Are movies too loud?

“You know that ringing in your ears? that eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeehh… thats the sound of the ear cells dieing, thats their swan song. Once its gone you will never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts’.
Thats a line of dialogue from the film Children of Men delivered by Julianne Moore and its a film worth seeing & hearing (watch the trailer) for many reasons. But its a strange phenomena, hearing loss and what is most strange about it is peoples attitude to it. It is almost something people skite about a la ‘that gig was amazing – my ears rang for half a day afterwards’. But the odd thing is, imagine if the light show at the concert made you partially blind, permanently… not very cool at all!?!
For what its worth a Swan Song is “a reference to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is completely mute during its lifespan, but may sing one heartbreakingly beautiful song just before it dies.”

Relatedly I went & saw Curse of the Golden Flower the other day (watch the trailer) at The Embassy Theatre, arguably this cities best venue for watching & hearing a film. And what a great film, I really enjoyed it & the soundtrack had some fantastic moments in it. Overall it was quite dynamic, but wow there were a few LOUD bits in it… and I mean loud as in wince/cover your ears/pain… The loud moments were only moments, momentary peaks during fight scenes, but for the re-recording mixers who go over and over those scenes mixing them, the cost to their long term hearing must be permanent.

Whenever we mix action sequences or loud moments I always take ear plugs or use my headphones to protect myself, except for when we are doing a critical playback – I am not a mixer after all & it is more valuable for me to protect my sensitivity until the scene is 90% balanced & some objectivity is valued… But we are also working in an ideal environment – the mix stage is VERY accurately calibrated for level & frequency and it can sometimes be disappointing to hear a film I have worked on in a lesser theatre – I won’t start a Hall of Shame for local theatres quite yet, but I should.. and probably will!
So it is interesting to read this article, where a technician took a sound level meter to 5 different movies, to verify what we sort of sound levels we are all exposed to when we go to see a film. Have a read of the results here but in a nutshell: “For the five movies tested, the average sound varied between 70 and 78 decibels — about equal to the sounds of rush hour traffic. That’s an annoying amount of noise, perhaps, but not dangerous. So in terms of average levels, the movies wouldn’t be considered particularly loud if you were comparing it to, say, workplace noise exposure,” Howe said. But maximum levels were a different story. They peaked as high as 95 decibels in The Lord of the Rings and 93 in Harry Potter — equivalent to standing next to a working leaf blower.

Detailed results for the films they tested are available in PDF format:
Harry Potter
Lord of the Rings
Star Trek
The Wild Thornberry
Treasure Planet

Randy Thom has a good perspective on the issue:
Digital Doesn’t Make Movies Too Loud, People Do! But what people?

But here is the official word on such things from
The League of the Hard of Hearing

“How Loud is Too Loud?
Experts agree that continued exposure to noise above 85 dBA over time, will cause hearing loss. To know if a sound is loud enough to damage your ears, it is important to know both the loudness level (measured in decibels, dBA) and the length of exposure to the sound. In general, the louder the noise, the less time required before hearing loss will occur. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1998), the maximum exposure time at 85 dBA is 8 hours. At 110 dBA, the maximum exposure time is one minute and 29 seconds. If you must be exposed to noise, it is recommended that you limit the exposure time and/or wear hearing protection.

Measure Up and Turn it Down: Decibel Levels Around Us
The following are decibel levels of common noise sources around us. These are typical levels, however, actual noise levels may vary depending on the particular item. Remember noise levels above 85 dBA will harm hearing over time. Noise levels above 140dBA can cause damage to hearing after just one exposure

Points of Reference *measured in dBA or decibels

0 The softest sound a person can hear with normal hearing
10 normal breathing
20 whispering at 5 feet
30 soft whisper
50 rainfall
60 normal conversation
110 shouting in ear
120 thunder

50 refrigerator
50 – 60 electric toothbrush
50 – 75 washing machine
50 – 75 air conditioner
50 – 80 electric shaver
55 coffee percolator
55 – 70 dishwasher
60 sewing machine
60 – 85 vacuum cleaner
60 – 95 hair dryer
65 – 80 alarm clock
70 TV audio
70 – 80 coffee grinder
70 – 95 garbage disposal
75 – 85 flush toilet
80 pop-up toaster
80 doorbell
80 ringing telephone
80 whistling kettle
80 – 90 food mixer or processor
80 – 90 blender
80 – 95 garbage disposal
110 baby crying
110 squeaky toy held close to the ear
135 noisy squeeze toys

40 quiet office, library
50 large office
65 – 95 power lawn mower
80 manual machine, tools
85 handsaw
90 tractor
90 – 115 subway
95 electric drill
100 factory machinery
100 woodworking class
105 snow blower
110 power saw
110 leafblower
120 chain saw, hammer on nail
120 pneumatic drills, heavy machine
120 jet plane (at ramp)
120 ambulance siren
125 chain saw
130 jackhammer, power drill
130 air raid
130 percussion section at symphony
140 airplane taking off
150 jet engine taking off
150 artillery fire at 500 feet
180 rocket launching from pad

40 quiet residential area
70 freeway traffic
85 heavy traffic, noisy restaurant
90 truck, shouted conversation
95 – 110 motorcycle
100 snowmobile
100 school dance, boom box
110 disco
110 busy video arcade
110 symphony concert
110 car horn
110 -120 rock concert
112 personal cassette player on high
117 football game (stadium)
120 band concert
125 auto stereo (factory installed)
130 stock car races
143 bicycle horn
150 firecracker
156 capgun
157 balloon pop
162 fireworks (at 3 feet)
163 rifle
166 handgun
170 shotgun

So if you fire guns, operate heavy/loud machinery or launch rockets regularly buy some ear plugs…
or it WILL be one of those things you WILL regret in later life…
ie fast forward a decade or two: ‘What? WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?

3 thoughts on “Are movies too loud?

  1. Pingback: Designing Sound » More than 50 Articles/Tutorials about Sound Design, Recording and more, Plus Wooshes Sound Desing

  2. Ezequiel Fleagle

    Hi!.. thank you for the tips. I was trying to find the same exact info this afternoon and discovered your neat little website from Google. Really amazing to see how I was trying to find something and it just appeared in front of me.=P

  3. Burl Bryan

    It is important to take care to look after your hearing, I in reality like taking care hearing and whilst I do agree with the above-mentioned poster and I really hope I do not get shot down for stating this, but I believe it is essential to take all things in moderation.

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