Monday, 11 July 2011

The Joy of SFX

I love sound effects. From the rumbling bass of an airborne Terminator appearing over the horizon, to the shrill wheels-on-tarmac squeal of a Transformer as it adopts vehicle form, the SFX have made some recent action movies into more than they would otherwise have been.

But there's an important element in this love affair that deserves closer attention, and the Logitech Z-5500 speakers pictured top-left of this post are a clue to what it is. I'm talking about surround sound.

All the SFX in the world couldn't help a movie out if it weren't for the ability to place them in a realistic direction from the viewer - or listener, in the case of the audio. And while so many people overlook the quality of the soundtrack to a movie, for me it's an integral part of the experience.

A life in 5.1

OK, I know these days you can get 7.1, 9.1 and even more complex speaker sets, but for me it's always really been 5.1. I'm a surround sound purist.

At the age of about 13 I got my first surround sound Hi-Fi, and immediately hooked up my television. And my VHS player. My sister bought me Judge Dredd on video, and it became the first in a long line of action movies that I enjoyed not because of the storyline or visual effects, but because of the immersive audio.

Now we have a high-definition television receiver and PlayStation 3, both connected to a high-definition projector (Sony) and digital surround sound audio decoder (an old Creative Extigy external sound card, actually) by digital coax or optical fibre, and a 5.1 surround sound speaker set (Altec Lansing).

Blu-ray movies live up to their potential (helped, admittedly, by the 108" widescreen projector image) and, during PS3 games, we can tell where enemies are by the direction of their fire. Like I said, surround sound adds a new element to the multimedia experience, whatever media format you're consuming.

A lack of direction

Weirdly, though, it's not just about which speaker the sound comes out of - with surround sound, producing an effect at different volumes from different speakers can place it between any two, three or more. SFX can be produced anywhere in the room, if your speakers are positioned correctly (and ours pretty much are).

This helps to live up to another of my great audio loves - directionless music. The sort you hear drifting through your open window on a hot summer's night. Or echoing through the backstreets from some distant house party.

Just putting music on in a different room gives it a distinctive sound - the feeling that the audio is existing in a different space from myself. To sit in my bedroom and hear music making its way down the hallway, or through the walls, from the lounge.

Am I alone in this love affair? Or does anyone else out there feel as strongly about audio as most people seem to do about visual effects in blockbuster movies? Or about excellent use of surround sound in a song or on an album? Tell me I'm not the only one who feels this way...

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