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Forget Dolby and DTS...MONO sound is where it's at


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#1 Michael Ryan

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Posted 08 May 2006 - 07:32 PM

Hello All,

First off I have to tell everyone that I love modern film sound. 5.1, sound effects, sounds coming from the rear speakers....as they say in Vegas, I'm in baby, I'm in.

The other day I happen to be having a discussion with an old time sound guy and he was telling me (in great detail) all about the virtues of MONO sound and very simple STEREO sound..

Hmmmmm. It did make me think. He played me some jazz albums that were recorded in the early '60s and I have to tell you that the sound was AMAZING. As good or better than many of the recordings I listen to now. I was SHOCKED when he told me that these albums from the '60s were recorded with only TWO MICROPHONES!!!! Some of these jazz bands had over a dozen players.

He was also telling me about mono sound. He is his belief that good mono sound is far better than really poorly recorded stereo sound. Also he pointed out that many (if not all) of Woody Allen's films are released in mono sound. When I got home I grabbed my copy of MATCH POINT and sure enough it was in mono. The big shock was if you were to have asked me right after the film I would have thought the sound was 5.1. I just remember the sound being very good.

Is less more?


Mike
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#2 Tom Banks

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Posted 09 May 2006 - 02:10 PM

I wouldn't let the number of tracks or the number of microphones used determine the quality of the sound. That doesn't make sense.

"He is his belief that good mono sound is far better than really poorly recorded stereo sound." - Now that makes sense obviously.

I would personally like to sit in a theater and experience 5.1 or 7.1 rather than mono any day!

Some factors you might be forgetting that affect the QUALITY of the sound:
- What format it is recorded on? Some of the most experienced Production Sound Mixers still record on Nagra's (which are mono) because the tape sounds much better. Other options are DAT or Hard Disk

- The budget of the film, which in most cases (but not all) affects the ability and number of people in the sound department AND their ability to eliminate extraneous noises on set (AC, traffic, etc.)


And as far as the two-microphone argument with the jazz band; entire symphonies are miked with only two (high quality) microphones.

In film sound, the recording process is quite simple: get good dialogue. Good Production Sound Mixers will do all they can to capture the dialogue only (eliminating footsteps and all other noise). Most of the creative sound work is done in Post.
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#3 John Pytlak RIP

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Posted 09 May 2006 - 03:17 PM

Hello All,

First off I have to tell everyone that I love modern film sound. 5.1, sound effects, sounds coming from the rear speakers....as they say in Vegas, I'm in baby, I'm in.

The other day I happen to be having a discussion with an old time sound guy and he was telling me (in great detail) all about the virtues of MONO sound and very simple STEREO sound..

Hmmmmm. It did make me think. He played me some jazz albums that were recorded in the early '60s and I have to tell you that the sound was AMAZING. As good or better than many of the recordings I listen to now. I was SHOCKED when he told me that these albums from the '60s were recorded with only TWO MICROPHONES!!!! Some of these jazz bands had over a dozen players.

He was also telling me about mono sound. He is his belief that good mono sound is far better than really poorly recorded stereo sound. Also he pointed out that many (if not all) of Woody Allen's films are released in mono sound. When I got home I grabbed my copy of MATCH POINT and sure enough it was in mono. The big shock was if you were to have asked me right after the film I would have thought the sound was 5.1. I just remember the sound being very good.

Is less more?
Mike


I think one thing that is missing today is maintaining the phase relationships in recorded multichannel sound that give "depth" and "placement" cues. So often the sound in a film is a mix of many sources that are individually miked: ADR, individual musical instruments, Foley, singing talent, "atmosphere", etc. The various sources are put together during the final mix with no regard to ever having been recorded together. So they often sound unrelated and "artificial".

