/ Travel & Leisure

Should cinemas turn down the volume?

cinema

For some, the sound levels at the movies can be unbearably loud. Our guest, opera singer Christopher Gillett, thinks cinemas should turn down the volume. Do you?

I may be of a certain age, nearly 60, but I’m no stranger to loud music. I’m a professional opera singer. Singing loudly is what I do for a living.

I’ve spent my career standing in front of massed choirs and full-sized symphony orchestras playing hell-for-leather through the very loudest works of Wagner, Beethoven and Britten. I really do know what loudness means and how it works in the field of entertainment.

Not so Lucky

At least I thought I did until I went to the Odeon cinema in Cardiff last week to see the film Logan Lucky.

The film isn’t to blame. It’s a good movie. And in the context of the mass of superhero films that make up the larger part of the cinemagoer’s choice of films these days, short on the crashes, bangs, booms and thuds that are the regular diet of the modern cinematic sound engineer.

The soundtrack isn’t symphonic. There are no wailing choirs or thumping timpani. No, the grievance I’m airing is that the volume level of the whole experience, especially the trailers and adverts, was set well beyond a Spinal Tap 11, all the way up to 19 or 20.

The cinema, a 400-seater or more, was empty save for five punters, yet the volume was cranked up as though we were sitting in a packed Wembley Stadium. It was physically painful – nauseating, even.

I was about to complain, but when the main feature began, the volume was lowered, although once or twice, as a song kicked in, it became unbearably loud again.

When characters whispered, they may as well have been yelling. A rustle of paper sounded like a hurricane through a palm tree. By the end of the movie my ears were whistling and hissing with tinnitus.

We spoke to an usher who agreed it was probably too loud, but claimed there was nothing they could do. The volume was ’set by the distributor‘. It seemed like an unlikely explanation.

Harmful to hearing?

I know parents of young children who will only take their kids to movies wearing ear defenders. They are complaining that their ears hurt after seeing Despicable Me.

This can’t be right. Hearing loss is already a problem among younger adults, thanks to long exposure to overamplified music in pubs and clubs. Now it seems we want to deafen our children when they visit the cinema.

The orchestras I stand in front of have taken strong measures to protect their players; some wear earplugs, others are protected by Perspex baffles.

I think it’s time for cinemas to show leadership in preventing hearing loss and turn down the volume.

If they don’t, I, for one, won’t go any more.

This is a guest post by Christopher Gillett. All views expressed here are Christopher’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?

Do you find the sound at the cinema too loud? Or do you think it’s just right and part of the experience?

Comments
Guest
Patricia says:
4 January 2018

Like many people who have contributed comments on this forum – I agree totally that the noise levels in cinemas needs to be drastically lowered. I can hardly bear to go to cinemas these days – although the independents don’t seem to be quite so bad. When I do decide to brave it I try to arrive after the ads and trailers have finished as they seem to be set louder. I have a friend who wears hearing aids and she finds the whole experience of going to the cinema really painful. At loud points in films I sit with my fingers in my ears!
The trouble is it’s not just cinemas – restaurants, shops, shopping centres – even my doctor’s surgery plays inappropriate disco music that I am always asking them to turn down. The world seems awash with jarring, awful music in most public place – it’s impossible to escape from. What’s wrong with silence?

Guest

The American public cant stand silence Patricia and so the rest of the world suffers and yes the figures for deafness in the USA are rising by the minute.

Guest

They are here, too, but a lot of that can be attributed to discos run by primary schools.

Guest
David Bates says:
4 January 2018

I do not go to the cinema because it is to loud and damages hearing.

Guest
Martin says:
5 January 2018

I also go to the Odeon in cardiff. I agree sound level is far too loud. I have to wear Alpine ear plugs. Cineworld in Cardiff is just as bad. Do Environmental Health from Cardiff City Council ever check the levels. Thanks for raising this.

Guest

Their hands are tied Martin as a legal method of making the sound louder without it breaking the law , that was once banned, is now allowed in “Open Britain ” to please the US globalists its called compression , ( in simple terms -detailed tech info if required ).

Guest

It would be interesting to know whether anyone has actually spoken to the cinema manager or written to the owning company about the volume levels, and with what result.

