Holy Volume, Batman!

I finally got round to watching Inception, the big budget film from Christopher Nolan that was to prove to the world his isn’t Batman’s Bitch.

Well, first and foremost, point made and then some – bravo Mr Nolan! A fantastic film which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am a Hollywood sceptic of recent years. I actually cannot remember the last time went to the cinema. Not without reason and like many others, I begrudge paying the going rate for tickets when the DVD/Bluray will cost roughly the same and can sit on my shelf forever. Yes – The cinema is infinitely better for screen size, audio hit and that “X” factor that comes from making a film the centre of one’s evening. Alas, I was stung one too many times by films whose trailers promised so very much, yet on the day delivered so very little.

I’ll take content over pizzazz please. Both is also fine. You can CGI the crap out of a badly acted, badly scripted film. It will still want to make me throw my popcorn in rage. I never do, of course, having just spent half a month’s rent on the oversized box of sugar-coated naughtiness.

But sticking to the positive, I was truly enamoured by all aspects of this film. It was original. It was slick, but remained human. The acting was balanced and believable, despite the premise’s grandeur and unashamed sci-fi silliness. Heck, I bought it hook line and sinker and came away with that glow one gets from a really good piece of art.

I also liked it because I won my own little game. The game where I guess the film music composer without looking. It wasn’t too obvious, but the militaristic rumblings and horns were enough to give it away. Mr Hans Zimmer, on fine form, with a playful, minimalist bent in place, perfectly complimenting the oddness on screen.

Sound was on my mind that night. I was watching the film late. 2am late (“Nighthawk” wasn’t chosen just because it makes me sound like a naff 60’s superhero!) As such, my daywalker flatmate was sound asleep. He is a heavy sleeper, but even so I had to watch the film with the amplifier controller close to hand. It appears that film soundtracks are getting more and more dynamic. The explosions are getting louder, while the whispery dialogue and accompanying soft-strings are getting softer. (Side note: I always want to offer Christian Bale a lozenge ever time he speaks in “Batman voice”… the poor chap.) This is no bad thing; dynamics are good! Assuming of course one isn’t concerned about waking one’s flatmate, the neighbours, and half the local populace when shit goes down of a sudden on screen.

It is both odd and interesting how the mastering of audio in popular music is getting louder and less dynamic year on year, while conversely film audio is becoming more dynamic. There is something called the “loudness race” which us geeky music producer types reference whenever sound levels on mastered audio is brought up. There is plenty on google to feast upon if this is of interest to you, and it really should be. Ignorance of this issue is a large part of why it managed to get so bad in the first place. But the gist of the issue is thus: Commercial music is getting louder, as the available digital headroom is getting soaked up by more and more compression and limiting, to use up every last decibel. But this is not better – just louder. Louder music “kicks” more from speakers and so sounds “bigger” than its peers, side by side. It is a sonic slap round the chops. Until of course the next record comes out and is louder still. This is to the detriment of dynamics. If everything is loud, nothing is.

As you can imagine, audiophiles are not fans. We like dynamics. Loud to be loud, soft to be soft, and everything in between having its rightful place. Music is not just about the notes. It is about the attack, sustain and decay of these notes. Pianissimo is little more than a quaint notion in modern pop music.

Here is a good quote from the interwebs, from a rather decent article worth your attention:

“This dynamic limiting both tires the ears and makes instruments sound worse, turning bright drums into dull thuds and letting small details get lost in a blaring wash of sound. But because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there’s a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song. As a result, for a period, each new release came out a little louder than the last, and the average level of loudness on CDs crept up to such a degree that albums actually sounded distorted, as if they were being played through broken speakers.”

(Source : www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/the-loudness-wars-is-musics-noisy-arms-race-over/242293/#)

And yet, in the world of film, dynamics are winning the race.

I feel it is largely due to methods of consumption. Music is more and more consumed in the car, on a tube train, via Youtube on laptop speakers… (excuse me while I go scream in anger out the window!!) Whereas film will forever be primarily a sit down and focus exercise. It demands our attention aurally and visually. Furthermore a direct side by side is not of concern with film. Our iTunes playlists are (too often) set to random, so bands want to stand out when their song is selected by the gods of the algorithm. One doesn’t tend to watch films on “shuffle”. But let’s not get into the topic of shuffle; that is one for a future rant no doubt!

I haven’t put anything to rights here. I do hope I have raised a few eyebrows about some audio topics that effect us all.  That would be enough for now.

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