sound. Indeed, that aspect has proven to have been one of mag sound's lasting hallmarks, long after the format was phased out of cinema exhibition in favor of matrix encoded Dolby Stereo SVA optical tracks for 35mm prints and then back to being true discrete multi-channel with the arrival of theatrical digital audio.
Magnetic tracks had a number of advantages over their optical soundtrack counterparts, including the potential for a much wider dynamic range. Additionally, with the initial separate interlock 35mm full-coat magnetic audio dubbers used for theatrical playback in 1953, audio quality was of even higher fidelity than the later combined "mag on film" approach that quickly became the norm for both 35mm and 70mm.
first interlocked magnetic sound releases, audio mixers were well aware of the
various audio advancements. To that end, engineers worked on highlighting these
advantages in these new stereophonic presentations.
"It Came from Outer Space" was the sixth feature released in stereophonic sound and is a perfect example of a showcase mix, meant to emphasize not only the very directional three channel sound (left, center, right) but also utilizing the possibilities of what a wide dynamic range can offer as well.
Much like the early audiophile reel to reel tapes and LPs - followed by
DBX tape and then digital audio demo CDs which offered excellent examples of
what increased dynamic range can offer - when hearing the original three track mix of
"It Came from Outer Space," you'll certainly know when a UFO is crashing to
earth or when the music swells up at a tense moment of excitement. Is that a
Joshua tree in the dark or a monster? A not-so-subtle Barbara Rush shriek jumping from
the right channel will quickly let you know.
For the lucky few who remember the interlock 3 channel stereophonic showing of “It Came from Outer Space” at the World 3-D Film Expo in 2003, this movie can get extremely quiet, and the next moment, quite loud, which is a visceral experience in its own right.
While there is an increasing movement in the music industry with high resolution audio formats like SACD or DVD-A to re-embrace a wider dynamic range vs. a flattened, overly-compressed sound field, the home video front has not been so lucky. An average high resolution audio playback system for music is typically a full-range stereo or multi-channel set-up, while the Blu-ray home video market serves a very wide array of audio set-ups. These can vary from cinema quality THX (or better) surround systems from a number of respectable mid to higher end audio companies, but... can also be reduced to that of a small speaker found in a flat screen display that may only consist of a dollar or so worth of components. In addition, unlike a cinema presentation, audio may not be played back at reference audio levels for a variety of reasons. "If I turn up the volume so I can hear the dialog, explosions are too loud" is a complaint many have likely heard or experienced themselves in less than ideal situations, be it required lowered volume levels due to sleeping children, living in an apartment, and so on. Or perhaps it's apparent the built in "$1 in parts" stereo speaker pair in the flat screen television begins to feel the strain.
It is this very reason why both Dolby, DTS, and virtually every 5.1 or higher digital receiver and flat screen have the option of dynamic-range compression. Optional dynamic range compression can go under a variety of titles. "Midnight Cinema" is an apt name found on many surround receivers and amplifiers. It's called a variety of functions in flat screen displays, such as "SRS true volume" and "Stable sound." Yamaha receivers even have an optional setting called "adaptive DRC" which intuitively increases dynamic range compression as the volume is lowered. Some will say settings such as these are a strict no-no but if you've read this far, it's very easy to understand there are legitimate times when dynamic range compression may be preferred.
So here's the conundrum with home video releases of cinema audio mixes:
* Does one dumb down the original dynamic range of an audio mix so it plays in compromised settings and with very sub-par set-ups? Or…
* Does one explain to consumers why a given mix is the way it is and how to adjust settings, while still providing the uncompromised audio mix as was originally heard theatrically on high-end Altec-Lansing speaker systems in 1953?
It's safe to say by now you know the 3-D Film Archive's position. This mix was on the verge of being lost forever in its original form. For our restoration, we were able to secure a DA88 theatrical master made in 2003 from the archival mag audio tracks. These are a confirmed 100% match via waveform and listening tests to the raw discrete (but deteriorating) three track mag elements recently supplied to us from Universal. Compared to previous home video releases - which were remixed and heavily compromised - this mix for the first time has the left, center, and right channels with the proper level balance as it was heard in 1953 which is key for the original directional panning used throughout the film. In addition, minimal processing has been done so when noise on occasion slightly increases with a given actor's voice, that is confirmed as the way it was in the original mix. Meaning: no high frequency filtering and no excessive processing has been applied. Most importantly, there is no dynamic range compression on the 3-D Blu-ray release.
Naturally, the audio is only one part of
this landmark 3-D production. We hope detailing this unique and previously
unheard aspect of the original mix has been informative in
maximizing your own "It Came from Outer Space" listening experience.
Remember: amazing stereophonic sound is 3 times more realistic!
For more information, please read the
First Year of Stereophonic Motion Pictures