Theatres for audiophiles: Meyer Sound aims to upgrade the Cinema Experience
“If only every theatre had a system like this, they would have the same remarkable experience I have on my stage.”
That’s five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola endorsing the cinema sound systems designed and manufactured by Meyer Sound Laboratories, the Berkeley, Calif-based audio innovator whose high-end equipment can be found in such top post-production facilities as London’s fabled De Lane Lea Studios, George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound, Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital, and Coppola’s own American Zoetrope.
Founded in 1979 by John and Helen Meyer, Meyer Sound is a leading worldwide supplier of audio systems for theatres, arenas, stadiums, theme parks, convention centers, houses of worship, and touring concert sound rental operations. Now, the company is looking to raise its profile in the cinema realm with its line of components branded “Cinema Experience.”
Meyer’s Cinema Experience made its debut in October 2009 at the Solaris Cultural and Leisure Centre in Tallinn, Estonia, an arts, retail and cinema complex featuring an 1,800-seat, Meyer-equipped concert hall; the seven-screen Cinamon cinemas, with auditoriums ranging from 80 to 525 seats; and the two-screen Cinema Artis art houses. All nine cinemas offer Cinema Experience sound.
In the U.S., Meyer’s Cinema Experience premiered this past March at the Breeze Cinema in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and the Ridge Cinema in Pace, Florida. And on July 16, Cinema Experience arrived just in time for the debut of Inception at the largest auditorium at the deluxe Cinetopia complex in Vancouver, Washington (which also features an upscale restaurant and wine bar and art gallery).
Attendees at this year’s ShoWest (including this writer) and Cinema Expo International got a chance to experience Meyer’s Cinema Experience first-hand in their persuasive demo room. Among the clips screened was the opening scene of Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, and the immersive power and clarity of the Meyer audio system showed why Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama also won Academy Awards for sound mixing and sound editing.
According to Steve Shurtz, Meyer Sound’s director of technology, the company’s new focus on movie theatres is directly related to the transition to digital cinema. “With the DCI [Digital Cinema Initiatives] spec coming out, it changes everything. D-cinema offers the capacity for the soundtrack to be PCM, 24-bit, either 48K or 96K. That’s a huge step over sprocketed film with Kodak’s like Dolby AC-3 running at 384 kilobits per second, or DTS roughly around 1,000, or even SDDS. It’s a magnitude leap in terms of format quality. This finally gives us the capacity to say: With that kind of soundtrack source, you might as well now fix the B-chain—speakers, acoustics, amps, the whole chain.
“One might argue, although I don’t think Ioan Allen at Dolby would agree, that before this time it didn’t make as much sense,” Shurtz continues. “That doesn’t matter either way. What does matter is that cinemas have fallen behind in terms of sound keeping up with picture. Our feeling was it’s time to catch up sound to the advancements that have been made in digital picture and 3D.”
Brian Long, senior cinema and live sound design manager, explains how Meyer Sound’s participation in a cable-TV project helped lead them to the cinema market. “Meyer Sound has been around for 30 years, and we’re very well-known in certain other markets and by a very large clientele. We were contacted and came on board with Discovery’s ‘MythBusters’ six or seven years ago to explore a number of topics for them. This resulted in the creation of a test experimental environment within our facility that grew into a screening environment which presented an experience that sent our other clientele out going, ‘Wow! If we could have this experience in a movie theatre, we would be more interested in getting our content in there.’ We’re seeing this, with things like Fathom events and other multimedia presentations in the cinema. The cinema isn’t just for cinema anymore, and it needs to have systems that are capable of being more than just cinema.”
“We’re close to artist management,” Shurtz adds, “and if they’re doing a simulcast of a live concert [in a cinema] or even a playback of a movie, the quality of the sound makes a big difference. And if they’re going to sign up for this stuff, they would love to see theatres move forward with certifying rooms to have lower distortion, better coverage, and power levels that can handle the full SMPTE spec, which unfortunately many cinemas fall short on.”
“It’s not making the cinema louder,” Long clarifies. “Cinemas don’t need to be louder—they need to be of higher quality so that when you have content that really demands everything from a cinema system, you don’t go into distortion, which can be painfully loud.”
Meyer Sound’s Cinema Experience line begins with its Acheron series of loudspeakers: the Acheron 100 with 100-degree horizontal coverage; the Acheron 80 with 80-degree coverage for narrower rooms; the Acheron LF designed to augment the 80 and 100 in larger venues; and the Acheron Studio for smaller houses and post-production facilities.