Yet if multiple mikes are used on set, and phase relationships are carefully maintained, you can get much more "depth" to the sound placement. I recently experienced the Cinerama feature "Seven Wonders of the World", where many scenes had 7-channel sound that was miked on location. One particular sequence was of an Indian wedding parade moving down the street toward and past the 3-strip Cinerama camera. You could close your eyes and accurately place every one of the sound sources as they moved "around" you. This for something recorded over 50 years ago on equipment that was very crude by today's digital standards.
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#4 Chris Fernando

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Posted 09 May 2006 - 04:13 PM

Hmmmmm. It did make me think. He played me some jazz albums that were recorded in the early '60s and I have to tell you that the sound was AMAZING. As good or better than many of the recordings I listen to now. I was SHOCKED when he told me that these albums from the '60s were recorded with only TWO MICROPHONES!!!! Some of these jazz bands had over a dozen players.


I'm assuming (since he actually took the time to let you have a listen) that you were listening to that vinyl on some high quality audio equipment. Sonically speaking, listening through well placed audiophile-quality equipment is night and day from listening to something coming out of the latest Sony POS-1234 Home-Theatre-In-A-Box randomly thrown into the corner of someones living room, because that was the only space left.
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#5 Michael Ryan

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Posted 09 May 2006 - 09:01 PM

Hello All,

Yes, they were vinyl albums. I don't remember the name of his equipment, but it had tubes. I must say that the sound coming from this system had a "warmth" that my digital system does not.

John Pytlak makes a really interesting point. There is so much sound in modern films, you tend to forget that all this sound should have a logical relationship. Does it? Do the sound guys think about this stuff or do they just like putting a lot of sound together because they can.

It would be interesting to hear the sound guys from MATCH POINT talk about this.

The sound in the movie CITIZEN KANE came out of one speaker...I don't think there were many people who asked for their money back.


Are we using 5.1 or 7.1 because we can? Maybe the better question is: should we? When is less sound better? The film composer Bernard Herrmann was hired on Hitchcock's THE BIRDS to write a film score...instead he only added the sounds of birds. There is no film score in THE BIRDS. Is there any director today that would have the integrity or power to do this today?

Interesting.


Mike
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#6 Tom Banks

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Posted 10 May 2006 - 03:32 PM

Along the lines of John's post and the relationship of sounds and their locations, there is an interesting mic that has been around for a number of years called a Binaural Microphone.

This microphone is a human sized head, with very realistic ears (inside and out) on each side. Two small microphones are placed in the ear canal where our ear drum would be. The stereo sounds recorded from this mic sound exactly as though they would in real life. The reason is: we subconsiously calculate the source of the sound by which frequencies do or don't reach our ear drum. As the sound travels, it bounces off various parts in our inner and outer ear. Depending on where the sound is (infront, behind, above, below) certain frequencies will always be present (or lacking) and after years and years of hearing these differences, our ear is trained to determine the location of the source.

Listening to a recording from a Binaural Microphone sounds unbelievable in headphones, but I can't go as far as to say how they would sound in a Theatrical 5.1 or 7.1 setting. Maybe the reason why this surround setting doesn't quite do the job is that: Although the ear can distinguish (through frequencies) where the speaker is, the sounds comming from the speaker don't quite match up (in regards to frequencies) with where they sound like they should be.

Posted Image

PS - Some recordists usinig the Binaural Mic will even set it on a dummy and put a coat on to compensate for the minor, but very distinguishable, differences in frequencies that wearing a jacket will create.
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#7 Alan Duckworth

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 11:46 PM

Stereo - the secondmost misunderstood and mis-used word in our language (the first begins with the letter "D"). True stereo is recorded (usually in a single take) using a stereo microphone (note, singular) - a one piece unit with two capsules. The capsules are placed at 90 degrees to one another and are almost touching, and must be absolutely indentical in specification. Since this configuration is expensive to make because it requires the capsules to be individually tested and then matched together, a more common way is to use two "identical" (that is two of the same model) microphones in a spaced configuration. As John Pytlak pointed out, stereo is all about phase, and as the microphones get spaced further apart the phase relationships start to deteriorate.