I believe one of the problems is that in many films made these days, due to a directorial conceit, some dialogue passages are performed in almost a whisper while ambient sound is not suppressed, so the voices have to compete against engines running, doors banging, other people talking in the background, a coffee machine blasting away on the counter, helicopters overhead, the inevitable gunshots, and so on.

If you watch an old film the speech is concentrated and well-enunciated, the close-ups intensify the drama and the audience becomes immersed in the crisp dialogue, feeling their pulses racing as the sensations gallop around the theatre, Then the violins get going, followed by the piano, and then they’re off, swept gloriously aloft in a grand surge of emotion and smiles, absorbing the great crescendo with a touch of moistness in the palm. Today’s directors don’t want that. They want realism and, as has been said before on this topic, the multi-screen cinema boxes are an acoustic compromise for the new kind of production with nowhere for the ‘noises off’ to escape.

By the way, The Great Crescendo appears by kind permission of the Wood Green Empire, and only the adverts now uphold the old traditions.

Guest

When I read that on my email client I thought I was reading a post by a classical music critic on a Southbank/Barbican concert I couldn’t have done better.Its why I like old black+white English films – full of character John .

Guest

They want realism “. Funny thing, when I’m out and about and somewhat dramatic things go on around me, or when I am adoring mrs r, or witnessing blue lights heading to an emergency down the local main country road, I cannot hear any music blasting away. I may not, of course, live in the real world……….

I find perpetual foreground music in film and tv not even acceptable in its own right (unless its a musical programme of course), let alone when it is drowning out the dialogue. They want realism “. Who they? Not me.

Guest

Talking Pictures TV is for you then, duncan. Channel 81 on Freeview.

Guest

A man after my own heart malcolm .

Guest

How did you guess malcolm -love them !

Guest

I see that there is a film called ‘Whirlpool’ on tomorrow, but suspect it should be recalled.

Guest

Seen it twice Wavechange but that was because it broke down.

Guest

🙂 I realise that I have survived the Christmas break without being dragged along to the cinema and having my ears assaulted. I don’t think I can remember when I last wanted to go to a cinema.

Guest

John’s post is thought provoking, so I thought about it. Yes – the old films were much more easily understood, despite the fact that dialogue was routinely performed around 70% faster than it is today. One reason why is simply because sound recording systems have changed, for which you can thank – initially, at any rate, George Lucas.

It was he who realised that to create what passes for reality in cinemas you need a far, far wider dynamic range than was currently available. His answer was THX – a sound system designed to reproduce reality and more. Why more, I hear you wonder?

Not many people realise that almost all sound FX are dubbed. Explosions, gunfire, falling bodies, decapitations – none of these is either easy to arrange or record. So they’re created, and then overdubbed onto the FX tracks. Frequently, dialogue also has to be re-recorded, which is why the Foley stage came into existence and why many major films now use ADR (automated dialogue recording) as standard.

So when you watch a film, you’re now faced with Total Realism Plus, which means that all the sounds you might expect to hear in a war, for instance, are featured, plus the SFX editors’ concept of what major explosions, etc. might sound like. Because chances are that the SFX editor has never heard a bomb exploding, a body falling 49 storeys, a head being sliced off or the sound of bones being deliberately broken.

Malcolm also brings up an interesting point, when he says when I’m out and about and somewhat dramatic things go on around me…I cannot hear any music blasting away. Music is much older than film of course, but there’s ample evidence that the right music can enhance the emotional impact of what you see. It’s not always ‘blasting’, of course, but from the 13thC composers have been keenly aware that their music can affect the listener, in a variety of ways.

One final point: when we’re out and about, our brains allow our hearing to ‘focus’ on specific sounds. It’s how we can ‘tune out’ ambient sounds to listen to say – a conversation. That’s not possible in a cinema, because we’re not aware of what we should be listening for, so the SFX editor is supposed to anticipate that. As even Blue Planet II shows, however, they often get it wrong.

Guest

wavechange – keep watching. It is being followed by Total Recall ( funnily enough, this came out first. Must be time travel).

Guest

I think I have missed it now. Over the past few days I’ve watched enough TV to last me the month, while recovering from illness. At least at home you have the control of the sound volume.

