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Sound calibration technical explantion

Audio technical

This subject is complex and very difficult to explain without you and your equipment in front of you to demonstrate. So we’ll try to keep it simple without losing sight of the goal. That is to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

You will have probably read or heard the term “as the director intended”. That may have been in conjunction with display calibration, but it is equally as important with sound. What does it mean anyway?

The usual answer you are likely to hear to this terms is ” to adhere to industry standards and recreate what was seen and heard in a post-production suite”.

But that’s a technical answer. To deliver “as the director intended”, it takes the storytellers a lot of time, careful planning and a large budget. It’s also a very complex process and involves many creative people.

Reading the explanations, and listening to the demonstration clips, brings meaning to the saying, “as the director intended”.

Demonstration 1


Please follow the instructions and read the text explanations before you listen. The higher the quality of the equipment you try the clips with, the more apparent the differences will be. For the following explanations to work, please do not adjust the volume of the individual clips.


The following clips have no dialogue, they are music only. The first two clips are from the final scene of the film Home Alone, with a sound score written by John Williams. 


Also shown below are the waveforms of each clip to give a visual guide to what you're hearing.  You'll notice that the wave on the left is a similar size from top to bottom all the way from left to right. This is because the sound levels have been compressed, so the quiet passages have a closer volume level to the loudest parts. The wave on the right increases from top to bottom as you go left to right. The clip on the right has quiet and loud portions as was intended, so the volume of the sound changes and becomes more dramatic with camera cuts to the pictures in order to provoke an emotional response in the viewer.


One of the key areas, if not the key area, of picture quality is dynamic range.  This is the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the picture. It's the same for high quality sound, with dynamic range in sound being the difference between the quietest parts of the music and the loudest. Compression flatterns dynamic range, the "feel" and atmosphere of a piece of music as well as differences of intensity in individual notes. 


Compress the sound and the impact of the scene completely changes. The importance of this is stated by the "guru" in the video clip at the bottom of this page.


The clip below is the final scene from the film and there were only two lines are delivered. One near the begining and one near the end. The first is, "Honey what's this"? The second is "Kevin what have you done to my room"?


Listen to the Home Alone clips below, starting with the one on the left marked compressed audio. Please set a comfortable volume level for your equipment and do not alter once set.  You can also open up the waveforms to a bigger image while listening.


The sound clip on the left has been heavily compressed, meaning that any volume changes created by the musicians and director have been lost. The intention of the director is to move you emotionally and to increase your emotional response as the scene progresses. The waveform volume changes to match the indended emotional build up.


Then listen to the clip on the right, which demonstrates the full dynamic range. This is how it shoud sound.

|Home Alone extract - Compressed
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Home Alone extract - Full dynamic range
00:00 / 00:00

Clip summary


Please listen to the above clips again, starting with the compressed clip. This time carefully listen to what the compression is actually doing to the sound.


With the compressed clip, the quiet part of the clip is almost as loud as the loudest part. The dynamics and timbre of the instruments have been swallowed up and the sound stage has become muddled so instruments appear to be swishing from left to right. The changes in sound volume to match the intensity of the music, and the intended build up in your emotional response are lost.


For the clip on the right, the quiet parts become obvious and the dynamics of the instruments come through. For example, a violinist will press the bow harder onto the strings to raise volume and an "upstroke" may be intended to be harder than the next note "downstroke". That's something that is completely lost when sound is compressed. The instruments are focused and positioned within the soundstage and the volume of the music increases as the scene progresses. With pictures to match the music, the director's intention is to build emotional response with the audience.

Demonstration 2

The second clip is the famous flying scene from E.T. Again written by John Williams who won the Oscar for best musical score for E.T. in 1982.

This is another example of how a poorly configured system can ruin this well known award winning music.

ET extract - Compressed
00:00 / 00:00


As you've heard, the impact on the E.T. clip has been lost.  However there are also times when this sort of compression just happens, such as when listening through the TV speakers or using a budget sound bar (which replaces the TV's speakers to give a richer sound).


