Breaking the Sound Barrier

At the EDCF’s technical session at IBC 2019, Julian Pinn gave an update on a recently issued RFP from the Audio Engineering Society’s Technical Committee. It seeks a way forward on the subject of Audio for Cinemas, Cinema Loudness – Control and Conformance. Here, Julian explains the issue cinemas face and outlines the scope of the work.


t the EDCF session of IBC 2013 — and as subsequently published in CT December 2013 in my article ‘Loudness issues in cinema’ — I presented on how cinema loudness was starting to become an issue again after being largely under control by the late 1990s / early 2000s. I noted in the article that cinema content-creation and presentation require quite specific and interlinked standards and norms to be strictly followed in order that movie soundtracks are optimised for the specific challenges and features of the standardised cinema electro-acoustic setup.

Departure from this interlinked arrangement results in the audience experience departing from the director’s intent — including loss of dialogue intelligibility and other upsetting issues. It also results in cinemas and content-creators losing confidence in each other’s adoption of those standards and norms. This typically mean that cinemas tend to find the standard playback level too loud and reduce it, and content creators tend to expect cinemas to reduce the playback level and increase their mix.

Cinema of the film era offered a small choice of sound formats, the majority being proprietary with tight quality controls, and a small choice of optical sound negative cameras globally. The transition to digital has opened up the content supply chain significantly and the variety of types and sources of content that are exhibited by cinemas has grown, as has the departure from the important cinema standards and norms hitherto mentioned. The result is a trend towards lower dynamic range, lower quality, lower predictability, and a rise in complaints that the experience is too loud or too quiet. Cinema is no longer at its best.


The need for action

Since my article of 2013, many stakeholders of the global cinema industry have started to agree that there is a growing issue with cinema loudness. This is a complex issue and any false move risks making the situation worse. Moreover, the majority of the stakeholders have to be involved and to agree on the best solution — which in my view has to be simple, optional, and mutually beneficial to adopt.

In order to play a neutral co-ordination role, the committee that I chair (the Audio Engineering Society’s Technical Committee — AES TC-AC) has decided to issue a Request for Proposals to canvas the industry for support and engagement and to help the co-ordination of what the next steps might be. The RFP is attached to this article and all interested parties are welcome to respond to it as per the instructions outlined.

Considerations — is a level a “target”?

Cinema is the wide and varied set of many genres of content that each sit naturally in their sound space from quiet dialogue movies to powerful action movies. My strong opinion is that we should not set a maximum level for feature films because this will likely also become the target or minimum level. It will be hard to police and, moreover, it is not appropriate for all movies to be the same loudness level.

A solution should rather help cinemas identify how loud a particular DCP is so that cinemas can have confidence, based on the genre of the movie and its loudness index, to play it at reference fader 7 — or not. Communicating a standardised loudness index value of the movie, and perhaps in the DCP’s metadata, is also in the interest of the content-creator because it increases the chance that the cinema will adopt reference level for all but the loudest or unrated DCPs rather than blindly expecting reference fader 7 to mean ‘loud’. Nicely mixed-by-ear content that is not too loud at reference fader 7 unlocks the highest quality audience experience from all the existing high dynamic range sound systems that are already standard in the majority of the world’s cinemas.

Problem definition and goal

There exists a set of international standards and industry norms that enable post-production sound studios world-wide to produce motion-picture content in the same — or similar — electro-acoustic setup as the world’s cinemas, should they too aspire to meet those same standards. Controlled and often proprietary workflow channels and formats to produce motion-picture content have enabled a good level of adoption of these standards for content creation and for theatres. However, and in particular, because of a shift towards open-standards and therefore less proprietary control, the prevalence of content creators and cinemas to deviate from these standards is increasing. The result is an experience for the cinemagoers where the levels between elements of the show are not so consistent nor is the ability for cinema operators to be confident in adopting the standards for fear of receiving content that is mixed, arguably, too loud for such standards. The goal is to provide a more consistent, appropriate audio experience for all elements of the in-theatre show that respects the artistic intent and also the replay reference level standard and related standards; i.e. for cinema operators to be confident in selection of reference replay fader level.

The scope of the request…

AES TC-AC requests project-proposals, solution-proposals, or offers of collaboration/liaison from the wider industry that aim to address or that aim to further the progress to addressing the problem as defined above in order that TC-AC may consider the most suitable and viable next steps that are also in keeping with the wishes of the industry. Such next steps could be for AES TC-AC to co-ordinate research on the evaluation of new and existing metrics, methods of measurement including ease of integration with workflows, ease of adoption, communicatoin and the promotion of harmony with related industry deliverable specifications such as for streaming services.


Loud Actually

In October this year, the actor Hugh Grant added his weight to the argument that cinema screenings are frequently too loud for their audiences when he headed on to Twitter to complain to Vue Cinemas, after watching “Joker” at his local cinema, in Fulham, London.

“Am I old or is the cinema MUCH TOO LOUD? Unendurable. Pointless” complained the star of numerous theatrical releases, adding: “Fulham Broadway. Saturday night. Screen 7. Joker. But joke was on us.”

Grant’s complaint was picked up by numerous national news outlets, and lead to a host of responses online in support of his complaint, with one Twitter user replying bluntly: “Far too loud. I don’t go any more.”


Request for Proposals (RFP) September 2019


Established in 1948, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) draws its membership from engineers, scientists, other individuals with an interest or involvement in the professional audio industry. The membership largely comprises engineers developing devices or products for audio, and those working in audio content production. It also includes acousticians, audiologists, academics, and people in other disciplines related to audio. The AES is the only worldwide professional society devoted exclusively to audio technology. The Society develops, reviews and publishes engineering standards for the audio and related media industries, and produces the AES Conventions, which are held twice a year alternating between Europe and the US. The AES and individual regional or national sections also hold AES Conferences on different topics during the year. Technical Committee — Audio for Cinema (TC-AC) is co-chaired by Julian Pinn and Julius Newell with international membership of leading technology experts in cinema production, post-production, and re-production. TC-AC aims to work in harmony with other established motion-picture engineering societies, international standards organisations, and related trade bodies to further the art and science of cinema audio through the confluence of expert debate, research, liaison, education, and proposal-setting.

More information:


Frameworkd and RFP Guidance

  • Consider metrics.
  • Consider method to compare metrics together with human response surveys.
  • Consider maximum requirement versus informative communication.
  • Consider referencing existing work.
  • Consider electric (file-based etc) measurement versus acoustic measurement.
  • Consider workflow integration and faster-than-real-time measurement.
  • Consider immersive audio formats.
  • Consider existing B-Chain standards and recommendations that define the electroacoustic match between post-production and exhibition, such as:
    • SMPTE ST202, SMPTE RP200, SMPTE ST2095-1, SMPTE RP2096-1 and -2, etc; 
    • ISO 22234, ISO 2969, ISO 21727, etc;
    * The Leq(m)-based recommendations from TASA (US Trailers) and SAWA (Global Commercials), etc.
  • Consider existing post-production file formats, distribution and exhibition formats such as DCP.
  • Consider exhibition community needs.


Deadline for proposals


1st March 2020 emailed to Julian Pinn via (TC-AC Chair) for committee review, evaluation, response-formulation, and project-initiation.