Guest

music can enhance the emotional impact of what you see“. I enjoy music, and it is emotional. However, I’d prefer to watch a factual programme without artificial attempts to increase my emotions. FX was quite a good film and I’m pleased to be reassured that special effects are used to simulate decapitations and bones being broken; several takes are often required and practising the real thing would seem quite wasteful of stand-ins.

Guest

🙂 But I know what you mean about the music. It doesn’t have to be there all the time, but for that you can partly blame producers, as opposed to directors.

Guest
Dorothy says:
8 January 2018

One of the strangest uses of background music I have come across recently was that which accompanied a film entitled ‘In pursuit of silence’. As the title suggests, the film was looking at how difficult it is to get away from all the noise in today’s society and find total peace and quiet. For some reason the director thought that introducing background music, even to the extent it was masking dialogue, enhanced the film. My husband and I both found it intrusive and stressful. When I wrote to ask the director why he had added background music to a film about silence, he replied that it wasn’t background music at all but “a delicately crafted original score…in order to give silence a shape and personality”

Guest

That guy must have had a previous job as a clinical psychologist as that is typical group therapy talk. Big Advertising USA pays out $100,000,s to private psychologists and their firms Dorothy. He got the wrong advice or was smoking a “funny fag ” at the time. If you want real silence do as many do , move to a remote Highland location or remote island in Scotland , no cars , no people , one lane roads etc . Most Americans dont like complete silence .

Guest

Why does the USA have to figure in so many conversations, and without any substantiating links?

Guest

Since most Americans don’t live in big cities, and many live in very remote places, I find that hard to believe, Duncan. I cannot see why the preference for silence should differ between races or nationalities. Luckily, Americans have a far wider range of interesting and exciting territories than us to which they can escape for solitude and a large percentage [admittedly, of the better off] do just that.

There is hardly any more silent place on Earth than Antarctica and when we were there a few years ago with a party of Americans they loved the peace and quiet. It is a myth that Americans are all brash and noisy just because their chosen mouthpiece is that way inclined.

Guest

Because this country is now running in proxy US societal terms , in other words we are becoming “Americanized ” from the original small shop keeper English ways to US conglomerates dictating the social scene American food shops/or style , American clothes , American tastes in food it just goes on – heritage ? what heritage ? Its a “war ” the US is winning here -slow but sure . The only thing “imported ” to the USA is football-aka -soccer to distinguish it from American “football ” which is rightly derived from Rugby school Although the Germans call it Fussball. I,ll be honest malcolm I am a bit lazy at providing links but you do have a point .

Guest

Hear! Hear! Malcolm. I was going to suggest that we have a “No America” week but didn’t because I thought it would be too controversial.

Guest

What is American culture if it isn’t the development of largely European ideas and models, Duncan?

Are American clothes and fashions making a big impact in the UK? No, it’s generally the other way round.

Are American celebrities doing well over here? No, again it’s the opposite [Meghan Markel? – Never heard of her; must be a misprint].

Do we drive American cars? Mostly not.

Do we have American furniture, appliances, accessories in our homes? Not much.

Are our high streets full of American stores? No – and our shops are not full of American products either [Cf. the number of posters to Which? Conversation who complain they have to import goods from the USA and pay customs duty].

Are our big houses like ranches? Do we use American speech forms? Do we use American words for common terms [lift, pavement, torch, trousers – I could go on]?

As for food, we seem to be hooked on Oriental and Continental styles, and our BBQ’s are a far cry from the US version – not for them a few spindly sausages and a slice of onion. MacDonald’s is now more British than many other eating places [that’s why they’ve done well].

We have the city centre, not downtown; the Underground, not the subway; train drivers, not engineers; shopping trolleys, not carts; estate agents, not realtors.

I don’t think our culture is being submerged under American idioms yet. Some of us are striving to keep it that way and avoiding too much exposure to the USA by proxy. You should try it!

Guest

Agreed – I think the statement is pants (and we have trousers, anyway).

Guest

Meanwhile, slightly back on topic, I wonder if having our ears assaulted by sound at a cinema is an international problem. If not, is there something we could learn?

Back off-topic, I was amused when a new commercial sponsor offered to pay for transportation of me and a couple of colleagues to see their research facility in the USA. I’ve generally associated transportation with a visit to Australia.

