Soundscaping the Paramount
A Research Project at the Famous Players Paramount Movie Theatre in Montreal, Canada
First published in Soundscape, The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2004
For four and a half years, my employer was Famous Players, and the theatre where I worked remains one the most successful in North America: the Famous Players Paramount in Montreal. While there are many interesting facts about the Paramount with regard to box office sales, image projection and architecture, I found myself interested in the sound of the building; loud and quiet, man-made and mechanically generated, out in public and behind the scenes. In Soundscaping the Paramount, I wanted to take inventory of all the sounds that graced my ears on a weekly basis.
In a world that is arguably still dominated by visuals, the sounds of the Paramount are unique identifiers for its employees and visitors. Almost everyone who works there can most easily associate sounds with the building before objects, images or smells, for instance. Among those sounds there are the movie trailers that play on a loop in the lobbies, the endless drone of the video games at the arcade and, of course, the theatre sound systems — including one powerful IMAX system. All of these sounds merge in the reverberance of the historic Simpson’s building, a structure containing a cacophony of sounds, and in which the Paramount is housed.
History & Background Information in the Paramount
On June 18, 1999, Famous Players opened the Paramount movie complex in the heart of downtown Montreal. It was the first movie mega-complex in the greater Montreal market and has ranked among the top ten highest box office grossing theatres in North America since it opened.
Occupying six floors, the Paramount’s auditoria are comprised of 12 conventional screens and one IMAX screen, with a total of 3,900 seats spread over three floors. In addition there are concession stands for snacks and drinks on the third, fourth and fifth floors, as well as five specialty restaurants — all located on the third floor — and two licensed bars.
The Paramount is big and loud, full of bells and whistles of all kinds. Not only the theatre sound systems make it a sonically interesting place: its lobbies, corridors and projection booths also will tickle any sound enthusiast’s fancy. The mélange of frequencies in the mid to low range are very prominent, making the building a happening place to hang out with a microphone.
Research Methods and Composition
In October and November 2002, I conducted numerous soundwalks around the building, which served as the basis of my research. On some of my walks, I recorded, using a pair of binaural microphones, and measured sound levels using an old Bruel & Kjaer model decibel meter, both made available to me through Concordia University.
Besides measuring and documenting my findings, I intended to create a sound composition using the recordings that I gathered. I kept in mind Barry Truax’s comment that although the soundscape composer can use minimal abstraction techniques or set out to manipulate the sounds, “the intent is always to reveal a deeper level of signification inherent within the sound, and to invoke the listener’s semantic associations without obliterating the sound’s recognizability” (Truax 2002).
My finished piece is indeed inspired by Truax’s composition Island, in which the listener starts off at the shore of an island, walks around it and ends up on a different shore. In his work the sounds have been processed and pieced together but the idea of the trip around the island remains obvious to the listener.
I was also influenced by Hildegard Westerkamp’s work, finding harmony between staying true to the sounds and processing them for the piece. The pieces on her CD Transformations exemplify this attitude and belief. In the disc’s liner notes she writes that there is a dignity to the sounds that must be respected, and this is something that I also kept in mind for my own composition.
I did, however, come into direct conflict with Murray Schafer’s idea of “lo-fi” and “hi-fi” sound, notably expounded in his book The Tuning of the World. For Schafer, lo-fi sound is the traditional definition of noise as being unwanted sound. Applied to soundscape composition, it can mean more than simply that; his definition would imply that anything in the soundscape that creates negative listening habits or non-listening behavior should be deemed lo-fi. On the other hand, his definition of hi-fi sound is that which promotes active listening and even sonic delight — which he describes as the “soniferous garden”. The intent here is to maximize pleasing, informative sounds and to minimize unwanted or uninformative (e.g., flatline or broadband) sounds.
Having recorded so many negative or unpleasant sounds at the Paramount, I found it difficult not to run them into the crux of my finished piece. I felt that I was planting lo-fi sounds all over my piece, but these traditionally “unwanted” sounds were the ones that I found sonically delightful. These sounds were often broadband and sometimes even distorted but they characterized the Paramount much better than the hi-fi sounds that I found.
As in Truax’s Island, my piece, Loud is Paramount, takes the listener on a journey. It goes from places that the listeners know to the places that are unexplored by the public. In doing so, I wanted to take a path that is physically impossible: take the listener from the lobby, into the movie theatre, through the window into the projection booth, and behind the scenes.
With the help of manager Antoine Zeind, I hooked up the Paramount’s video projector in one of the 35mm theatres, so that it could play the sound of a film on which I worked as sound designer. For the first part of my sound recording, I stay in the theatre with the binaural microphones attached to my headphones. I then moved to 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 them about the same distance apart as they were on my head — which I taped to a pole. The final effect was to turn on the motor of the 35mm projector, to record its sounds as I passed the pole from the booth into the theatre and back.
When I performed the same experiment in the IMAX theatre, I made my most important discovery: the IMAX sub-bass rules the Paramount. The bass frequencies of my sound design from the film that I used were almost painful at times — beautifully painful. The incredible power was difficult to capture on minidisc as it was way out of its frequency range but, as will be shown, the facts (decibel readings) speak for themselves.
The IMAX Phenomenon
The Paramount’s IMAX screen is 70 feet high and 80 feet wide, and the theatre seats 340 people (for full information on the movie theatre, visit their web site). To have successful sound playback in such an immense space, the set-up must be different from the traditional 5.1 sound set-up. With an additional top centre speaker to give height to the sound on this large screen and a sub-woofer that would make any neighbour very unhappy, the IMAX sound is indeed spectacular. 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, well, that’s an IMAX secret.