One more point - true stereo is recorded directly to a two track machine, and if edited at all, is edited as two tracks. Rather obvious to point out, but true stereo is also played back as two tracks through two amplifiers (each with their own independent power supply!) and two speakers. This defines "audiophile", but rules out true stereo as a practial entertainment medium for the masses because there is only one place to sit to hear the true stereo image - anyplace else and the phasing goes out.

5.1 etc are not "stereo", they are "multi-channel" sound systems that simulate a stereo effect in a large space filled with people in random seating locations. Even stereo music CD's mostly aren't - the performances are captured as multi-channel, often edited as individual tracks, and then mixed down to two tracks [note, I didn't say "stereo"] for playback. That's why those jazz albums sounded so good - they were never mixed down.

For somewhere under a 1,000 dollars you can buy a true stereo mic suitable for movie and video work. It is the Rode NT4, and comes with two dedicated cables - one that splits out to two XLRs for Left and Right for professional use, and the other cable simply plugs into the stereo mic mini-jack input of consumer video cams. The microphone has its own power source, so if your camera can't supply phantom power there are no problems.

Note to Tom Banks - binaural is a form of true stereo but can only be listened to on headphones, the imaging goes to you know where through a spaced pair of speakers. Sounds really weird.
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#8 Michael Nash

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:42 PM

I'm not a sound guy (I'm a camera guy who has to deal with sound on occasion), but I'm a musician with some recording and mixing experience, and love good sound as much as the next guy.

Sound recording, and sound mixing, are art forms. They're also two different things.

The stereo jazz recordings mentioned take advantage of something you can't always get in film production -- the natural sound in the environment. The closer instruments sound closer, the farther instruments sound farther, the volume mix is what the musicians actually did during the session, and the room characteristics are captured live. No doubt the recording engineers used good equipment and knew what they were doing, as well!

This is very different from film sound recording and mixing. Sound elements usually have to be captured independently, and then combined for artful, not just realistic effect. It's a real art to get a movie sound mix to work just right, because you have to bend, fudge, and fake a great many things. And I'm not suggesting that live music recording isn't artful, it's just a very different beast.

5.1 vs. mono is like color vs. black and white -- neither one is "better," they are just choices to express something.

I certainly noticed that Woody Allen's film's are mono, but then nobody really makes movies like Woody Allen's either -- they are largely dialogue driven, with music and sound used for "punctuation" rather than "score." It's a choice made as the best way to express what he wanted to say.

(FWIW I love my DTS! Got some nice headphones, too!) ;)
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#9 Matt Pacini

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Posted 07 June 2006 - 06:19 PM

You gotta remember, recording dialog in mono is fine. Saying well recorded mono is better than poorly recorded stereo, is like saying a Super 8 camera footage looks better than 35mm footage shot with a cracked lens. It proves nothing whatsoever about the format.

Phasing is the most important, and most forgotten thing about recording audio in film.
It can profoundly change (in a bad way) how audio sounds, yet there's often this sort of "just point a mic at the sound" mentality, with no care at all taken to reflections happening in the environment.

Also, I think it's unfortunate that for the most part, everyone involved in the visual arts on a set know little about sound, and don't think it's important, thinking that you just point a mic at something and that's all there is to it, and the sound guys are given about as much consideration as an extra is.
As I heard it put so elequently, you never hear someone yell out "waiting on lighting" when a DP is getting the lighting just right.

No wonder so much has to be ADR'd in films.
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#10 Michael Collier

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Posted 07 June 2006 - 08:59 PM

Those binaural mics are pretty cool though. I heard a CD recording of a steven king book (dont remember the title, but I think the movie is comming out soon. also it wasnt a book on tape, more like the audio to the movie would be) and it blew me away. It was so freaky to close my eyes and just listen to the sound, I could clearly see where everything would be that was making sound. I doubt it would be usefull in theatrical release (though if you could equip every theater with headsets for everyone, it might) I think that would be crazy to see. The spacial rendering was better than any 5.1, 7.1, 9.5.1, stereo, mono sound I have ever heard (but 9.5.1 that would be interesting right? dont know what all the extra numbers are for, but let marketing figure that one out)
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#11 James Erd

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Posted 07 June 2006 - 10:25 PM

Along the lines of John's post and the relationship of sounds and their locations, there is an interesting mic that has been around for a number of years called a Binaural Microphone.

