Soundscaping the Paramount
For four and a half years, I worked in a noisy environment. My employer was Famous Players and my building was one of the most successful in North America: the Paramount in Montreal.
While there are many interesting things to learn about the Paramount with regards to box office sales, image projection and architecture, I found myself interested in what I subjected my ears to on a weekly basis.
The simplest observations show that the Paramount is loud. Everyone who works there can most easily associate sounds with the building before objects, images or smells to name a few. There are the movie trailers that play on a loop for days on end. There is the endless drone of the video games at the arcade. There are the films. There is the IMAX theatre. There are all the sounds of the building; the old Simpson’s building houses a cacophony of sounds in its depths.
With all this in mind, I set out to discover how loud the Paramount is and what kinds of interesting sounds I could find. I also wanted to explore the realm of frequencies that I had previously unthought of while working there. All this would come together in a series of recorded soundwalks and a finished piece compiled from the sounds of the Paramount, entitled Loud Is Paramount.
I completed this project in November 2002 as a directed study for my undergraduate degree at Concordia University under the supervision of Dr. Andra McCartney. Certain facts or opinions may be dated but the recordings of that time (fall 2002) speak for themselves.
History & Background Info on the Paramount
On June 18, 1999, Famous Players opened the Paramount movie complex right in the heart of downtown Montreal. Located at 977 Ste Catherine Street West on the corner of Metcalfe Street, the Paramount was the first business that opened in what it is now the Carrefour Industriel shopping mall.
The Paramount was the first mega-complex of the sort in the greater Montreal market. People seeking the biggest movie experience money can buy have not stop coming by the masses since it opened. Despite prices jumping from $11 when the doors opened to the hefty $13.50 price tag it now boasts, the Paramount remains, well, Paramount.
This theatre has been on the North American top ten for box office grosses for numerous films since it opened and it is, consequently, one of the most popular and successful theatres in North America.
To give you a better idea of what makes up a mega-complex like the Paramount, here are some statistics:
- 12 conventional screens
- 1 IMAX screen with 3D capabilities
- total seats: 3,900
- 3 concession stands for popcorn and drinks, one each on the 3 rd, 4 th, and 5 th floors.
- 5 specialty restaurants all located on the 3 rd floor: Wetzel’s Pretzels, Surf City, New York Fries, Mikes’ Pizza, and La Cremiere.
- TechTown arcade on the 3 rd floor.
- Bar and Café on the 5 th floor
In the last three and a half years, Famous Players has opened Le Colisee in Kirkland, Colossus in Laval and Star Cite right near the Olympic Stadium but none of these theatres have reached the popularity of the Paramount. They are all big and loud, full of bells and whistles of all kinds but Paramount remains bigger and, arguably, louder. I will delve further into this a little later.
Even when competition came knocking at the Paramount’s door in the form of the AMC Theatre at the old Forum, the Paramount knocked them out cold, grabbing all the big releases such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Spiderman, and Star Wars, to name a few. One of the main reasons that the Paramount was able to capture some of these releases was due to the fact that Famous Players has paid Mr.George Lucas to have the certification of THX in all their mega-complexes. Paramount has got what it takes, sonically, to beat out the AMC down the street.
The Paramount not only has the sounds in the theatres to make it an interesting place; it has lobbies, corridors and projection booths that tickle any sound enthusiast’s fancy. The mélange of frequencies in the mid to low range are very prominent and this makes the building a happening place to hang out with a microphone.
A Brief Overview of Sound in the Conventional Theatres
All the films that play at the Paramount are (at least) mastered in 5.1 surround. This is the same set-up on which home theatre systems are based. In this set-up, the speakers have five channels and a subwoofer.
All the theatres at the Paramount are equipped with numerous sound playback formats which I will briefly explain. All of the formats are digital playback but they are made so that if the digital playback goes down, there is an analog backup ready to jump in and take over.
The most widely used is Dolby Digital or SRD (Spectral Recording/Digital). For this format, the sound is encoded directly on the print so a special sound reader must be placed on the projector.
Paramount’s speaker set-up is also capable of handling the newest technology from Dolby that is Dolby Digital Surround EX which is a 6.1 format. The difference from 5.1 is the extra channel that allows not only for right and left surround but also for back surround. While this is a step up, most films are not mastered in 6.1 and it is difficult to hear the difference unless you are really paying attention and sitting in the right spot in the theatre.
Getting back to the playback formats, another one is Digital Theatre Systems or DTS. Once again, a special reader must be installed on the projector but it does not read sound, it reads time code that refers back to a CD, containing the sound for the film.
Sony Dynamic Digital Sound or SDDS contains a digital soundtrack directly on the print of the film and there is also a back-up analog and digital soundtrack that is separate.