Guest

Look at the US owned companies that are complained about on Which. and our browsers /search engines /computer systems . I had to make a conscious effort to remove or not allow to be installed anything Google/ Amazon/Microsoft etc and it took a while even on a Linux system and the social networks -American , control of the internet -American , checked out the latest legislation that the US government has implemented ? Looks okay but my American friends inform me that Congress can overrule internet freedom if a majority vote for it and US big business want to control where your search engine can go to.

Guest

You need to define what you mean by ‘internet freedom’.

Guest

Those things aren’t all bad, Duncan.

Guest

Define life Ian.

Guest

That wasn’t my point John it was to show the gradual takeover of our society by a foreign country. If you dont like the word “foreign ” then ask the American government why they class the UK as a foreign country and apply the laws relating to it .If something is done slowly and slyly it is no different than if it was applied all at once the end result is the same – creeping total privatisation of the NHS is one example.

Guest

Hi, could we keep this on topic please. It would be interesting to know if US vs UK cinema noise differs.

I went to the cinema last week, for the first time in a long time, and it was very loud. I didn’t really appreciate how loud it was until I got outside and my ears were ringing 🙁

Guest

If your ears were ringing Alex then gradually the hairs that connect to your brain die, that is Stage 1 of long term deafness . The minute hairs connected to the nerves that are connected to your brain get damaged and slowly die , never to recover.

Guest

I wrote to the Chief Executive of Vue a couple of months ago to say that my husband and I, regular cinema-goers, had been driven out of our local Vue cinema by the noise and now travelled across the city to an independent cinema where the sound levels were much lower. I received a standard response from one of his ‘team’. He made 3 points:

1 “our technical team regularly test sound levels and set them within a comfortable range; we will also adjust the volume for specific shows if we receive feedback from audience or staff”
2 “we do set the speaker volume during the adverts and trailers lower than the speaker volume for the main feature as often the pre-show content may seem louder as these are mixed to mainly use the front speakers only rather than the surround sound”
3 “if you ever find the volume too loud in the future I would urge you to speak to a member of staff who can provide further assistance”

Point 3 is somewhat difficult to follow up as the only staff I ever see in the Vue are one ticket collector for all 12 screens and the staff on the refreshment counter, who are usually very busy. Who are we supposed to ask?

Guest

There is a very simple solution to this….

Cinemas could have showings with promoted reduced loudness.

Depending on how popular these shows are, they should be able to determine if they need to reduce overall sound levels.

Guest

As well as avoiding having my ears assaulted, I would also appreciate not being surrounded by people talking to each other, playing with their phones and feeding their faces.

Guest

Perhaps, as on aircraft, you could have the option to be issued with noise cancelling headphones – or take your own – and set the sound level you choose, eliminating the outside world.

Guest

Alternatively the sound level could be set to a level that everyone can cope with and those who want a more immersive experience could don headphones and increase the volume to what suits them.

Guest

Either or. Or buy the dvd and save money at home, with cheap pop and sweeties.

Guest

On the other hand the film will eventually appear on BBC TV without adverts and I will skip the junk food, thanks.

Guest

It’s very tempting to give up and just wait until films appear as dvds or on the BBC. However, watching films at the cinema gives an extra dimension and some films just don’t come across as effectively on a smaller screen. It seems crazy that so many of us are being driven out of cinemas just because the volume is so loud. I’m all in favour of alfa’s suggestion that there should be promoted quieter screenings. Good, too, that Which? has approached Action on Hearing Loss. It would be great if they were to become involved as they did with their Speak Easy Campaign after the Which? correspondence on noisy restaurants

Guest

The suggestion makes good sense, but even if the sound level was acceptable, being expected to sit through adverts is enough to keep me away.

Guest

When you book at our local Vue cinema, you do get allocated a specific seat. This means you don’t actually have to take your seat until the film is about to start. I’m assuming it is the same throughout the chain. So you could miss the adverts altogether. (Still have the problem of the junk food, mind you!)

Guest

I had wondered about that possibility. 🙂 I have just looked at the website for our local cinema which is a small independent. For the benefit of those with autism etc. they offer films with lower sound levels, and no adverts and trailers at the start. Unfortunately, nothing is listed at present.