This microphone is a human sized head, with very realistic ears (inside and out) on each side. Two small microphones are placed in the ear canal where our ear drum would be. The stereo sounds recorded from this mic sound exactly as though they would in real life. The reason is: we subconsiously calculate the source of the sound by which frequencies do or don't reach our ear drum. As the sound travels, it bounces off various parts in our inner and outer ear. Depending on where the sound is (infront, behind, above, below) certain frequencies will always be present (or lacking) and after years and years of hearing these differences, our ear is trained to determine the location of the source.

Listening to a recording from a Binaural Microphone sounds unbelievable in headphones, but I can't go as far as to say how they would sound in a Theatrical 5.1 or 7.1 setting. Maybe the reason why this surround setting doesn't quite do the job is that: Although the ear can distinguish (through frequencies) where the speaker is, the sounds comming from the speaker don't quite match up (in regards to frequencies) with where they sound like they should be.

Posted Image

PS - Some recordists usinig the Binaural Mic will even set it on a dummy and put a coat on to compensate for the minor, but very distinguishable, differences in frequencies that wearing a jacket will create.


My Stepfather was a professor emeritus at Stanford University's CCRMA. As he explained the Binaural recording technique to me, the effect is indeed lost when played back through any thing but headphones. I have heard there are some new microphones that can record live sound directly to Dolby Surround, but I am not familiar with them at all.
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#12 Michael Ryan

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Posted 08 June 2006 - 08:08 PM

Hello All,

Has anyone had any experience with recording film sound with a "Ribbon Microphone".

I have been told that this type of mic provides the best sound if you want a really nice, natural voice recording. Play back sounds like the person is really there and not recorded.

Mike
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#13 Joe Giambrone

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 08:07 PM

Mono is dead.

The difference between mono and stereo/multi-channel as a finished product (the soundtrack of the movie) isn't really a serious question.

When you jump from one channel to two, the effect is to expand it dimensionally, not in some trivial manner. Mono sounds like it emanates from one physical location. Stereo has a full spectrum across which the sounds can appear, 180 degrees of placement -- PANNING from extreme left to extreme right. More channels mean even more options for panning, such as 360 degree placement of sounds in the audio field.

Mono is like a point source. Stereo is like a line that goes infinitely to the right and infinitely to the left, and all points in-between.

No one in this day and age (under 70) wants to suffer through mono soundtracks! Nobody!
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#14 Simon Wyss

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Posted 25 September 2008 - 10:29 AM

There is this process called Tetraphony, invented and patented by the German Gerhard Woywod. Recording with four microphones as corners of a tetrahedron built flush with the surface into a ball of about 10 inches diameter. You can set it upon a stand. Reproduction by four speakers also arranged as tips of a tetrahedron. Speakers can be far more apart so as to embrace listeners. You can see-hear a bird in a tree or feel-hear a door being slammed in an other direction. Orientation is very, very precise. As much as I know the patents run out next year. That could be something for the cinema, perhaps IMAX.

Still I'd advocate monaural sound. Movies are first for the eyes, then for the ears. The simpler you can keep sound technique the more convenient it goes with the action. That does not mean there should be no room feel or space with the sound but I prefer the inner coherence picture-sound to all outward fuzz. Let's have a drummer in front of us tabouring with two sticks. Why more than one mike ?

I'm not a sound engineer and may be up a blind alley. Only, with Perspecta Sound they fooled the kids in the 1950s. It's always mono but one time from a central speaker, then from right or left, and so on. It simply switched to and fro.
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