The speakers in the theatres are of the EV brand and they are all powered by QSC amplifiers. Basically, there are nine, two-channel amplifiers: one each for left, right, center and subwoofer and three for surround. The left, right and center amplifiers are 650 watts per channel, the surround are 500 watts per channel and the subwoofer has 1200 watts per channel. That adds up to 9,300 watts of sonic boom.
What all this means for the Paramount is that there is a lot of power in the building and sound waves are forever washing up against the walls. This brings me to the fact that Paramount is also THX certified. THX does not have to do with the playback format but with the circumstances under which the sound is played. Any format of sound played in a THX certified theatre should sound better than other theatres. To have THX certification, there is an annual inspection of the theatre where different factors are checked:
- background noise
- isolation, reverberation
- viewing angle
For a complete run-down of what inspectors look for, you can check the THX website: http://www.thx.com/theatres/sound_criteria.html.
Moving on to IMAX
The IMAX theatre runs on a completely different system compared to the conventional screens. Unfortunately for this project, there is a lot of information that is kept confidential regarding the IMAX equipment. The IMAX Corporation simply rents out the equipment to theatres and it is all custom-made to fit its unique needs.
The screen at the Paramount IMAX is 70 feet high and 80 feet wide and the theatre seats 340 people. To have successful sound playback in such an immense space, the sound set-up must be different from the traditional theatres. For one thing, it does not use Dolby playback.
The top center speaker is the main difference. It comes in useful as the screen is so large that certain sounds can be localizes to the top of the screen, for example, if a plane flies across the screen.
As to the specifications of the speakers and the amplifiers, well, that is confidential. In the laser show that plays before all IMAX films to introduce audiences to the technology, the voice-over boasts that the sound system has over 10,000 watts of power but as to the specifics, the Famous Players web site makes it clear that it is an IMAX secret:
"Digital Sound System: IMAX theatres feature a patented digital audio technology with advance circuits designed specifically to enhance sound clarity and depth of sound reproduction. IMAX sound also uses proprietary signal processing, amplification and loudspeaker design." (http://www.famousplayers.ca/fp_imax.asp)
The sub-bass is the main rouser of energy and vibrations in the building. It is comprised of 8 units of subwoofers, facing each other, which packs quite the punch for the audience. In fact, it packs a punch for anyone working at the theatre as well. At any given time, employees have been able to pick out specific parts in films because they could feel the vibrations from the sub-bass throughout the building.
Recently, I asked a manager at the theatre if she had had the chance to see any of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones that is now playing on the IMAX screen. Her response to me was, “I haven’t seen any of it but I’ve felt it.” Everyone who works there has felt it.
Considering that I was an assistant manager, it was not difficult to get access to the people and places that would make this a successful research project. I was able to talk to numerous people who work at the theatre in different capacities and get their opinions as well as their expert advice.
Much of my research was done in the soundwalks that I took around the building using the binaural microphones available to me from Concordia University. While I did a lot of isolated recordings of specific sounds and research on different days, there were 4 main soundwalks that I did for this project:
Saturday, October 12, 2002: soundwalk recording through the building
Saturday, November 16, 2002: soundwalk measuring decibel levels
Tuesday, November 19, 2002: soundwalk measuring decibel levels
Saturday, November 23, 2002: soundwalk recording through the building
Besides the soundwalks, I had two other major recording sessions in the building:
Sunday, November 10, 2002: recreated movie experience
Monday, November 11, 2002: recreated movie experience
The latter of the two recording sessions were very useful for my final piece and simply an interesting experiment. After having listened to a lot of soundscape pieces, I decided that, in my piece, I wanted to take the listener from places that he/she knows to the place that are unexplored by the general population. I also wanted to recreate an experience that would be physically impossible. What I wanted to do was take the listener from the lobby, into the movie theatre then through the window into the projection booth and into the unexplored places.
To do this, I needed to overcome a few different obstacles. First and foremost, I could not just record any film playing the theatre as I do not own the rights to the sounds I’d be recording. Last year, in my second year sound production course, I was lucky enough to have recorded, mixed and designed the sound for a 21-minute video production. Of course, this is something that I do have the rights to use as I wish. I decided to play this film, Shift, (dir. Andrew Lima & Nikola Markovic, Dawson College, 2002) in the theatre while I was recording.
On November 10 th, with the help of manager Antoine Zeind, I hooked up the Paramount’s video projector so that it could project the image and play the sound of the film on the big screen in one of the conventional 35mm theatres. This worked out nicely, however, since the film obviously wasn’t mastered in 5.1, I was only able to have the sounds playing in the right, left and center speakers and the subwoofer.
For the first part of the experiment, I was sitting in the theatre with the binaural microphones attached to my head, as usual. I then moved into the projection booth where I did a number of recordings, passing the microphones through the narrow window from the booth to the theatre. To do this, I attached the microphones to a plastic ruler (placed about the same distance apart as my head) which I taped to an unused pool cue. To create the final effect, I turned on the 35mm projector to record its sounds as I passed the pool cue from the booth into the theatre and back.