Edit: Have a look for autism-friendly screenings at Vue cinemas, Dorothy. I don’t know if the showings are available at all Vue cinemas or not.

Guest

From the Vue website:

Who can attend an autism friendly screening?

Our Autism friendly screenings are specifically tailored to support Vue customers on the autism spectrum, these screenings are open to all and may also be particularly suitable for younger, first-time cinema-goers who would also benefit from a less-rigid cinema environment.

The lights are left on low, the sound is turned down and there are no adverts and trailers. When you book tickets for an autism-friendly screening, you will be asked to choose allocated seats, we do expect guests to move around and make noise during the film as it is a relaxed environment.

Guest

I’m all in favour of autism-friendly screenings, wavechange. It means that sufferers from autism and their carers have the opportunity to watch a film in a relaxed atmosphere, without having to worry about people leaving their seats and moving about, or calling out during the film. They know that other members of the audience won’t complain about such behaviour because the screening is targeted at that group in particular. However, people who don’t suffer from autism, might find such a relaxed screening is not ideal when they are trying to concentrate on a film, so I’m not sure that autism-friendly films are the answer to our problem. What does emerge from what you’ve quoted from the Vue website is that they are perfectly capable of turning down the sound. Which is all we are asking!

Guest

I agree, Dorothy. However, the fact that cinemas are prepared to turn down the sound for disadvantaged people seems a good start and might create a demand from those of us who are fed-up with being subjected to loud sound. Sadly, the local cinema does not list any forthcoming autism-friendly screenings.

Guest
Annie Rhodes says:
12 January 2018

I attended an NTLive showing of Young Marx at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh this week and had the experience of having to block my hearing ear during trailers before the main film and during music played at scene changes. My companion who does not have hearing or sound sensitivity problems said he found it too loud.

Guest
Sally says:
17 January 2018

Does making the sound so loud in cinemas that it cannot be tolerated by elderly people or those with sensory problems constitute age discrimination and/or disability discrimination?

Guest

That’s a good point. I think a good case could be made. It is arguable that the high volumes are harmful even to younger people and those without sensory problems. I am surprised cinema staff have not complained.

Guest

I’ve been listening very carefully to the sound tracks of several films over the past several weeks on our own sound system and I agree there’s a definite and worrying increase in the sound FX levels, while dialogue levels have fallen. It’s happening on TV series, too, so that it’s never certain when you start a new film or programme whether you’re going to get blasted off your seat or strain to hear the first words.

In regard to Sally’s excellent point, the younger attendees at cinemas will tend to tolerate loudness more than the elderly, but it’s almost certainly doing the same amount of harm to young ears, and youngsters do live in a noisier environment generally. I remember the Swedish Navy having real trouble finding young sonar operators some years ago whose hearing was excellent, and the conclusions drawn were that the youngsters’ attendance at discos and concerts had permanently left many with hearing loss. And that was by the time they were 20.

Guest

As well as the tendency for the film producer to provide unbalanced volume and accentuate the sound effects, is there also the possibility that the cinema can tweak the multi-channel sound tracks to raise the dramatic tension of sound effects in an attempt to further enhance the sensory experience?

People have often suggested entering the auditorium just before the main feature starts in order to avoid the advertisements and trailers, but all my life it has taken me some time for my ears and brain to adjust to the sounds in a cinema, so it’s not just a recent phenomenon. I prefer to get in early enough to acclimatise to the sound level and acoustics.

The sound in film trailers is grossly overblown and covered in additional sound FX that don’t actually feature in the actual screened version of the film. When have arrows ever whooshed? And bodies thudded when hit by a weak punch? And mugs made a coarse scraping sound when slid along a counter?

The film Pride and Prejudice brought this home to me when I watched it in a cinema. The opening sequence was so overlaid with birdsong and ornithological twittering it was deafening. Perhaps the nineteenth-century microphones were too crude to give a realistic rendition.

Guest
Marcus says:
29 January 2018

Cinemas are to loud and when I remember I take ear plugs, when I don’t remember Infind some tissue to stuff into my ears.

Pubs have a similar problem I can barely hear the people I have come to talk to and in order to be heard we all have to shout.
I suppose people will drink more since they can’t talk. But since there is no dancing music in pubs should be background noise rather than raping your ears.