Can you hear me at the back?


Even after a lifetime in the business I still see things I’ve never seen before. This week it was a mother giving her kids ear defenders to wear while watching the film. Really? Why not go the whole hog and give them blindfolds in case there’s something mildly offensive in there as well?

Honestly, despite what some people think, cinema sound cannot damage your hearing. There are too many quiet bits. It would have to be the tornado scene from Twister on repeat for two hours before that were to happen, even then we’d have to run it on 11.

Those of you who followed our old message board will be familiar, or even bored, with this debate, but maybe it’s worth revisiting for new readers. I’m always keen to hear comments as it’s something that confuses the hell out of me.

There’s nothing arbitrary about our sound at The Picture House, I’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to get it right. It’s bloody good, even if I say so myself. Not perfect, but if I won the lottery it would be.

When we do get complaints it’s too loud they tend to come from our older patrons. The popular refrain, and misunderstanding, is that it’s too loud for a small theatre. Unlike most things in life, size has nothing to do with it.

Let me explain. The sound system is carefully calibrated with all manner of microphones and spectrum analysers to give exactly the same sound pressure level from each speaker when you turn the volume knob to 7, as the system  in the dubbing theatre where the film is recorded. Did you get that? In other words, when I turn the volume to 7, it’s exactly at the level the director wants you to hear the film.

As I see it our job is to be as transparent as possible to the film making process. Cinemas have the ability to really spoil everyone’s hard work if they’re not careful. A producer spends millions of pounds on a film, thousands of people have sweated blood to get it finished, the least we can do it show it properly. Those millions of dollars count for nothing if the picture is out of focus and the sound is rubbish. So I feel we have a great responsibility, one that I take rather seriously.

The dynamics of good cinema sound are one of the reasons for coming surely? We can turn it down, but then all the guts fall away, making the sound lifeless and uninvolving. Given the way films are mixed you would also fail to hear the dialogue.

In fact there is a way to tell if the film is at the right level. Don’t come storming straight out to complain that it’s too loud after watching the opening scene where the fleet of spaceships crash lands in the middle of a WW1 artillery bombardment, wait until it’s calmed down and if the speaking is at a comfortable level, that isn’t drowned out by the sound of someone opening their Maltesers, then it’s on the right setting.

It just means the director really wanted you to feel those shells landing.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression we get a great number of complaints about volume levels, but it comes up periodically. I had a phone conversation with a chap last week who was going to “report us to the  health and safety”. What’s difficult to explain to him is maybe he feels that way, but there were a hundred other people in that cinema and the chances are it wasn’t too loud for them. In fact people travel to Uckfield because our sound is so good.

The final conundrum for me, and the crux of it as far as I’m concerned, is I don’t stand in the theatre thinking, boy that’s loud, but I love it, sod you all. To me it sounds spot on.

It feels like someone is complaining that something is too good. Which is weird. Then they think I’m being difficult when I disagree. I’m not, honestly. Well maybe a bit, but it’s my game isn’t it?

20 thoughts on “Can you hear me at the back?

  1. The sound is superb. The train crash in Super 8 sounded astounding – the Picturehouse has one of the best soundsystems I’ve experienced.

  2. The Sound on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was like nothing you would ever find in somewhere like Cineworld or Odeon. It was more subtle in it’s use of sound than films like: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It would be great if Uckfield Picture House did a revival of films like Lord of the Rings or classics from the late nineties like American Beauty or L.A Confidential.

  3. I remember coming to Uckfield and seeing Transformers 2 (this was a wee while ago) the sound really blew me away i really should come to PH more often instead of giving Odeon all my money 🙂

  4. I agree with the folks above. I caught one of the Apocalypse Now screenings a few weeks back and was blown away by the sound quality. And as far as the volume is concerned, that’s one of the main reasons I visit the cinema – pretty sure my neighbours would object to the roar of gunfire and Flight of the Valkyries radiating from my lounge, but at the pictures no-one’s complaining (well, they shouldn’t be anyway). Thunderous, vibrant sound – especially in big action scenes – is integral of the whole experience, which would be severely lacking without it.

