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January 31, 2006

Surroundsound Blues

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I have been working our way through the Joss Whedon sci-fi/Western "Firefly" (buyable, Netflixable). The show, which aired on Fox for only one season in 2002, has a passionate cult of admirers. It has collected over 2000 five-star reviews on Amazon, and it inspired Whedon (and a movie studio, of course) to make "Serenity," a movie version of the same material.

The Wife and I are 2/3 of the way through the series now. Not our cup of tea, but we're watching in order to observe and learn, not to judge. We're ever-curious about the state of long-form storytelling, and we enjoy trying to figure out what people get out of the TV-fiction that they love.

There's much about the series to be admired. Whedon's ability to pace and vary a season's worth of shows is certainly impressive. He has a likable talent for creating a party-food cosmos consisting of of crunchy pop-cult refs and chewable pop-cult characters -- in this case, Harrison Ford meets "Starship Troopers" meets Tantric sex meets the new butt-kicking gals, etc. Whedon is Mr. Flair when it comes to cross-breeding genres. And he seems eager to feed Americans' insatiable appetite for workplaces presented as extended families. Does anyone have a theory about why Americans are so fond of the fantasy that the workplace should function as a kind of idealized family? My own theory: we expect too much of work, and we spend too much time at the office. But I could be wrong.

firefly.jpg We are family. No: make that co-workers ...

Like I say: nothing that speaks to us, but intriguing nonetheless. Watching the show, though, the main thing that's hitting me is this reflection: Wow, are my sonic-environment tastes different than those of many Americans. "Firefly"'s soundtrack is the TV equivalent of what's so often marketed to us at the multiplex these days: an ever-throbbing electronic gumbo of growls, roars, rumbles, and shazaams, all providing a heightened audio backdrop to the "you're inside the instruments" score, and to the muffled and underplayed (and so, I guess, "real"-seeming) dialogue.

And all those karate-chop sounds ... Watching kung-fu movies back in the '70s, would you have guessed that, as cool and funny as they were, the Bruce Lee sound effects -- the swishes, ka-thunks, and yee-hahs -- would still be such presences in popular culture come 2005?

The only sins in these kinds of pop-Wagnerian soundtracks would seem to be simplicity, clarity, and silence. It's a kind of pinging/rumbling jumble that I suppose a lot of people like, or at least have come to expect. Perhaps this kind of sonic texture feels familiar to them. Perhaps it's comforting. Maybe it gives them a lift too. Maybe it signals "entertainment!"

As we watch "Firefly," all these pinging-growling sounds are coming at The Wife and me impressively reproduced by our surroundsound home-theater system. I blogged here about how I'd had to equip our new TV with a sound system I hadn't wanted to spring for.

Despite the technological zowie-factor, this kind of soundtrack nearly always puts me in a stupor. I find it as offputting and overwhelming as the cacophony of a video-game parlor. As I watch "Firefly," struggling my way through the series' audio murk, I find myself wondering: This taste some people have for being swamped in electronic effects ... The eagerness some people have to be at the center of the action ... The fantasy of entering the screen and really living the fiction ... It's all of a piece, no?

Sadly, I don't partake in it. Long ago I wrote about how I marvel at people who want to lose themselves in a fiction, or -- better-put -- to be a literal part of it. Not me. At the movies, for instance, I don't sit in the front row; I prefer to sit about 2/3 of the way back. I like sensing the frame around the screen; that demarcation between real life and the imaginative action on the screen is something I experience as a kind of flirtatious half-barrier/half invitation. It doesn't hold my imagination back; it sparks my imagination off. A game is being played -- whee! I'm being lured-in and then pushed back, teased and tantalized. When I finally do make the leap, I don't do it because I've been forced to. I do it under my own steam, and feeling the full thrill of my own foolhardiness.

