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The Audio Wars

How hearing in entertainment became exclusive to the wealthy.

By Josh ClementsPublished 11 days ago 4 min read
Picture: Tom Hardy as Bane in Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight Rises

VOX recently confirmed what we have all known for some time, audio in entertainment is becoming harder and harder to hear. Recently, when I was watching Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story amongst family, not ten minutes in to the movie were people clamouring for the subtitles to be switched on. Why is this?

VOX released a well presented Youtube video with the answer. In the video, they explain why audio in entertainment has become much more difficult to hear (see a link to the video at the end of this article). To summarise, there are several factors all coming together which is making us go, “Eh? What did they just say?”.

These factors include: dynamic range, the need to make dialogue volume lower so explosions, car chases, orcs, etc. can all be higher for dramatic effect, we have the invention of smaller microphones which are able to pick up much quieter spoken lines from actors, we have more sophisticated mixing which is playing around with modulations, we have studios keen to avoid actors having to rerecord lines which may have been inaudible to begin with (so splicing is used instead), some actors like Tom Hardy seem to mumble by choice, and the final most pernicious factor, that this is a conscious decision on the part of filmmakers.

The VOX video points out that this choice by filmmakers is by way of a decision to create their work to the top technological audio standard, Dolby Atmos. Whilst all other ‘worse’ audio specifications are left to be retrofitted, downgraded essentially, often to an inaudible level.

What this means is that unless you can afford to go a cinema with the highest specification audio equipment, you are not going to be able to fully hear all the dialogue in the latest big blockbuster (and remember most people are not lucky enough to even live in a country where this is feasible).

This means a far worse experience for a large portion of the world who consume entertainment on their phones or at home.

Essentially, multi-millionaire directors, such as Christopher Nolan, do not care if poor people can hear their work. This also profoundly undermines independent cinemas, like the fantastic Randwick Ritz in Sydney, who cannot afford to keep upgrading all their screens to the latest audio technology. Placing them at a disadvantage against the more costly large chains; none of whom are doing particularly stellar anyway in this post-covid world (also a shoutout to all those who are immunocompromised who simply cannot risk going to the cinema at all).

With cinema and television becoming more and more concentrated to specific IP’s; there are less people challenging this choice. If we look at the Oscars this year, the record for sequel nominations was broken. This concentrates decision making and empowers these few directors and studios whom are choosing to make entertainment this way.

This isn’t a problem confined to audio either, the much derided Game of Thrones episode, where the White Walkers finally come to Winter Fell, was cast in so much darkness that many viewers couldn’t see what was going on; the brightness setting on their laptops and iPhones only going so high.

A difference with visuals is you can still see what is happening to some degree; even if your internet service cannot keep up with the latest 7K. For audio, and especially for people with neurodivergence or people with disability, viewers will struggle to read subtitles in the short time allotted on screen.

But aren’t we the audience, the majority, the ones essentially paying for all this? Yes! Which makes this particularly class attack on less wealthy people all the more mystifying. One cannot help think that ego is at play here, these directors want to use the latest shiny new toy, be that audio or visual. And they want their work in the newest and best cinemas, after that, they just do not care. Be damned if it is not compatible with most of the worlds watching equipment. This leads to an exclusionary attack on most consumers.

If you happen to be lucky enough to afford the latest gazillion dollar TV and speaker set, then good for you, you can see and hear what is happening.

The question the rest of us should be asking ourselves is do we really want amazing audio for the few, and ‘mmmmph’ for the many? (Vox: Why we all need subtitles now)

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About the Creator

Josh Clements

Known to scribble away at my fantasy novel, screenplays, poems and short stories.

Tastes may vary.

Twitter: @JoshuaClements89

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