  5. My son, who lives in Tun Wells, came to the PH a while ago to see TT3D, his first visit. He was so taken by the film that he’s determined to see the TT live next year in the Isle of Man. He was full of praise for the cinema, its ambience, its human-scale size, and the quality of the visual experience. He had no problem with the sound at all. He might well return. I have no quibble with the sound either. If it seems loud by the standards of the setting we use on our TV, I find that after the opening, one becomes accustomed to it. I’ve never come out of the cinema with my ears ringing, unlike when I used to work and came home from a day in what I thought was a quiet office to hear a surging in my ears once I sat alone in my sitting room. Thus I agree with Kevin that it doesn’t damage your hearing. Some people will always find it too loud: their only hope is to wait for the DVD and watch it at home. What a diminished experience that would be!

    • That’s a good point about the office Jane. I suffer the same way simply from constant fan noise with all the devices around me.

      TT3D was almost the best use of 3D I’ve seen. Although Pina shaded it for me.

      • Further thought, that feeling of it being just a smidge too loud to start is exactly right. That means it’s spot on in my experience, not just from in my theatre.

        I see a lot of films in high end preview theatres, and that is how it works. There are few sound systems I hear that I covet, but I like the larger 20th Century Fox preview theatre.

    • I’ll tell you what struck me about TT3D (an awesome film, I might add – and I hate 3D). The sound was as close as any media is going to get to the real thing. As your son will discover, you have to be there to experience two things: the Doppler shift of the bikes as they race past you – very different from a conventional race circuit; and the exhaust notes bouncing off the stone walls as the bikes pass. The good news for the Kevin is that his sound system is so good, it was the next best thing to being there.

  6. I’m sorry to say this but my daughter and I sat in the small screen with the stage to watch The Princess and the Frog in the front row. It was so loud my ears hurt and we had to sit with our fingers partially in our ears. Within days both of us had ear infections. Neither of us had a cold, we are not prone to them in our family and we had not been in contact with anyone ill.
    I may be completely wrong to blame the film as it could’ve been something else entirely and I accept your comments but I will not sit in the front row in that screen any more, as you are very close to the speakers which are at the same height as you. It’s a shame as I love the leg room there.

    You did ask!

      • I did some research before I posted that as I didn’t want to be ignorant, and it can happen unfortunately. Damaged or perforated ear drums (which is what I presume we had) can occur because of noise of a certain level. It does not have to be sustained but can be a sudden loud noise. Is it worth considering making children’s films slightly quieter?
        Great to hear the speakers have been moved. Why was that out of interest?
        As you know it has not stopped us coming as we love the cinema and the service you provide. Thanks for being open to discussion.

      • Having perforated an ear drum & had the odd ear infection it is almost impossible that the Picture Houses sound system would perforate your ear drum (short of your ear being placed across the speaker). The likely explanation is that you both already had an ear infection in its early stages which would have made you more sensitive to the sound. A few days later the infection would have progressed to the point that it was that uncomfortable you had to visit the doctor for antibiotics.

  7. I expect clear, crisp dialogue in a film, and that is what is presented on modern sound tracks. Additionally, classical music on a film soundtrack is almost as good as hearing it live. If patrons wish to visit crash/bang blockbusters then that is their choice and must anticipate the sound effects that go with such fare, after all, such films offer mere sensation as opposed to intelligent discourse. You only have to listen to the blast of sound delivering television advertising to get the message.
    The blast of sound from crash/bang films can sometimes be heard penetrating the walls of an adjacent auditorium. That is a problem with multiplex construction. No doubt Hollywood would like to have all their crash/bang films playing on each screen. Chapeau to Kevin for playing some intelligent films too.

  8. Just saw avengers in vue bristol cribbs and the volume was very very uncomfortable. There was very little dynamic range with bass and lfe really loosing out to out of control mid and very messy highs. Even the local adverts at the start were the same. It might be the sound engineers mixing high as cinemas are turning down or that he has gone deaf from mixing at such high levels. It might have been my position in the middle of the cinema. i go clubbing alot and have never felt such high Spls. Definitly ear damaging.

  9. Kevin, thank you for providing this rare insight from a cinema owner on this subject, I had a small eureka moment when you described how to tell if it was too loud, as it validated reporting a cinema near me to the local trading standards for being too loud. I guess some cinemas are not as well looked after as yours!


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