As the news has piled up over the years about the wonders of virtual reality, have you scratched your head as much as I have mine? After all, who would even want such a thing as virtual reality? Isn't reality marvelous enough in its own right? And, so far as cultural creations go, aren't movies, opera, and installation art big and overwhelming enough? To what kind of blockhead do they seem inadequate?

Years ago I had the chance to spend a few minutes strapped into what was then a high-end virtual-reality machine. Although I was impressed by the computing power and the effects, I hated the experience. I didn't skip out of the machine thinking, "Cool! I want me some more of that!" I staggered out of it feeling nauseated and upset, as though I was getting over a drug trip that hadn't worked out too well.

It's that word "immersive," isn't it? Some people seem to love the sound of it. As far as I'm concerned, it needs to be defended-against. So I make a distinction between culture-works that I find imaginatively immersive and works that are, in a literal sense, "immersive" -- that are trying to drown and/or surround you in stimuli. I might, for instance, find a painting that's a mere foot square more imaginatively immersive -- more emotionally/imaginatively transporting -- than a theme-park-style ultra-mega-Dolby artwork, just as I might well find a Baroque performance by an original-instruments string band more transporting than a shrieking/moaning multimedia assault.

I wonder if this is purely a temperamental thing. My own taste was already in place back in my early teens, when I first started to be interested in movies. At first, movies seemed to me to be much too literal. After an upbringing spent reading books and listening to music, the movies seemed disappointing. They seemed to spell everything out. They supplied the heroine's appearance, the car she drove, the house next door ...Where was the fun in any of that? Where was the room for my own imagination to participate? It wasn't until I began to run across movies that were oblique and elliptical -- movies that left some things out, and that operated as much via suggestion as they did via spelling-everything-out -- that the medium got its hooks into me.

When art-things are made overwhelming -- and especially when the technology and the production-effects start to weigh too heavily -- the spark goes out of me. I start wondering where the all-essential poetry has gone. My spirit feels crushed. And when the come-on is aggressive and the goodies are put on instant and complete display, I start to feel bullied. I dig in my heels and resist. Even if I'm swept away, I resent it. I suppose this is why I find so much of today's overlit porn so unerotic, now that I think of it.

I'm reminding myself of something Alfred Hitchcock once said. According to him, the reason he enjoyed playing with the image of the icy blonde in his movies was that it could lead somewhere. Who knows what she'll be like when she lets her hair down? As an artist, he found the dark-and-sultry, heavily-sensual women puzzling. What on earth could he add to what they were already delivering? I guess I'm a Hitchcockian in that sense. Even as a movie fan, I don't glory in sweep and spectacle. (Many movie fans do, by the way.) Instead, I tend to be happiest when a movie is walking the line between being sensually potent yet also somewhat elliptical and reserved.

Something that watching "Firefly" has got me doing is eyeballing my home-theater sound-system critically. Despite the research I did and the money I laid out, I've been dissatisfied with our sound system since I bought it. But why? I had no idea.

Curious to see whether an expert might be able to diagnose the cause of my unhappiness, I stopped by an audio-video store and talked to one of the salesman there. "I have an experiment for you," he said. He took me to watch/listen to a movie on one of the store's high-end surroundsound systems. Pings and rumbles and explosions came at me from all sides. The system was a wow, delivering the kind of all-enveloping intensity that a brand-new movie theater can. Still I squirmed and writhed inside. I gave the salesman a frown.

"Now try this," he said, flicking a switch. Before I could figure out what he had done, I felt suffused by peace and happiness. "That's great!" I blurted. "I don't feel like I'm inside the speaker system any longer. I feel like I'm watching a movie." Hope had returned!

The salesman smiled and told me what he'd done. He'd simply switched from showing me the movie on a 5:1 surroundsound system to showing it to me in conventional stereo. I'd gone from listening to the movie's sound coming at me from all around to listening to it coming at me from one plane in front of me. Simple as that? Simple as that.

