I've been watching a lot of older films lately (older, in this instance reads "circa 80's and 70's" and mainly in the Sci-Fi and action genres), and have been asking myself the same thing as I watch each one.

Note: I'm watching these on DVD or Blu-Ray, they're not rips or VHS tapes if that makes any difference.

I've noticed that a lot of these films have their soundtrack's mixed in a very particular way. I've noticed that the musical queues and sound effects seem to be mixed at a higher volume than the dialogue. I the versions of the films that I have and watch, at least.

As an example, I've recently watched the UK version of the Blu-Ray release of Aliens, and I found that I had to turn my sound system up quite high to hear the dialogue, but turn it back down again during the action sequences (or scenes with lots of sound effects or musical queues) as I have room-mates and don't wish to disturb them just so that I can hear the dialogue.

I'm convinced that it's not my sound system, as a lot of the films from the same era seem to be mixed the same way. Also, playing them back through my PC, I notice the same thing.

Is this related to a stylistic decision made by the director/sound engineer? A technical limitation of the technology of the time? Is it related to potential problems with converting the (I'm guessing) analogue soundtrack to a digital format and compressing it?

I know (from a very limited knowledge of how it works) that Dolby is an encoding format aimed at reducing hiss, and that one of the ways it can achieve this is by lowering the overall volume of the soundtrack to a point where hiss isn't as easily detectable. So, I'm guessing that this might just be a by-product of that encoding process.

Any ideas or suggestions?

  • 80s? I had this problem watching Numb3rs on Amazon prime, as well as others but Numb3rs was a huge offender. For shock value likely.
    – MDMoore313
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


It's not a by-product of the Dolby encoding process, although Dolby does allow greater dynamic range.

Sound engineers employ a technique called "dynamic range compression" to reduce the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a recording. Use of compression is much more pronounced and widespread today than it was in the past, which explains your observations about sound level.

Because many viewers are "casual" viewers (in the sense that they're not necessarily looking for the full-blown cinematic experience, but merely something to watch on a Saturday afternoon), modern sound engineers favor a more highly-compressed sound mix that reduces the overall change in sound levels, so that you can still hear the dialog amidst the explosions. This explains why Blu-Ray discs (which presumably cater to an audience looking for the cinematic experience) tend to have less compression than other forms of video media, such as ordinary cable television.

Applying heavy compression to audio tracks on a DVD or Blu-Ray is a flawed technique: it's much easier to apply compression after the fact (i.e. in your receiver electronics) than it is to attempt to recover the dynamics that are lost due to heavy compression.

Further Reading
The many different mixes of Star Wars: A New Hope

  • Does this mean that the cinematic releases of these (older) titles would have had dynamic ranges that are different to the versions presented on the home releases? Or where they released to theatres in a similar way? (as I was born in the mid-80s, I never saw these films with their original ranges at the theatres) Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:27
  • 2
    Possibly. There's no set rule or standard. Star Wars has had many different sound mixes over the years. Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:36
  • 1
    @JamieTaylor Unless they've remastered the audio for the the home release, you should assume it was roughly the same as it was in theaters. This isn't something limited to old movies vs. new either. Dolby tech has been around in various forms for decades at this point, and so has the capability to use the extra audio detail that modern audio gear can render.
    – user209
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:36
  • @RobertHarvey Sad to hear the audio of Star Wars has undergone constant revisions just like the various "Special Edition" cuts of the movies.
    – user209
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:38
  • 1
    @Synetech I've recently heard rumours of lawsuits being filed in order to prevent this.
    – Tablemaker
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 13:16

The property of audio that allows them to do this is called dynamic range. When mixing the audio for movies, the sound engineer is choosing to minimize the dialogue and maximize the other audio for some effect.

You have several options to deal with this. The first is to check your audio receiver's manual. Look for a 'night mode' and enable it when you want the dynamic range compressed (increases the volume of dialogue and decreases the volume of the loud parts). Another option is to make adjustments in your audio receiver. If you turn up the center channel (where dialogue is traditionally), then turn down the overall volume, that will balance out the difference.

Understand that this was put in place on purpose as part of the job of crafting the movie. Just as, for example, horror movies will use darkness to make scenes more imposing, the audio is designed to have these variations in volume between elements.

  • So, the sound engineers would have used a higher dynamic range to make the explosions and musical cues more jarring on the viewer? To give the scene a little more impact? Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:28
  • 2
    Pretty much. In a theater, there's no concern for disturbing neighbors or roommates and that's the target that these soundtracks are being aimed for. When they're released on DVD/blu-ray they don't remix the audio (that I know of), so you have a mix that demands home-unfriendly volume changes.
    – user209
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 20:34
  • Yes, I remember seeing Aliens when it came out, the Smart/Pulse rifles and the Power loader suit walking were pretty loud. I remember waiting outside the screen for the next showing, could practically feel the walls shaking at the final battle. Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 15:44

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