“We’ve put a lot of work into the development of the horn that we use in the Acheron series, so that the coverage pattern is remarkably good,” Shurtz declares. “It makes virtually every seat in the house well-covered. Exhibitors, unlike the mixers who all want to sit in the sweet spot, go to the worst seats in the house to listen. At Skywalker, we had the ability to A/B ours against a traditional system, and they were just blown away by the coverage pattern of this horn.”
Adds Long, “When speaker design originated with Western Electric and Bell Labs, they went into vaudeville houses. They looked at the seating configuration and determined a coverage pattern for that horn. Nobody’s really changed that. When cinemas started to change shape with stadium seating and became wider, one of the basic [requirements] was coverage, high-frequency coverage to have vocal intelligibility everywhere.”
Shutz also touts the “significantly lower distortion” of Meyer’s compression driver.
“We’ve phase-corrected it as well as EQ-corrected it, so that the imaging is very tight between the various channels. We’ve taken a lot of techniques that have been learned over the years in high-level sound reinforcement and done a ground-up rework of a cinema system.”
Meyer Sound also takes pride in the quality of its subwoofers. “Most theatres are way underpowered in terms of subs,” Shurtz contends. “With our X800 subwoofer, we want to be able to run it at full SMPTE level when required.”
Notes Long, “The level of tools in post-production for digitally shaping and creating tones and sounds has radically changed and gotten drastically more advanced. You’ve got people that can put out transients that will lay waste to subwoofers and demand that they perform all the way. I’ve seen some intense stuff from those sound designers.”
With Meyer Sound’s emphasis on high-level performance, exhibitors will no doubt be wondering about the price. Answers Long, “If you buy the proper loudspeaker from another manufacturer, if you buy a high-quality amplifier and install it so that it operates in the most efficient way with that speaker, if you buy the appropriate high-quality digital outboard processing gear to make the crossovers and equalization work well, we are on par with other manufacturers. Where we differ is the cost of our surrounds. We’ve developed what is really forward-looking to the demands of not just 7.1, but what happens beyond 7.1. When digital cinema showed up, you saw other manufacturers issuing sudden revisions of surround speaker product. With the advent of digital-cinema tracks which suddenly had more dynamic range and power, stuff was blowing up. People like Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan [the composer and director of Inception] really want to use the surrounds, so the surrounds need to be as robust as the screen channels.”
To ensure the optimum use of their components, Meyer Sound offers the patented MAPP Online Cinema, an application which predicts the coverage pattern, frequency response and other factors and allows the exhibitor to run various “what if” scenarios in designing the system. Their SIM 3 audio analyzer, meanwhile, enables customers to swiftly test entire acoustical/electronic systems or individual components.
So who are Meyer Sound’s typical customers? Says Long, “We’re hearing from the people who need to differentiate themselves. It might be a high-end cinema like Cinetopia, or an average Joe cinema in middle America who has to compete with larger chains and find a way to differentiate why people should come to his little eight-plex. That’s what audio offers. Hi-def picture, 4K and 3D are trickling into the home, but most people don’t have the space or money to do audio on a grand scale.”
The company expects to equip ten new cinema locations by the end of 2010, and another 50 by the end of 2011 for a major circuit in Europe.
For Brian Long and Steve Shurtz, the Meyer Cinema Experience is all about replicating the audio environment the creative community savors while meticulously crafting feature entertainment. “The last time you as the creative entity hear the movie the way it’s supposed to be is the final playback,” Long contends. “And you know as soon as it leaves the dub stage, that’s it. It’s going out to the movie theatres and it’s going to be turned down and played on a system that isn’t near to what you have on the dub stage or the content-creation stage.
“The way the high-end studios build their systems, they get together specialty parts and mix and match, like people do when building a race car. But when you get out into the commercial industry, they’re interested in an easy, out-of-the-box solution. That was part of our goal—to design an out-of-the-box solution that delivers on par with the custom race cars these guys have in these dub stages.”
Shurtz feels the people who make movies and the people who show them should be aiming for the same level of aural excellence. “We decided it was important to leverage post-production in parallel. And we think we are making a major difference in post-production. With a developmental partner like Skywalker, plus we’ve done a screening room for a major animation company in Burbank, we’re getting lots of feedback from the actual filmmakers and sound designers and mixers. We think it starts there. We want to make tools for the post community, and have those things cross over into exhibition. That’s been our philosophy, and I think it’s been a successful way to do it. Not every exhibitor cares what the sound designers think, but a lot of them do, because that’s where the product is created. And we think they go hand-in-hand.”