As we gabbed afterwards, I learned that it isn't entirely uncommon for people -- especially oldsters -- to hate surroundsound. While youngsters raised on computer games seem to crave "immersive" sensations, oldies often prefer more comprehensible, better-managed experiences. He told me that the people who cover TV and sound equipment don't raise this question often enough: Do you really want surroundsound in the first place? These days, it's taken as a simple given that you do. But in his experience, there's a non-trivial number of people who detest surroundsound, and who like knowing which direction their entertainment experience is coming from. I'll be buying new speakers -- a pair of them, not an array -- from this guy sometime soon.

Does surroundsound or traditional stereo suit your imagination better?



posted by Michael at January 31, 2006


I liked Firefly a lot and didn't have the Surroundsound problem you had. Then again, I watched the series on a 13" TV that cost 150 bucks.

Posted by: Bryan on February 1, 2006 7:43 PM

I'm definitely a traditional stereo man. I find surround sound distracting; it disrupts my attention on the film itself. Actually, both surround-sound and too many visual pyrotechnics give me a sensation that I imagine to similar to the overload that autistics experience when their familiar comforting rituals are upset.

Question: I saw the movie "Serenity" which appeared to be a science fiction take-off on the story of Jesse James. The ship's captain was the veteran of a recent war (on the losing side); he speaks in a manner that makes no sense in the film but clearly appears to be Mr. Whelan's version of 19th century Americana ("As for me, I aim to misbehave"); the action commenced with something that was reminiscent of the great Northfield Minnesota raid where the James gang got unpleasantly surprised; and the hero's gang continues a sort of guerilla war against a overpowering, commercially oriented imperial power while acting as a bandit. Is this Jesse James connection also present in the TV show?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2006 7:46 PM

I love Firefly and have more to say than I want to put in a comment but, briefly, the dialects used on Firefly make more sense if you don't take them literally. You might notice that Simon uses a more standard, educated sounding English. All characters on the show who are from the Central Planets speak this way. The people from the frontier tend to be less educated and speak in that quaint old-fashioned dialect.

The show is set 500 years in the future. There's no way to predict how people will talk then. Whedon's method of handling the problem is unique and brilliant. Using Chinese profanity is pretty clever too. Made up cuss-words almost always sound ridiculous.

Posted by: Lynn S on February 1, 2006 10:52 PM

"My own theory: we expect too much of work, and we spend too much time at the office. But I could be wrong."

You say many true and good things here, sir, but this is one of the most dead-on you've ever typed.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 2, 2006 12:44 AM

Well, I hadn't read beyond that quote and had to pipe in right away, but let me weigh in on the surround sound problem: I agree.

Until about a year ago, I had a DVD player that pumped out 5.1 in all its true glory (gory?), and visitors would go "wow" at how good it sounded. Over time, I turned it on less and less. Then that player died, and my new one only plays out the decades-old Dolby surround (3 channel). We much prefer it, and my receiver even allows me to turn up the front speaker and dial down the rest, which we've done.

I like hearing the surround, but only slightly. You're right. All the growling, groaning, and transient noise is just a pain.

The ONLY exception is great concert movies, like "Stop Making Sense" where the surround produces the actual concert sound. Then, it's worth it.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 2, 2006 12:51 AM

I'm still a youngster, but I prefer mono to stereo, analog to digital... the works. I just bought a bunch of LPs at a junk sale this afternoon, actually. Ask me about my 78s!

It's a kind of pinging/rumbling jumble that I suppose a lot of people like, or at least have come to expect. Perhaps this kind of sonic texture feels familiar to them. Perhaps it's comforting. Maybe it gives them a lift too. Maybe it signals "entertainment!"

