CAMBRIDGE — After spending its first two nonprofit-operated decades with the same four-speaker setup, the Brattle Theatre recently debuted a new 22-speaker surround sound system that places the cinematheque’s audio presentation on par with nearly every other film exhibition room in the Boston area.
“Being that it’s a unique space, a historic building … we couldn’t just take any cookie cutter off-the-shelf speaker system and stick it in there,” explained Sean McKinnon, department manager for cinema installation and production services at Boston Light & Sound, the entertainment technology company that handled the installation. “We had to come up with a custom design from the ground up.”
The new audio system represents the Brattle’s most significant technical upgrade since the early 2010s installation of a digital projector to serve alongside its 35mm- and 16mm-based film projectors.
“We just wanted to be able to play as many different formats as possible, the same as when we put in the digital projector,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director for the Brattle Film Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the Brattle.
Fund-raising for the project was completed near the end of 2022, and was bolstered by COVID-era support programs.
“The only reason we were able to think about doing this project is because we got so much support during the COVID shutdown,” Hinkle explained. “We got support from the general public, from grants, and from national and regional government programs. So we have, or we had, a really nice war chest that gave us the ability to consider doing this.”
The upgraded audio setup at the Brattle is “7.1,” meaning that it supports up to seven discrete audio channels as well as a subwoofer feed (in comparison, the previous setup was 3.1). For a film with a 7.1 mix at the Brattle, three large speakers above the screen now output the center, left, and right audio channels, while 18 additional speakers lining the ground-level and balcony-level walls output the left-surround, right-surround, back left-surround, and back right-surround audio channels.
This aligns with the intended audio presentations of many contemporary features, as well as with that offered by most standard-size multiplex screens, allowing the Brattle to finally exhibit first-run films — and repertory screenings from the post-stereo era — in a manner that’s fully up to spec.
“I would say [the new Brattle audio system] is superior to what you would find in your average multiplex,” said McKinnon. “Typically what you’ll find in a multiplex nowadays is there will be one or two premium experience theaters that may have Dolby Atmos or a theater chain-branded [audio system]. Those rooms tend to be pretty good. But usually as you move away from those premium experience rooms, things tend to not be as well maintained.”
New sound technologies have long held drawing power at the movies. See for instance the aforementioned Dolby Atmos, perhaps the most widely advertised, and thus most widely known, of the new cinema sound technologies.
Dolby Atmos theatrical sound, which is exclusively presented as part of “Dolby Cinema” auditoriums in AMC multiplexes across the country (including at the Assembly Square, South Bay, and Boston Common locations), calls for an even further expanded “9.1.2″ sound field that outputs nine standard-level audio channels, one subwoofer feed, and two overhead channels.
The overhead channels are the fresh new sound in that scenario, allowing filmmakers to create audio mixes that seem to simultaneously occupy different vertical planes of the auditorium — with one sound feed arriving near ear-level, then another soundscape moving above it.
“Nowadays, everything is discrete — so every one of those speakers at the Brattle has its own amplifier channels connected directly to it,” said McKinnon. “Not only does that provide better performance, but it makes it easier in the future [for the Brattle] to transition to a format like Atmos.”
While auditoriums featuring new sound technology like Atmos are usually advertised in the showtime listings found online, as well as on the digital marquee at the multiplex itself, these sound-based brand names do not seem to carry the same marketing heft as the image formats they’re paired with. The big font reads IMAX, not DTS.
There is an equivalent tendency on the repertory film circuit, where notes on projection formats like 35mm are duly noted, yet soundtrack details are rarely if ever cited.
“If I saw that something was going to be shown on 70mm with Dolby SR six-track magnetic sound, that’s something that I would go out of my way to travel and see,” said McKinnon, referring to a particularly high-fidelity form of 20th-century soundtrack technology which can occasionally be heard in movies played as part of the Somerville Theatre’s annual 70mm & Widescreen Film Festival.
“That’s an extreme example, but I think any information that can be provided is important, both for people that do know what they’re looking for, and then also to educate people that are maybe getting into repertory films as a hobby,” he concluded. “And who maybe weren’t part of the general moviegoing public when these systems like Dolby Digital sound on film, or DTS sound on film, were common.”
“Dolby Digital sound on film” and “DTS sound [with] film” are two more examples of outmoded soundtrack technologies that one might now hear at full volume and clarity during a 35mm screening at the Brattle.
To properly experience these soundtracks, from the older examples like Dolby on film up to more recent Atmos mixes, is crucial to an ongoing cultural understanding of cinema history — making it all the more notable that so many theatrical sound technologies have become outright impossible to hear, except for at places like the Brattle and the Somerville.
“We’re entering into a period where classic films are now from the ‘90s,” Hinkle observed. “So it’s becoming more of a necessity for us to have [up-to-date] technology for the films that use sound creatively. Especially when you’re talking about films like ‘Memoria’ or ‘Tár,’ or the reissues of David Lynch movies with new 5.1 mixes like ‘Lost Highway.’ … What we say in our curtain speeches is that you’re here at the Brattle to see a movie the way it was meant to be seen. And more and more, the truth is we need to have this kind of sound to provide that.”
Jake Mulligan, the film critic for DigBoston, regularly leads film education seminars at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.