Four Myths that Cause Bad Sound

In 1992, Syn-Aud-Con co-founder and audio industry legend Don Davis wrote an article (which later became a book) titled, “If Bad Sound Were Fatal, Audio Would Be the Leading Cause of Death.” While it hasn’t killed me yet, I’ve certainly been hurt more than once in public spaces, where it was evident that proper attention wasn’t given to the audio experience. Although the pain subsides, as an audio professional for over 30 years, I still find it extremely irritating, especially in venues such as my local movie theatre. Just ask my wife; moviegoing with me is not always as enjoyable an experience as it could be. What baffles me is that almost 30 years later, Don Davis’ observation still has a ring of truth to it, even in some movie theatres today.

We all know what it takes to create good sound in a movie theatre.  The best practices have been established and refined over decades. The Lucasfilm/THX program, launched by George Lucas and Tomlinson Holman in 1983, was a huge leap forward in this effort. Other groups like SMPTE, AMPAS, Dolby, and others have contributed to a body of knowledge that clearly defines the steps necessary to achieve great sound in the cinema. So, if we (as an industry) know how to do it, why do so many theatres still sound less than optimal?

One reason is that there are still many myths about what it takes to achieve high quality sound.  Here are four of them:

  1. We don’t know how.
  2. It’s too expensive.
  3. It doesn’t really matter anyway.
  4. It’s too hard.

As with most myths, none of these are real. The first one only indicates that one hasn’t looked for the answers or consulted the right authority. The knowledge exists. Re-read paragraph two.

Number 2, “it’s too expensive” probably means that the “right” authority was wrong. Good sound does not have to cost a fortune if the correct practices are followed, and the optimal technologies and products are specified for a given auditorium.

“It doesn’t really matter anyway” simply expresses poor business judgment. It says that one doesn’t care about the experience they create for their patrons. In the cinema business, like any service business, the quality of the customer journey is the sum of experiences from the lobby to the recliner and back. If you don’t pay attention to every step of the way, you are not providing the best possible experience – and your competition probably knows it, leaving you vulnerable.

As a remedy to “It’s too hard,” about five years ago QSC compiled as many of the best practices and industry standards that we could find, combined them with over 125 years of collective experience of our staff and created the QSC Certified Theatre Program.  The result is a free theatrical exhibition standards program based on a set of guidelines intended to promote best practices in cinema design and overall presentation quality.  When a theatre meets these guidelines, we deem it to be a “QSC Certified Theatre,” and there exists a complete marketing program that helps the theatre and QSC to promote the site as such. It lets patrons know that proper attention was given to creating the best possible moviegoing experience, guided by many years of expertise and backed by the reputation of one of the audio industry’s leading manufacturers.  Chances are, most cinema patrons have experienced QSC sound not only in movie theatres but also in nightclubs, concert venues, sports arenas, cruise ships, airports, meeting rooms, etc.

None of the guidelines of the QSC Certified Theatre Program are costly or difficult to follow, especially in new construction projects. It’s always easier and less expensive to build a theatre right from the ground up than it is to correct mistakes in existing rooms. The only hard and fast criterion is, not surprisingly, the audio signal chain must be all QSC equipment, from the processor to the amplifiers and loudspeakers. It’s not just business self-interest. It’s the only way to ensure that the audio system will perform flawlessly together and provide the best quality sound possible.  We know this because we design our products to work together, as “native” components in a common, well-conceived Ecosystem. We sometimes call this idea “SystemSynergy” because the performance of the combined components is greater than would be possible with a collection of parts that were not designed to work together.

Look for an upcoming webinar featuring Barry Ferrell, which details a prescription for getting good sound in the cinema.  There’s a cure after all!