As a fan of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose soundtracks regularly featured ten-minute stretches of dripping water or Japanese flutes, I used to wonder about this. Why all the racket? But I found a reason to appreciate it. I was in a theater watching The New World*, an exceptionally quiet flick. During one of the film's many lull-within-a-lull moments, it hit me that the audience was making more noise than the picture. All around me was raspy breathing, throat clearing, candy-wrapper rustling, popcorn chewing - and who the hell eats popcorn at a Terrence Malick film anyway? - all kinds of ghastly noises. I was beginning to feel like the guy at the end of The Tell-Tale Heart. I started thinking "C'mon, Malick, let's make with the noise - get the score started again - something - anything!" A nice pillowy wall of sound can be better than total exposure.

I suspect (hope?) that one day Surround Sound will wind up like those old stereo demonstration records with the charging horses and whatnot, or 3-D glasses, or Cinerama, or...

* - So nice I sat through it twice!

Posted by: Brian on February 2, 2006 1:21 AM


As an audiophile and videophile, this is an issue close to my heart. I have a surround setup for both DVDs and Super Audio CDs (SACDs). (No subwoofer, though -- I don't need to hear low notes through my stomach.)

Surround sound is a tool, and like any tool can be used well or poorly. (By the producer, I mean, not by the listener.)

The main advantage of a surround system is the center channel. The center channel is dedicated primarily to dialogue, so you can hear what characters are saying in a way that stands out from any other sounds in their vicinity. This technique is used in movie theaters, and for good reason.

(I continue to be amazed at how poor the recording of dialogue is in many films, but that's a subject for another time.)

For listening to music in a surround format, the center channel helps to create a realistic soundstage and identify the location of instruments, especially making a solo instrument stand out from accompanying instruments.

Getting back to films in surround: the front left and right channels shouldn't carry a great deal of sonic information at all -- just a little ambience or occasionally a voice from someone who's out of the frame -- otherwise they tend to defeat the purpose of a dedicated channel for dialogue.

The discrete left and right surround channels (the ones to the side or even slightly behind the viewer/listener) are probably the source of most controversy about surround formats such as Dolby Pro Logic, THX, etc.

They, too, are intended to be used to add ambience. If the scene is in a forest, they might include bird sounds; if it's raining, you hear the rain around you; if the scene is in a factory, you hear thumping and clanking of machines, and so on.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is partly a matter of individual taste. If, after experimentation, you feel that you prefer the traditional two-channel playback, then that's what you should use. (But you'll be hard pressed to find any modern film in a theater that isn't multi-channel.)

The other issue, though, as I alluded to earlier, is that producers and sound engineers can (from my viewpoint -- or hearpoint) misuse the surround channels to create spectacular but overblown effects. It's as if the surround sound becomes the focus of attention, distracting from the dialogue and the story, and over the course of two hours or more getting very wearying.

For me, surround adds an enjoyable extra dimension to a certain kind of movie -- one based primarily on action. It can also be an asset when the surround sound is used mostly to enhance scenes where there would, realistically, be loud noise and reverb, but is used sparingly in quieter scenes.

But when the sound effects are over the top for the nature of the film or particular scenes, or are so in-your-ear as to be distracting, that is Surround Abuse. Law enforcement authorities should publish a list of offenders in the neighborhood.

Before you completely write off surround, though, consider that when stereo first began replacing mono in the late 1950s, many listeners disliked it. For some it may have just been the shock of the new, but sometimes record producers were to blame: they exaggerated the stereo separation so much that what came out of the speakers was sneeringly called by audiophiles of the time "ping-pong sound."

It can be hoped that as surround becomes less of a novelty for home consumption -- and movies are made more and more with home theater in mind -- and as today's younger movie fans get older and more discriminating, the excesses will become fewer and surround will offer its genuine benefits.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 2, 2006 9:24 AM

Correction to my earlier post: For discrete surround channels I should have said Dolby Digital, not Dolby Pro Logic.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 2, 2006 9:28 AM

One of the more helpful counselors I've had over the years said to me suddenly, "You're looking at me as though I'm speaking Chinese. Do you feel flooded out?" I knew what she was talking about: there was simply too much idea coming at me at once for me to process. I don't filter very much -- don't WANT to, since my goal is to absorb as much as possible. But brains can only sort so fast. Maybe you've seen a baby who is getting "too much" or totally surprising information: they freeze and stare. But humans have no little pinwheel in their foreheads to indicate "processing, please wait," so I had to learn to say that out loud.

