How are the sound levels of a movie set? Does the theater decide how loud they want movies to be, or is there an automatic system that allows the publisher/distributor/producer/studio to set the sound levels?

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    This is not about sound effects. I have created a cinema-sound tag which is the term used in the trade to describe the sound systems used in theaters. Oct 2, 2017 at 21:10
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    That might very well be an undsustry term. But I'm not sure that's really necessary as a tag, though. Is that a significant enough sub-topic to warrant its own tag? How many on-topic questions do you anticipate about that? It seems distribution would perfectly suffice for that.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Oct 2, 2017 at 21:13
  • @NapoleonWilson Ok, but it is definitely not about sound effects. Oct 2, 2017 at 21:15
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    @NapoleonWilson No. the three "arms", if you will, are production, distribution, and presentation (exhibition). Distribution is completely separate from presentation. The exhibitors are required to be separate entities from the distributors. Distributors are generally working for the studios while exhibitors are working for themselves.
    – Catija
    Oct 2, 2017 at 22:21
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3 Answers 3


The overall answer is it can depend, but it's usually set by the movie theater.

Unless the studio has requested an optimal volume range for a movie, the theater is free to set the volume at whatever level they want. Disney was fairly notorious for this when I was a projectionist (from 2007 to 2011). They would include a "guide card" for things like bulb brightness and suggested volume level for many of their movies, especially animated features. They would even send in secret viewers to rate our presentation and provide us with feedback, and would send us little gifts if we had "perfect presentation".

Otherwise if people complained a movie is too loud or not loud enough, if they informed someone on the ground they could let projection know, and we'd take it up or down a couple notches.

However, loud can also be a fairly generic thing to describe. Movies can naturally be louder or quieter than others, either in full or from one moment to another, and that's all depending on how the sound was mixed and applied to the film. Used to be a notorious issue in the US with commercials being dramatically louder than the TV shows they were advertising on, that the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (or CALM Act) was passed. However, as with most regulation, there are ways around it.

Naturally, audio is also a relative experience: what may be too loud for one person could be too quiet for another. For people who are hard of hearing, many theaters offer special headphones that offer an amplified audio feed for them so they can hear a louder version of the audio without making things too loud for others. There's even options for people who are completely deaf to provide closed captioning of dialog, or for blind patrons to offer descriptive audio to help explain what's happening on screen. Not every theater has these services, though.

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    You are leaving out theater calibration systems, the most famous of which is THX. THX is a whole system of standards that specify how the monitoring environment should be set up for the audio post production engineer(s), all the way to calibration of each speaker in a multi-speaker theater system. The calibration includes setting of the levels of each speaker as measured by an SPL meter (often called a "dB meter"). You can also calibrate your home system for THX. See: education.lenardaudio.com/en/17_cinema_7.html Oct 3, 2017 at 1:16
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    The essential part of this answer is that the final level of any audio recording (CD, MP3, movie, etc.) is determined by the acoustic power put out by the speakers or headphones, and can't be controlled by the recording (as far as I've ever seen at least). I understand MattD probably knows about THX and other systems (like the less structured Disney one), so my comment above is really for anyone else reading. Oct 3, 2017 at 1:17
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    I should add that this is based on my experience as a projectionist from 2007 to 2011. If things have changed since then, I can't really speak to those changes at this point in time.
    – MattD
    Oct 3, 2017 at 1:24
  • I don't think every theater goes in for THX. It's definitely been around since long before you got into (and out of) the game. I'm 99% sure I saw Jurassic Park in a THX theater back in 1993. Oct 3, 2017 at 1:29
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    @Rich Unless you really know what to listen for, changes in volume aren't really noticeable to lots of people when done in small increments. We also had the ability to hear the audio via a speaker in the sound system up in booth, so we could deliberately wait until specific conditions in the audio to adjust the volume. Lowering volume for a loud action sequence with explosions would likely be more noticeable than during general character dialog, for example.
    – MattD
    Oct 4, 2017 at 19:04

The relative volume (this piece of dialogue is louder/quieter than that sound effect) is determined by the producers and part of the film (or digital video). The absolute volume (this is how high we crank the speakers) is decided by the theater.

When I worked at a theater, we had special showings intended for parents/caretakers with young children/babies where the lights were a bit brighter and the overall volume was much lower than a normal showing.


The basic parameters like sound (or) volume levels in different channels and brightness of projection is preset by the producer to levels set on consensus of optimum on average but optimal level differs with respect to dimensions of theatre and electronic systems used, henceforth the projection technicians vary the sound level considering their theatre in playback devices without affecting the original data.

Here is the reference - https://www.icacommission.org/Proceedings/ICA2016BuenosAires/papers/ICA2016-0313.pdf

These are the basics of Modern Sound Engineering and are available as a post-graduate course in the name, "Fundamentals of Acoustic Space Design"


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