The sub-bass is the chief instigator in rousing energy and vibrations in the building. It is comprised of eight units of subwoofers, placed facing each other. This packs quite a punch for the audience. In fact, it packs a punch for anyone in the building. Actually, at certain moments, employees have even been able to identify specific parts in a film, simply because they could feel the vibrations from the sub-bass throughout the building. At one point I asked a manager at the theatre if she had had the chance to see Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones while it was playing on the IMAX screen. “I haven’t seen any of it but I’ve felt parts of it,” she responded.
Besides the sound system in the theatre, the IMAX projector needs its own humidifier, cooling system and electrical room, all of which generate a great deal of noise.
How Loud is it?
On evenings when the attendance reaches 8,000 visitors, the building shakes — literally. There are spots in the building, mainly on the third floor, that jitter and react to heavy circulation as well as to vibrations activated by the IMAX subwoofers.
I measured the decibel levels of various locations, including the emergency exits, the theatres and the main lobby. I took readings using a sound level meter (an older Bruel & Kjaer model as well as a digital model) and compared dBA and dBC weighted readings, with interesting results. (dBA readings are weighted to approximate differing human response to loudness at various frequencies — to quote 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 give approximately equal weight to lower frequencies as it does to higher ones.”). I took readings on different occasions — the average readings are shown in the following table.
|IMAX projectionist’s booth||75||80|
|Quiet main lobby on Thursday night||70||78|
|Noisy main lobby on a Saturday night||80||87|
|Near the freight elevator on the 4th floor while Star Wars is playing on the IMAX screen||35||70|
|Same as above with an explosion occurring in the film||47||80|
|In the IMAX theatre during Star Wars loud fight sequence||Between 82 and 89||Between 88 and 107 with an average of 94. Certain scenes reached 111 to 116.|
What I found most fascinating was the often large different between dBA and dBC readings. This is largely due to the effect of the IMAX subwoofers, but coupled with the bass set-up in the other 12 theatres, it makes for a symphony of lows inaudible to human ears yet powerful and resonating to the structure and the bodies within it.
Discoveries in Other Areas
From the main entrance to the behind-the-scenes corridors, the Paramount is full of interesting sounds. Although much of the rumbling in my recordings is due to the immense sound that IMAX generates, there are many other factors that make the Paramount’s particular soundscape unique.
The box office area in the main entrance is very reverberant, so the sounds of voices, music and the sounds of cash registers bounce all over the place, as the sounds reflect in the environment. The floor provides different types of sound reflection and absorption qualities, as there are sections made on concrete tile, plastic-fiberglass and metal. Footsteps on each of these different surfaces added tremendous texture to my recordings.
The fourth floor lobby — the centre of the building — is a sonic mess in many respects. Here, everything in the building form the three main floors can be heard converging — movie trailers blare from different speakers, music and television sound from the bar on the fifth floor seep downwards, and the arcade games of the third floor are all audible from below.
Also interesting are the emergency exit passages and walkways that encompass the full height of the building. They are like caverns, with staircases that vibrate in response to the sounds in the building. Besides the steel stairs, there are hard brick, stone and gyp rock surfaces on which the sounds can bounce around and rebound. And it is in these emergency exit walkways that the sounds of the downtown core enter the Paramount... sirens, car horns, motors, and the occasional riot.
The Paramount has a slogan — Fun is Paramount. After spending so much time in this space, listening to my recordings and composing a piece, I had to agree. The unmistakable drone and clatter of the projectors or the subwoofers and its their rumblings make my recordings interesting — make them “fun”. But let’s not forget loud. This is, of course, the reason my finished composition was aptly named, Loud is Paramount.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McCelland and Stewart Ltd, 1977.
Truax, Barry. Acoustic Communication. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation. 1984.
_____. ‘Models and Strategies for Acoustic Design’, at <http://www.sfu.ca/~truax/models.html>. Date of Access: October 2002.
_____. ‘Soundscape Composition’, at <http://www.sfu.ca/~truax/scomp.html>. Date of Access: October 2002.
Westerkamp, Hildegard. Transformations. Empreintes DIGITALes, Montréal 1996.
Many thanks to all the “players” and management at the Paramount who participated in my recordings and supported me while I was walking around the theatre with large headphones, strange microphones and other unknown devices. Special thanks Antoine Zeind (Paramount manager) for his logistical help and Michel Poitras (Paramount IMAX projectionist) who provided me with a wealth of both technical information and support.
Other Articles by the Author
‘That’s Ms. Shelley Craig — re-recording mixer extraordinare’, in Musicworks Magazine #93, Fall 2005, pp. 32–39.
Review of Soundwalk: Brooklyn (Dumbo), audio guide for insiders, in Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol. 6 No.1, pp. 30–31.
(with Andrea-Jane Cornell & Andra McCartney) ‘Contemporary Sound Cultures (Book Review)’, in Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies #13, Spring 2005, pp. 176–179.
‘Loud is Paramount’, in Deep Wireless 2: Radio Art Compilation. New Adventure in Sound Art, 2005, CD #2.
(with Andra McCartney) ‘Diane Leboeuf: from mixing boards to museums’, in Musicworks Magazine #90, Fall 2004, pp. 44–51.