I don't understand much about sound systems, but I read a lot about how brains process sensory information, which is mostly a matter of filtering and trying to fill in blanks by putting in previously known material. However, all my life I've occasionally had dreams (or media experiences) that were either so vivid or fit my assumptions so well, that they affect me as reality. If I reflect on them, it's pretty clear that they were impossible. (I dreamt as a child of a red Piper Cub airplane landing in front of our house. I was so insistent that my mother took me out in the yard to point out all the wires sagging over the street.)

A recent discovery is a set of small structures behind the forehead that allow empathy with other people -- maybe even animals. We just look and "know" and "feel with" the person. My brother fell and hit his head hard on the sidewalk. He lost both this empathy and his sense of reality. He will tell you long vivid tales about being a witness for the local law enforcement, what they do and say (and what a star he is, but how much danger he risks). If you say, "But that's a lie and I can prove it." His eyelids flutter and he looks confused. ("Flooding out.") Then he tells you another story, just as colorful and untrue, but with the same theme which is his template. He is missing whatever it is that says, "Ooops. That wasn't me -- that was a television plot last Saturday." When I was going door-to-door as an animal control officer, I'd run into people with this confusion all the time. When I was a minister, an old woman came to my office for counselling and told a long sad story about her impossible family. Her daughter called me later to say none of it was true -- her mother was telling the plot of a popular soap opera, quite believing that it was true. I checked it out and the daughter was right.

Sort of makes you wonder about politicians who INSIST that the world is some particular way that none of the rest of us see.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2006 1:44 PM

"We're ever-curious about the state of long-form storytelling..."

I've been a big fan of the great Indian epic the "Mahabharata" for a while now. The entire epic (in any of it's forms) has yet to be translated into English, but there is enough out there to get a pretty good taste. Years ago as an undergrad, delving into this material was an incredibly educational experience for me. In addition to getting to glimpse a bit of Indian culture as it was 2000 or so years ago, I came to see that this human predilection for creating complex and immersive narratives goes way back.

Today of course we have access to myriads of such narratives. Soaps and other TV serials abound. But there are some notable differences between the culture that surrounds these present day narratives and the culture that surrounded the Mahabharata that may relate to your question concerning why people continue to seek out ever more immersive experiences, eventually leading to "virtual reality".

First, narratives like the Mahabharata were not just good yarn's to help pass the time (though to be sure this was one of their primary functions). Throughout India, various subplots of the story were performed in highly ritualistic ways. This performative aspect of storytelling culture exists everywhere on the planet throughout history. There is something basic to it. I have seen videos of Draupadi (a central character in the narrative) festivals in Southern India where people become possessed in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from the way the many in the Black Christian Church are overcome by the Holy Spirit. I have seen the same in Cuba where people are possessed by the Orichas.

Now, I have my "stories". I was a huge fan of "Buffy" and I like "Lost" quite a bit too. But there has never been a time when I got together with friends to re-enact my favorite scenes. But there are people who do this very thing. I think of the "Trekies" who dress up as Klingons and even learn to speak "Klingonese".

I have come to see this narrative/performance dichotomy as one parallel to the mind/body dichotomy. Humans use stories to create meaning and to organize conceptual frameworks from which they can relate to their environment. Yet, stories, like diamonds, look different when looked at from different angles. We need to do this with narratives because life experience is dynamic and the same old stories won't always do.

Performance and ritual are consciousness-raising endeavors that allow us to look at the story-crystal in new ways. By releasing our reliance on the mind/story and surrendering to the body/ritual, we have an experience that re-orients our relationship to the original story.