In these situations, dynamics will flatten as budget amplifiers and speakers can't do dynamics. And as a rule of thumb, the higher the quality of your speakers and amplifiers, the better the dynamics are going to be. It's dynamics that make reproduced music sound more realistic and stimulate a subconcsious emotional response.

A picture paints a thousand words

Sound is a critical and integral part of the story telling. So with this final segment, we are going to use words to describe what is happening with the sound in the next clip and why it was written and produced this way. 


Play the clip below and maybe listen to it a couple of times while reading the explanation of what is going on in the film as if the pictures were there. If we had the pictures this is how your brain may translate what your eyes and ears see and hear and turn it into words. It's a sort of conscious explanation of what is happening but on a subconscious level.   




  • 0-27 secs - Piano and violins playing, low-ish volume level, sound effects of twigs snapping. Long distance shots of Elliot and ET  cycling through the woods.

  • 27-32 secs - Piano and violins building in volume, close up of Elliot. Says line "it's too bumpy, we'll have to walk from heeeere. Last word "here" shouts in fear and yells EEEETTTTT as ET takes over and moves bike with powers.

  • 33.5-39 secs - Music gradually has a full orchestra building a fanfare and building up volume dramatically as fanfare progresses

  • 39 secs - Fanfare introduces a drum roll as Elliot and ET leap off a cliff and fly, music is loud dramatic and uplifting and a full overture.

  • 44 secs - Close up of Elliot's face as he shouts "not so high not so high"

  • 48-58.5 secs - Full orchestral overture as camera looks down from Elliot's perspective; sound effects of birds in the tree tops

  • 58.5-110.5 secs - Really dynamic horn section followed by quieter string sequence with close up of Elliot's face as he looks round in sheer awe of what is happening

  • 110.5-116 secs - Louder string section as Elliot and ET fly past the moon ending in a drum roll

  • 116 secs - End of drum roll cuts to Elliot's face as he yells aahaaa with sheer excitement as music is at its loudest of the sequence

  • 120-124 secs - Cuts to shot behind the bike looking down at the ground coming towards them

  • 124-127 secs - Music gets slightly quieter and cuts to close up of Elliot's face as he looks worried and says line "don't crash please"

  • 127- 128 secs - Music slows to 2 quieter notes followed by a final note which is a loud, deep and dynamic kettle drum, horns and strings as they hit the ground with a bump and crash in a heap. Final note is sustained to a fade.

ET extract - Full dynamic range
00:00 / 00:00

As the director intended

The "real" answer is connecting people to their emotions so that they can fully experience something. He/she intends to engage your subconscious emotions. The automatic ones that make you feel alive.


He/she will use everything he/she can to ensure you can go on this journey, weather it be realistic or sheer fantasy, the whole point is to be engaged, entertained or informed.


The above clip lasts 1minute 41 seconds. Films usually last a minimum of 90 minutes and usually 2 hours. Every second of detail will have been meticulously planned to tell the story with pictures and sound.


Amongst the tools used for pictures are lighting, colour cast, film grain, camera shake, camera angles, cinematography close up, focus, depth of field etc.  The list is long.


Sound is just as critical with volume, pace of music, different instruments, styles and genre, sound effects, positioning of effects, volume of effects dynamic range again etc. Again the list is long.


The emotion and impact the content has on you depends on what you watch and hear to it on.


A smart phone and a cheap pair of in ear headphones are not going to be the same experience as seeing a movie on a 50" plus TV and a decent sound system. And today's modern cinemas are a superb experience of big screen and sound action, as well as a shared experience. That is why we say see the sound, hear the picture. The two are dependent on each other.

Story tellers understand the three minds; conscious, subconscious and unconscious.


Read the blog: "As the director intended" is to get to those three minds 



It's very easy to assume that the auto set up of today's modern amplifiers will set the sound up correctly. They don't.


A substantial improvement can be made, and we're happy to take your call to discuss how we can help. After all, you want the hair to stand up on the back of your neck at the right moments?


Finally, play the clip on the right to hear our last word on how important sound is to the film.

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Call 07540 691636 to discuss your calibration

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