A-List: Landmarks in Sound

March 13, 2003

He's smiling because he just ate an attorney.

This particular A-list has turned out to be just the start of a series of columns that will run under general formats as opposed to the list format. The original idea was to come up with a listing of what I feel are the most important landmarks in the history of film and later home theater sound. This column was also to contain a chronological history of sound, picking up some of the formats that did not make my original list, as well as going into a little bit of detail on the various technical points of the various formats.

As I starting doing research, it became apparent that the column was turning out to be almost never ending. I was also offered some unexpected expert advice. As such, the decision has been made to write separate columns that will touch on an expert’s view as well as additional details.

This one will stick closely to A-list format with a bare amount of details. The list is actually ranked from most important to least by my own personal criteria.

1. The Broadway Melody (1930)
This film is probably unfamiliar to most of you and in fact it was unfamiliar to me until I did some research. One of the other Box Office Prophets correctly pointed out that The Jazz Singer, the film that everybody associates with the start of movie sound, used a two format system. The Broadway Melody from MGM had the sound on the film. This is a huge improvement over the two formats and fundamentally this format remains in use today.

2. Jazz Singer (1927)
This is the first movie credited with score as well as some minor dialogue; however, the system is Vitaphone-based which means that a separate system is required to play the sound and there can be synchronization problems.

3. Jurassic Park (1993)
Thanks to DTS practically giving away hardware and being coupled with one of the most seen movies of its time, Jurassic Park creates one of the largest launches for a new soundtrack format. DTS provides a level sound of quality that had been previously limited to 70 mm prints. Superior sound is finally brought to a large number of theaters. Critical mass is reached and the movie going audience starts to expect that digital soundtracks will be available to them.

4. A Star is Born (1976)
The first optical Dolby Surround release. This is a pretty magical point and could easily be argued as a milestone that should place ahead of Jurassic Park. Going back to the original Broadway Melody, sound is optically printed on the film via little wavy patterns that allow varying amounts of light to pass through the film. Originally there was just a single strip providing a mono soundtrack. The logical progression was to place two strips in that location providing simple stereo; however, in the mid ‘70s the Dolby engineers figured out away to almost magically encode four channels of information (Left-Center-Right-Surround) on those same two stereo strips. The encoding was also backward compatible with traditional stereo soundtrack readers. I’ll have more details on this magic in the follow-up detail column, assuming I figure out away to explain it in English by then.

5. Batman Returns (1992)
Sound purists will argue that for home formats, DTS is superior to Dolby Digital. I believe that all things considered, Dolby Digital is a superior film format due to the fact that it is a sound on film format. Dolby Digital does indeed have a lower data rate than DTS and I have begrudgingly placed DTS ahead of Dolby Digital due to the rapid acceptance of DTS. Dolby Digital does score a hit as being adopted as the sound format for HDTV as well as gaining a more rapid acceptance in the home formats.

6. Oklahoma! (1955)
70 mm Magnetic 6 Track Sound was a superior system, slightly intended for the masses, but limited by need for special prints. It is a truly glorious format for those lucky enough to find a theater and prints in this format, with a simply huge frame size as well as (for the time) a unique six-track soundtrack. Remember, at this time the most common format was a simple mono soundtrack. This format was important in proving the benefits of multi-channel soundtracks.

7. DVD
Theater quality sound is brought home to the masses. With the fastest adoption rate of any entertainment technology, DVDs have brought home film quality picture and sound. The widespread sale has brought down the prices of both software and hardware to a point where one can very reasonably set up a system that will reproduce the original Dolby Digital mix intended for the theater

8. Laserdiscs – AC3 (Later known as Dolby Digital)
This inclusion is more personal as I was one of early adopters (well, early in that I have a Laserdisc player, late in that I didn’t get it until I could afford it). If one had the money, this was the first format that allowed a movie’s digital soundtrack to be played at home.

That’s the “short” list, with more on the way as I sort through the details.

I’d also like to offer a few words about a previous topic, something that I hope to include as a regular feature in my columns. Dusty was kind of enough to write in with regard to my column about space movies and offered up the suggestion that I had omitted Contact. I really liked both the movie and the book. With Carl Sagan as the author, the science is indeed pretty solid. I appreciated even more that after all the science, the story comes down to faith and belief. However, I’m still torn as to whether or not it belongs on the list. Perhaps it’s just my limited thinking and definition of the original list. Maybe I’m still tethered to the idea of chemical based propulsion but I just have a difficult time placing the “Machine” in the same category as even the Discovery from 2001 which was arguably the most advanced spaceship of the movies I placed on the list. It probably does belong on the list and Contact is definitely a worthy movie to recommend in general.

Some dates and films were found at: http://home.clear.net.nz/pages/adbarr/page3.html.



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