The problem is that this re-orientation does not always bring about a better more fulfilled experience of life. I believe there is such a thing as "bad" ritual. And this is where I tend to agree with you about the phenomenon of virtual reality. It's a drug. (But then again so is everything.) These musings are still a work in progress. But I think we have to find a balance between failing to ritualize our narratives and ritualizing them in a way that doesn't necessarily lead to a better life. What do you think?

Posted by: chris on February 2, 2006 3:26 PM

I hadn’t watched Firefly when it aired -- or any Whedon show -- but I did get it on DVD about a year ago -- and I loved it.

First, it’s interesting that you lump Whedon in the work=family camp. He is self-admittedly always writing that friends are family, the family you chose -- while blood family never leads to anything good [his shows are especially rife with father issues].
But as for settings: Buffy had school=hell; Angel did have the small office of friends, but in the last season they became the big corporation, and the underlying theme was that work kills you.
And for Firefly, my take was it was friends who happened to work /try to survive together, not work=family.

I do agree that our culture expects too much from work… As if it should be a nurturing cocoon, not just a place to earn a living.

On the sound issue: Never had a problem with Firefly -- but man, do I have issues with just about everything else. There are so many shows -- especially HBO dramas -- in which the dialog is indiscernible. I even hit the seven-second rewind button on the Replay many times, to no avail. I often switch from the TV’s stereo speakers [with and without it’s own audio enhancement] and to the big-speaker-stereo with 5:1 and without…. Choosing from amongst the half-dozen or more options for the one that actually lets me discern the words…
This problem is exacerbated by Direct TV: no channel, no show has equal audio levels: I switch from a drama I can barely hear to The Daily Show which comes over [too] loud and clear

BTW: right now I am listening to the Firefly soundtrack. Lovely and eclectic music.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on February 2, 2006 4:04 PM

I think the extended-family-as-family has an easy answer, the limits of the 30 min TV show mean you really can't show both a family life and a workplace situation, so you combine the two. Most shows I can think of focus on one or the other.

But lots of shows do have the work-as-family motif, but the charge is odd with Whedon. Take Buffy for one. All her various "real" jobs have been in order: required, dull, full of demons, life-destorying, and tedious. (School, Waitress, Forced Labor, Fast Food, and Retail, the last one known for the "Day that would not end" which is a good way of describing retail). She doesn't even "really" enjoy her calling. Angel ran his own company and was happy until he had work in Corperate enviroment, which as Paul said, tried to kill him.

Firefly's crew would have to become family-like. They live together, sleep toegther, eat together, are married to each other, and have left thier family ties behind for a life of terribly exciting crime. Everyone pulling together for the common goal of staying alive? Sounds like a tradional family to me.

Lots of the new shows I've been watching move away from the business-as-family motif. "Wonderfalls" has as a girl with a work and family life, "Arrested Developement" explodes it into family-is-work.

Also, who wants to see a bunch of people acting in a professional manner for light entertainment?


Posted by: JL on February 2, 2006 11:45 PM

Oh, and as a youngie, I never saw the purpose of surroundsound. I thought the appeal of a movie was that it was *over there*.

Posted by: JL on February 3, 2006 1:19 AM

Friedrich: I also picked up on the Jesse James parallel.

It might be interesting sometime to make up a list of forgotten archetypes: the Lost Cause rebel who didn't never reconstruct would be pretty high on the list.

Posted by: Zach on February 4, 2006 8:09 PM

A quick note on the virtual reality induced nausea. That may not be tied in with the general criticism of modern sound. While technology has been getting better (the latest MS Flight Sim is incredible), until recently it was really expensive to build a V/R system that didn't have a noticable time lag between when you did something (moved a joystick, took a step) and when the screen updated. Often it was small enough that you didn't conciously notice, though, there was just a disconnect between what you thought you were doing and what you were seeing, which would cause nausea. Basically the same thing as car sickness.

Posted by: ptm on February 10, 2006 3:48 PM

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