On November 11 th, I went into the IMAX theatre and did the same experiment. This time, it was IMAX projectionist Michel Poitras who helped me out. He hooked the DVD player up to the sound system in the theatre. We sacrificed the image as it didn’t make any difference to my recordings.
I used the same device to pass the binaural microphones from the booth to the theatre and back. This time it was much easier as the window in the IMAX room opened much more. Once again, I turned on the projector in the booth to recreate the feeling that it was a movie actually playing. (There is a 35mm projector in the IMAX room as Paramount occasionally runs 35mm films on the IMAX screen. I wanted to stay consistent so this was great. Also, running the IMAX projector wasn’t an option as the technology is much more fragile and expensive.)
What I discovered in the IMAX room was that the sub-bass is as incredibly powerful as I though. Shift was created using many very low frequencies and I was almost brought to tears hearing my sound design projected the way I’d always dreamed it would be. The bass frequencies were at times painful; beautifully painful, I said to someone that day.
Soundwalk Photo Gallery
In doing my soundwalks, I was able to discover some very interesting things about the building. In going into greater detail about my recordings and listening to them, you can get a good grasp on the sorts of things I was able to discover. I will lead you through some of the most interesting places and observations.
This is the box office area that is right inside the main entrance. The most interesting thing about it is that there is a large amount of echo and the floor provides a few different types of sound platforms as there are sections in concrete tile, some in plastic-fibreglass and other in metal. In my recordings, it is interesting to hear the footsteps on these different surfaces.
Another public area is the lobby. This picture was taken on the escalator going down from the 5th to the 4th floor. This area is a sonic mess as everything in the building from the 3 main floors can be heard right here. There are the screens blaring movie trailers from different screens, the music or television from the bar on the 5th floor and the games from the arcade from the 3rd floor that converge into a huge mess right here.
An interesting recording I did was in one of the theatres. A fellow assistant manager ran the B-Chain noise sequence for me. Basically, pink noise is played through the speakers to make sure that the signal is getting from the amplifiers to the speakers. With the binaural microphones, this made for quite an interesting recording that I used in my final piece.
This is the 6th floor. Beyond those doors are three offices and the projection booths. This is the hallway that I was walking in with Fred (an IMAX projectionist at the theatre) as he was telling me some stories about projection mishaps. This is the place closest to the roof and therefore, closest to the ventilation systems and generators for the building. This causes a lot of noise outside before you even walk into the noisier projection booths.
The next two pictures are of the lobby on the IMAX floor (4th floor) and the elevator on 4R (4½ floor) where the IMAX projection booth is located. A lot of my recordings were done here as this is where much of the rumbling that you can hear in my recordings take place. As you can see, there is a lot of metal that can be shaken around and the elevator is a cause of its own noises and vibrations. Just beyond the door to the right of the elevator is the entrance to the emergency exit that runs the height of the building. Below is a picture of the vibrating staircases of the exits. Besides the steel stairs, there are hard brick, stone and gyprock surfaces on which the sounds can bounce around and rebound.
Why is the Paramount Louder than the Rest?
There are a few factors at play here. Earlier, I mentioned that the Paramount is arguable louder than the other large complex theatres in Montreal. While I have not studied other buildings, I can report on what I discovered at the Paramount.
The first factor at play is the fact that the Paramount is located right in the heart of downtown Montreal. While the outside sounds don’t penetrate the theatres, they do make their way into the fire escapes and quieter areas of the building. There is obviously quite the racket created by traffic, sirens and the occasional riot that tends to happen downtown.
The downtown factor also puts the Paramount’s neighbours very close by which is another source of noise. The Paramount is in the old Simpson’s department store building which it shares with a number of restaurants and other businesses. One main connection between everyone in the building is the fright elevator at the back of the building. It is huge source of noise and it brings everyone from eight different floors together on a daily basis.
The building is another factor. It is old. While there have been many renovations done, the Simpsons Building is an historic one and there are certain aspects to the building that cannot be changed by Canadian Heritage Law. One example is the wrought iron grills on the outside of the building.
Finally, Paramount, unlike the other large movie complexes, has an IMAX theatre. Besides the sound system in the theatre, it has its own humidifier, cooling system and electrical room that generate a lot of noise. I cannot begin to describe how much of an effect an IMAX set-up affects the sounds of the building.
How Loud Is It?
I have already mentioned that the Paramount is one of the busiest theatres in North America. On evenings when the attendance reaches 8,000 visitors, the building shakes… literally. This is actually something that I never did get the exact information on. There are spots in the building, mainly on the third floor that shake and react to heavy circulation as well as vibrations from the IMAX sub-bass.
