I know this is wildly off-topic for me, but it’s an issue that’d been bothering me for years. I don’t know if I wasn’t asking the question right or what the deal was, but after having it frustrate me for the 768th time a couple of nights back, I decided to pin down the problem and at least come up with an answer to this annoying phenomenon, if not an outright solution. This is actually a badass life hack, but I didn’t want to mention that too soon because of all the negative connotations that “life hacks” have earned. Believe me, this is a lot more useful than making a Nerf gun out of a Tic-Tac box or taping a ruler to you toaster so that you never have to measure how long your toaster is.
Note: I more or less use the term “DVD” exclusively throughout this article, but in most cases that can be taken to mean “DVD and/or Blu-ray.” At no point am I speaking specifically about DVDs or Blu-ray discs unless otherwise noted.
It’s hard to say when this problem really began. I remember it as far back as the Ultimate Edition boxset of The Matrix films though I want to say this is probably on the earlier end of the spectrum. Around the same time (2003 – 2005) I was amassing large numbers of DVDs – particularly horror of all ages and ranges of quality – and I don’t remember having the problem back then. It was probably a couple of years later where it seemed like every time I popped a DVD in I had the same problem: some fast-paced action scene would kick things off with a loud explosion and the orgiastic expression of a 178-piece orchestra on par with a sonic boom. I’d hastily turn the volume down wondering how it got so loud and then immediately notice that it was on a fairly normal level for the TV. Ten minutes later and our deuteroprotagonists are hunched over in a storm drain discussing their next move and by Jove, I can’t friggin’ hit
VOL + enough times to clearly understand what they’re saying!
The cycle would endlessly repeat throughout the movie, leading to having to keep one’s hand at the ready constantly. The issue would by nature necessitate a rewind or two at times because a lot of times we’re fed some important shit during those quiet, reflective moments. The problem was especially prevalent in action movies, which is why I remember The Matrix and its sequels being such egregious offenders. There are al ot of very stoic and pensive moments wrapped up in these mumbly chats, sometimes spelling out very key points of what can be a confusing plot.
Why does this happen!?
Acoustically speaking, your living room is very different from a movie theater. In order to maximize the whole immersive experience of watching a movie in the theater, audio technicians rely on both terraced dynamics and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. Terraced dynamics simply refers to some sounds being louder than others. You hear it all the time in music, and in many cases you can hear a radio station’s attempt to normalize these volumes. You know that favorite song that you’ve listened to on CD or mp3 a thousand times and how the chorus seems to just BOOM in? Now think back to hearing this on the radio…that punch, that oomph, is now much less powerful; the natural and intentional difference between the volume levels of the verse and chorus is made less pronounced.
Dolby 5.1 plays a role by distributing the sound through 5.1 channels for the “surround sound” effect. This loud, immersive setup is great in the confines of a big dark room, but it’s just not practical when you’re relying on your built in TV (or computer) speakers, or if your kids are asleep in the next room, or you just don’t want to keep the volume at 47.
Back in the day, when it came time to release a movie to DVD, the studio would spend a little extra money for a specialized producer who would take that Dolby 5.1 Surround track and competently translate it into a stereo track precisely because of the problem at hand. They’d also normalize the volume a bit – not enough to give it a “flat” feel but enough to avoid our problem.
So what happened, these companies just quit hiring guys to do this stuff?
In a nutshell, yes.
Notice how cheap DVDs really are? They were about what, $20 10 years ago? And today they’re what, also about $20? If we account for inflation alone they should be closer to $24 nowadays. Hell a new VHS could easily run $19.95 back in 1995, which would be more like $32 in today’s market. (If you want to do the calculation in the other direction, a $20 DVD today would’ve cost about $17 in 2008 and only $12 in 1995…can you imagine a fresh VHS of Seven or Toy Story or Batman Forever for 12 dollars!?)[Inflation Source] And that’s just the newest ones. There are literally hundreds of great movies out there on DVD for less than $10, many more less than $5. (Yes, I realize that Blu-rays are more expensive than DVDs but as DVDs become more and more rare – and yes, this is gradually occurring – you will see Blu-rays begin to fill in left-behind lowest tier.)
Hopefully I’ve illustrated that when something stays the same price despite inflation it’s actually costing the consumer “less.” So how did these companies stop prices from rising above $30? They start cutting corners at any opportunity. Ever gotten one of those weird piecemeal “box sets” with a film and a few of it’s sequels? It’s just 4 discs stacked on each other…sometimes you can even spot “Disc 1” and surmise that these are the remnants of the film(s) in better days. These “Frankenstein-style” “sets” that seem to be such a bargain are largely the remnants of unsold multi-disc editions…which is fine from a value perspective, but it’s also kinda sad to see the artistic integrity of these releases all hacked up and repackaged shamelessly. Cases are now much flimsier and you can see the big “holes” created by the “recycle” symbol. Inserts have been all but done away with. And what has probably taken the most obvious cut is
BONUS FEATURES. I guess this was inevitable to a certain degree, but damn, I can remember getting a DVD back in 2000 – just a run-of-the-mill edition of a middle-of-the-road flick – and I was confronted with
WIDESCREEN - DIRECTOR'S CUT. I could watch with French, English, or Spanish subtitles, and if I’m feeling really adventurous, choose from English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portugese, Greek, Russian, perhaps even Japanese or Arabic overdubs!
