Why do The Movies Sound So Much Better?
June 28, 2006 10:46 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed that post-processed songs in movie/tv shows have a certain 'richness' lacking in the original music. What are the common manipulations done, and is it possible to reproduce on a home computer easily?

I've noticed on many, many occasions that songs played on tv/movie shows are richer -- ie more vibrant, better sounding, crisper, etc. The same song, played through the same headphones on the same PC, on the same sound card from CD sound comparatively flat and uninspiring.

I'm looking as to hints on how they do this, and if it's possible to reproduce with any software commercially/openly available?

One school of thought is that the songs are processed for DOLBY 6 Surround sound, but considering I only have a two-channel output card, I doubt that.

Any hints appreciated.
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (9 answers total)
It's a combination of Equalization and Compression, for the most part.

As to whether it's possible to do with software, yes. However doing it well is very difficult and takes a lot of experience. Compression, for example, can really make bass boom, but it can also turn the entire song into a muddy mess, and every song is different.

As for what programs can do it-- Audacity is a free program that includes compression and eqing tools. You can also use commercial programs like Reason, Cubase, Logic, Soundforge or Ableton. There are also many many compression and eq stand alone programs that are available.

If you want to learn how to do it, look up books on sound mastering or engineering.
posted by empath at 10:55 AM on June 28, 2006

They're probably overcompressed as hell and you'd notice the lack of dynamic range if you listened to the music by itself or with headphones. Dead giveaways are clipping and the lack of dynamics -- everything is the same volume. If you're talking about DVDs or broadcast with higher audio quality than CD audio, it's possible that the song was remixed for surround but still unlikely.
posted by mikeh at 10:57 AM on June 28, 2006

Ditto on the compression, the halmark of modern ruined audio. It's not magic, it just sounds louder.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:01 AM on June 28, 2006

Not just compression, but often multi-band compression. Octiv's Volume Logic is a plug-in that adds multi-band compression and other tweakage to iTunes and/or Winamp.
posted by kindall at 11:20 AM on June 28, 2006

Two things that will greatly improve the quality of your home recordings are a good tube preamp and a really good microphone.
posted by wsg at 11:28 AM on June 28, 2006

It seems to me like most of the suggestions of software are for going in the opposite direction that Gadha wants to go (from nice sounding dynamic music to crappy sounding compressed music). I don't know of software that does the opposite of this but I would be interested as well.
posted by metaname at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2006

The opposite of a compressor is an expander. Although nothing will help in the pathological case where too much compression has been used and the signal has been clipped, as the information is just lost at that point.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:06 PM on June 28, 2006

I've noticed the same thing about movie soundtracks, I think it is psychological.

More specifically, I think a large part of the effect has to do with concentration. When you are watching a movie, part of your brain is processing images, which reduces your ability to listen deep into the music. You may also be processing emotions related to the movie (rather than the music alone), which further effects your hearing.

Also, I think that it may be related to juxtaposition of sound tracks within the movie. Perhaps some sections of movie soundtrack sound especially crappy, or maybe objectively good, but disharmonious (like an explosion, or industrial sounds, whatever). When a harmonious sound comes along, it sounds that much nicer..
posted by Chuckles at 3:47 PM on June 28, 2006

One school of thought is that the songs are processed for DOLBY 6 Surround sound, but considering I only have a two-channel output card, I doubt that.

There are going to be playback side variations too, which might have an effect, but I still like the answer above more.

Often, CD audio on computers is played back through the CD-ROM drives onboard DAC. Understandably, that kind of DAC is often pretty poor (my DVD-303s seemed to have a relatively good DAC, but it is now dead..).

There are other variables that you seem to be controlling for. Obviously, if you were listening to mp3s of the music tracks, there might be compression issues..
posted by Chuckles at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2006

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