“Stereo: for people with TWO ears.” So said Kenny Everett.
But despite Ken’s invitation, I was a long time joining the party.
The reason was – I figured it was all FAKE. Like, having attended a number of concerts by my favourite band – Buddy Rich’s – I knew that the drums (and cymbals) were positioned in the MIDDLE, with the piano and bass on the LEFT and the entire horn section (trumpets, which were loudest, along the back, with trombone, french horn and flugal horn in the middle and saxes – soprano, alto, tenors and baritone – occasionally doubling on flute – along the front) on the RIGHT.
However, the first time I heard the band on one of the MANY stereo records they recorded, I was dismayed to discover that the bass had been positioned in the MIDDLE, with the piano on the RIGHT – and ALL of the horns AND drums and cymbals EVERYWHERE.
But while I might have been dismayed, I was not surprised. Even as a late teen, I knew enough about the technology to realise that if the record had been mixed “correctly” – the result would have been APPALLING.
The bass HAS to be in the middle, on a record, for technical reasons. And had ALL the horns been plonked on the right, with the whole drum kit in the middle… …urgh!
Even Pete Spargo’s excellent mix of Buddy’s Ronnie Scott Club album ( I was THERE) had the drums and band spread ACROSS the field.
Of course, I was not alone in rejecting stereo; Phil Spector “layered” his Wall Of Sound mixes for mono – thus when he lost the rights to his back-catalogue around the turn of the Eighties, he was FURIOUS when the new owners remixed his original three-track tapes for stereo.
Thus it was that I held out AGAINST stereo until well into the Seventies.
But things change and these days, the sound on my main TV, living room TV, hi-fi and JUKE-BOX is all in wonderful widescreen wall-to-wall STEREO – the living room system being SIX-channel stereo.
However, there is one aspect of the technology that is becoming a real PROBLEM. Six- to two-channel CONVERSIONS.
The history is this: stereo movies began by simply positioning the audio in the place on the screen from which the sound emanated. The first, in 1940, was “Fantasia” – then came WW2 and stereo was put on hold.
But, in 1950, when hostilities had ended and TV had begun to steal revenue from the movies, it was relaunched.
And from Fantasia until the turn of the Seventies, the format remained virtually unchanged. You had six banks of speakers behind the screen – upper left, middle and right – and lower left, middle and right. Later, they added two outer channels for “off-screen” audio.
So when someone walked across the screen, their voice would follow them. But this was a NIGHTMARE for the sound engineers, both when shooting, then again, in post-production.
Therefore when in the early Seventies, stereo slowly began to become the norm – rather than being reserved for the huge roadshow movies – it was decided to simplify matters.
Thanks to Dolby, George Lucas and others – a new standard emerged where all but off-screen voices were on the CENTRE channel, regardless of the movements and positions of the actors. Then the music and sound effects were placed on either side.
Upper and lower channels were effectively merged, meaning the main audio was now just THREE-channel. However, to provide SURROUND sound, those off-screen channels were ENHANCED, with a REAR channel (or two) added. Then the whole was topped off with a subwoofer channel, along the lower front of the screen.
And to further complicate matters, sound takes TIME to travel – so the side and rear channels had to be set up with phase-delays, to counter the reverb effect familiar to sports fans everywhere – “Hello sports fans-ans-ans-ans…” …no-one wanted THAT.
Which brings me (and not a moment too soon) to that PROBLEM. If you are watching a DVD on your six-channel home system, you can vary the volume (and phase-delay) of all the channels.
But when that six-channel audio has been mixed down to TWO, by some engineer – you are at his MERCY.
And a practise that has grown, during the last decade, is that of mixing said audio with the CENTRE channel TOO DAMN QUIET (or the outer channels too damn LOUD – whichever way you want to look at it).
The result of this is that you set your TV’s two-channel stereo to a level where you can clearly hear the DIALOGUE (which is KIND of important) and when the effects kick in – they BLOW YOUR BLOODY EARS OFF.
So you quickly reduce the volume – but when the action is over, you cannot make out the dialogue, so increase the volume once more. Then AGAIN… rinse and repeat.
It started in the cinema – but is now spreading to broadcast television.
And unless you have six-channel TV audio (which some networks carry – but most people do not have) there is BUGGER ALL you can do about it.
The reason for this major PAIN (particularly in your EARS) is that back in the good old days, movie sound mixes were LEVELLED. Which meant that post-production sound engineers effectively REDUCED loud sounds, while boosting quiet ones.
Thus if, say, in a war-film, two guys were talking in hushed tones on a night-time battlefield – then a BOMB exploded nearby – you could hear BOTH without numbing your EARDRUMS for three days.
But it appears that once cinemas spent all that money on the new multi-channel sound systems, they were wont to make the MOST of them. Plus audiences were getting YOUNGER – and the young LOVE loud audio (they will regret it later, when they reach MY age).
Here in Thailand, the cinemas began this practise a decade ago, but TV (and my six-channel system) were exempt. But a couple of years ago, DiggerMovie began doing these “light-centre-heavy-outer” mixes – then DiggerVision followed suit – and now it has reached True Series.
This last is a PAIN. True Series has taken YEARS to convert to 16:9 and lose their pointless subtitles and whilst it is currently RUNNING DOWN its output (their “tent-pole” channel cost them MONEY – and the platform has recently acquired a number of American channels that carry their programmes in HD) it still has a number of series (particularly sitcoms) which cannot be found ELSEWHERE.
With two-channel stereo, the technically-minded can REDUCE their centre audio with Triphony (see elsewhere in these ramblings) – but I know of no way it can be INCREASED, DAMMIT!
It is a bit like when COLOUR first hit the TV market – broadcasters and consumers jacked it UP until everyone on it had ORANGE FACES. It took YEARS before colour became the norm and everyone reduced it to a sensible level.
But at least the consumer had the OPTION to turn it down.
However, with these new audio excesses, until broadcasters get enough COMPLAINTS, I will be forced to ENDURE this silliness. They will not listen to ME – so for f***s sake CONTACT these bozos and TELL them about this pain-in-the-ear problem.
At the moment, my hearing is still 20:10 (perfect) – but for how much LONGER? Come on people – you OWE me. After all, I write this crap for you for FREE…