In doing soundwalks, I was able to measure the decibel levels of various locations, including the emergency exits, the theatres and the main lobby. I took readings using a sound level meter and was very interested in comparing the difference in the levels between dB(A) and dB(C).
Quoting Barry Truax’s simple definition from his book Acoustic Communication: “… the sensitivity of the A-scale progressively falls off for frequencies below 500 Hz, whereas the C-scale gives approximately equal weight to lower frequencies as it does higher ones.”
The following is a table of some my findings. I took readings on different occasions and there are the average readings that I found.
IMAX projectionist’s booth.
Quiet main lobby on a Thursday night.
Noisy main lobby on a Saturday night.
Back elevator on 4th floor during Star Wars.
Same as above with a low frequency explosion happening on screen.
In the IMAX theatre during loud fight sequence of Star Wars.
between 82 and 89
between 88 and 107 with an average of 94. Certain scenes reached 111 to 116.
Unfortunately, a lot of the readings I took on one evening were with a sound level meter that was not functioning properly. It has since had its batteries changed but as for the readings I took that evening, they were all wrong. For that evening, my experiment was to sit in on the same scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and measure the levels once in dB(A) and once in dB(C). While the readings themselves were quite off, they were significantly different from each other, still showing the effects of the subwoofers in the theatres.
Loud is Paramount
A play on words: the slogan of the theater is "Fun is Paramount." I decided that Loud is also Paramount.
What I have tried to achieve with my final piece was a trip though the building. It isn’t supposed to be literal like a narrative but still allow for the listener to have a general idea of what is going on and where they are going. I think that my experiences with soundscape and my previous background of electroacoustic composition helped in the creation of this piece.
I wanted to combine different elements of the Paramount so I took the listener from outside into the box office, to the concession stand, into the theatre, into the projection booth and beyond. That beyond would include the places that most people don’t know about like the emergency exits, the hallways and back elevator. These are the places that I have found most interesting sonically and so I wanted to share them with everyone. I wanted the listener to be very aware that they were listening to a recording which is why I put myself in the piece as a sort of narrator; my homage to Kits Beach Soundwalk, I suppose. I also think that the voices of the Paramount were very necessary in the piece to put across the human element of the noises. After all, while much of the noise is generated by machines, there is an awful lot to say about the humans that populate the building too.
I think that my personality has really come out in the finished piece. It is at times humourous and the combination of environment sounds with spoken word is something that I love doing. It is fitting that I have let myself come into a piece that explores sounds that have become a part of my life.
Projector in A minor (2001) 4:38
An electroacoustic composition using sounds of projectors running and the automated CineCue that indicates the beginning and end of films, and unforeseen emergencies.
From the Street to the Box Office
Crowd in Theatre with Coming Attractions Reel
Cleaning in the Theatre and the B Chain Noise Sequence
Theatre to Lobby - Over the Walkie with Fred and Seb
Escalator from the 3rd to 4th Floor and into Projection Booth 3
From the 5th to the 6th Floor through the Emergency Exit
House Alarm on the 6th Floor
Escalator from the 5th to the 4th Floor
Talking to Lisa while she records in the 3rd Floor Lobby
IMAX Projector Startup - Gears Changing on Platter
What Part of Star Wars Do I Want in the IMAX Booth
IMAX Projector Running and Leaving the Booth
Outside the Booth Looking for Lows
Recording Shift in 35mm Theatre
Recording Shift in IMAX Theatre
Works Cited, Reading & Listening
Alten, Stanley R. Audio in Media, 6 th ed. Toronto: Wadsworth Group. 2002.
Levack Drever, John. “Sounding Soundscape Composition.” Diffusion. Sonic Arts Network. (Handout from Electroacoustics II course.)
Famous Players. Date of Access: November 25, 2002
McCartney, Andra. “Soundscape Composition and the Subversion of Electroacoustic Norms.” Date of Access: October 2002.
Norman, Katharine. London. NMC Recordings, 1996.
Poitras, Michel. Personal Interview. March 2002 and November 16, 2002.
Schafer, R. Murray, ed. European Sound Diary. Vancouver: A.R.C. Publications. 1977.
Schafer, R. Murray, ed. Five Village Soundscapes. Vancouver: A.R.C. Publications. 1977.
Truax, Barry. Acoustic Communication. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation. 1984.
Truax, Barry. Inside. Cambridge Street Records, 1996.
Truax, Barry. “Models and Strategies for Acoustic Design.” Date of Access: October 2002.
Westerkamp, Hildegard. Tranformations. Empreintes DIGITALes, 1996.
World Soundscape Project. Vancouver Soundscape 1973 & 1996 (double CD). Cambridge Street Records, 1997.
Various Artists. DISContact! II. Canadian Electroacoustic Community, 1997.
Various Artists. Presence III. *PeP*, 2002
Sebastien Fortier Paul