But wait, there’s more! What about commentaries? There was usually 1 from someone large and in charge like the director or one of the top-billed actors and possibly a second commentary as well from someone like the editor or an artist or production designer and maybe an actor or actress from a supporting role. Depending on what type of film it was (maybe it was super-technical) I have seen as many as 4 separate commentaries! From there we really branch out…maybe there’s a short animated film courtesy of Todd Hodgens that depicts the 6 months before the events of the film…how about a featurette on just how the production team came up with their wacky snowboard designs…let’s not forget “The Making Of…”, a scattershot, utterly boring 30 minutes of the director being pretentious as hell about “his movie”…and life would not be complete without an exhaustive archive of bloopers, alternate takes, deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a PowerPoint style gallery of the 150 most memorable stills from the film.
I seriously do not feel like I exaggerated.
What are the usual special features nowadays…fucking nothing. Add all that up and you’ve saved some serious coinage. But in the interest of being as lazy as possible, ol’ Marcus Reinhardt – that fellow who flawlessly mixed down that Dolby into Stereo thousands of times before – didn’t get his usual call. Instead, the Surround Sound is moved as-is (which is fine for those of you with a bangin’ at home setup) and from what I understand a rather crude “stereo” sound is cranked out.
Is there a solution?
Yes! And if you haven’t figured out what it is by now, it’s pretty simple. When you’re on the movie’s “Main Menu” just go into “Set Up.” From there you should have some way to adjust your “audio options” – be aware that this may include options for different language overdubs as well. Many DVD players will also have a button on the remote that allows you to cycle through the audio tracks while the film is in progress. You’ll probably see something like
French 1 and so on. Generally the default setting is Dolby 5.1. If you’re in the actual setup menu, choose something like “Stereo” or “Stereo Surround.” If you’re using the remote to cycle though and there are no explicit labels, it’s probably safe to assume that
English 2 or something comparable is the “Stereo” setting. Now I’m not saying you’re going to hear angels sing or anything like that, but this should go a long way in fixing those huge discrepancies in the volume range.
If you do have a nice setup for your home theater that utilizes Dolby 5.1 there’s no reason to put it to waste. If this is the case, there are a couple of tricks you can try. You’ll have to know your way around your system, but I’m guessing you probably know a thing or two to invest in such in the first place. The easiest trick is to throw more of the volume towards the front speaker. If you still need to fix it, or perhaps you’re messing around with a computerized system where it’s easy to change settings, look for an option called “dynamic range compression” or sometimes just “compression.” This compresses the natural range of volume into a smaller one, either set at predefined thresholds or ones you set yourself. The higher the ratio, the more compression. The more compression, the more choppy and unnatural the resulting sound will be, so it’s important to find the lowest threshold that works for you. There are other things you can tweak and fiddle with to maintain compression without creating undesirable sounds…don’t listen to me though, go read up from some guys who know more about compression and attack and release than I do.
Anyway the whole “stereo” thing is something to keep in mind. If this has been a problem for you though, you’re probably wondering why you may not have this problem while streaming a movie. Well, even if the movie companies are trying to shave a dime off anywhere they can, guys like Netflix are straight up aware of this Dolby / stereo issue and they’re also aware that most people are using their services on a regular ol’ TV or, even “worse,” computer speakers. So they take some time to make sure the audio is right on what they stream, and voila, that movie that you streamed for literally a few cents sounds better coming out of your laptop than the DVD you just dropped $20 on.
Don’t believe me? It’s an easy thing to try! Sometimes I haven’t noticed it as much on my laptop, however, I have external speakers hooked up (with their own power source) because my laptop speakers are really, really weak. However, this has been a great “trick” to use on my TV. It’s a fairly nice 50″ TV with a standard Blu-ray player connected via HDMI. Like I said, the switch isn’t exactly night and day, but you will be able to chill on that
VOL rocker. So far I’ve sat through Power Rangers, Wonder Woman, The Butterfly Effect, and The Descendants 2 (that was for the lil’ one) all on DVD or Blu-ray, I switched over the audio track at the very beginning, and I didn’t have any problems with the volume aside from the initial adjustment.
As happy as I am to eliminate this annoyance, I think the history behind it with the tanking DVD sales and all that is pretty interesting as well. But hey I’ve been going on and on for a while now, so I’ll attempt to let this trick speak for itself. Give it a shot, and let me know how it goes.