Problems with Audio Mixing; How to Experience Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A frame of the IMAX scene in TFA.
A frame of the IMAX scene in TFA.

Is watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA) three if not four times within opening week enough? When the film is a thrill ride from beginning to end, the answer is a resounding yes! Mind you, each viewing was done slightly differently to savour the cinema enhancing technology of RealD (3D), IMAX sized screens (a cinema slimmed version versus the 8 story sized proper screens), D-Box Motion Simulation (a flight simulator) and UltraAVX (3D sound with a large screen sized the same as IMAX’s).

Seeing it the way as J.J. Abrams intended will simply mean going to a regular showing with no thrills attached. When no 3D cameras were used during filming, there’s a difference that can be felt in the presentation. But heading to a proper IMAX cinema for that one sequence, presumably when Finn and Rey are running around on Jakku, what this director filmed is worth heading to the right theatre to.

Sadly, depending on the movie house, three out of four from this list may not be offered at the same time. If only there was such an operation in Victoria, BC, that would be the multiplex I will frequent! I can not speak for other movie chains around the world as they most likely have the population demographics to support a full on sensory experience. I know the Cinerama in Seattle is equipped for 70mm, and maybe some true experiences are worth the overnight trip for. Although enticing as the idea is, not all movies are really worth the added expense. Not all films are going to mirror what I experienced at Universal Studios‘ Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time attraction. Actors emerged onto the stage and the front seats provided the best interactive vantage point — which means being sprayed with water and feeling the chairs lurch. The sound effects were full on surround when the noise came from the props used.

In contrast to what’s imitated through the array of speakers around the theatre, either the UltraAVX audio system was not perfectly balanced at Cineplex Odeon Westshore or the Dolby ATMOS mix in TFA did not have a lot of rear channel action. The problem with audio mixing in this format for an audience is with where each individual person is sitting in proximity to the speakers. At all the screenings I’ve been to, I sat at the sweet spot (the center of the auditorium). At best, only the sequences featuring the Millennium Falcon sounded awesome. It buzzed 360 degrees around the theatre space and if seating offered individual headphone jacks (like in airplane seating), audiences would get a truly personalized experience.

The widescreen adapted framing for TFA.

I want to truly hear the whine of the TIE Fighters swooping above me, and I slightly heard that effect at Westshore. However, their UltraAVX format does not feel perfect; the science behind creating this psychoacoustical illusion of full surround sound has come a long way since how the virtual barber audio demo was recorded. For other audio effects, maybe the surround and overhead mix was not emphasized enough. The intense lightsaber fight at the end looked spectacular, and its rough and tumble edginess demanded the best sound mix possible. When the ground shook, I wanted my chest to be pounded by the subwoofer.

Most of the sound was emphasized on the screen, the stage, instead of the sides. I wondered how the big battle on the planet Takodana would have played out if more subwoofers were placed. The Dolby ATMOS audio specification can easily handle a 16.2 speaker configuration easily, but in what’s rendered is more like 7.1. I feel more movie auditoriums should have a 20.4 configuration, if not more. The first number speaks for the number of speakers surrounding a person and the last reveals the number of subwoofers used. I feel that for any movie that features epic battles, six speakers on the ceiling must be used to really feel the illusion of helicopters zooming over your head.

Should we hear the X-wing fly behind us as it fires at the Tie?

Visually, I love The Force Awakens. The camera framing keeps the story in focus, even though the narrative is not without its own bunch of logical inconsistencies — like in how Rey is able to communicate with robots and Wookies with ease. When considering she was left on Jakku with an unknown aide holding her hand, just how she learned to survive needs to be asked. Her natural technical prowess does not need to be questioned, but her linguistic ability is something that needs mentors for. By the time she was old enough to fend for herself, I wondered where this person went and why she did not mention him at all?

But when it comes to audio, I need the best sound equipment to give my ear drums a workout. Sadly, the IMAX theatres I’ve been to tend to crank up the center channels too much and not give the surround the love it deserves. Proximity is key to making those work, and hopefully the technicians will think about it for the next movies to come. The quality of the mix in past films I loved in The Matrix and Wall*E can be beat, and TFA comes close. Sadly the Force was not with the sound engineers maintaining the theatres on the day I went. Hopefully that will all change when the National Geographic Theatre at the Royal BC Museum screens this movie hopefully in March. They offer the best IMAX experience on an eight story screen and they have the best sound out of all the theatres that operate in my home town, hands down.


Author: Ed Sum

I'm a freelance videographer and entertainment journalist (Absolute Underground Magazine, Two Hungry Blokes, and Otaku no Culture) with a wide range of interests. From archaeology to popular culture to paranormal studies, there's no stone unturned. Digging for the past and embracing "The Future" is my mantra.

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