curated: why movie dialogue can be so difficult to hear nowadays

No, you’re not losing your hearing.

Ben Pearson at SlashFilm has written a fascinating long read on just what the heck is going on with movie sound these days, from mumbling actors to the Christopher Nolan sound aesthetic.

Here’s how it starts:

I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it’s not due to hearing loss on my end. It’s gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I’ve defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don’t miss anything crucial to the plot.

Knowing I’m not alone in having these experiences, I reached out to several professional sound editors, designers, and mixers, many of whom have won Oscars for their work on some of Hollywood’s biggest films, to get to the bottom of what’s going on. One person refused to talk to me, saying it would be “professional suicide” to address this topic on the record. Another agreed to talk, but only under the condition that they remain anonymous. But several others spoke openly about the topic, and it quickly became apparent that this is a familiar subject among the folks in the sound community, since they’re the ones who often bear the brunt of complaints about dialogue intelligibility. 

I highly recommend the whole thing.

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Thu, Dec 02, 2021 1:04am

None of this explains Constantine!

Thu, Dec 02, 2021 8:16pm

so basically, it’s the director is the artist and we the audience are incidental, so it doesn’t matter if we hear everything…

reply to  bronxbee
Thu, Dec 02, 2021 8:53pm

It’s not just that—it’s also issues with the sound translating differently if you’re watching on a home screen or laptop, among other problems.

Thu, Dec 02, 2021 9:05pm

Very interesting. The section talking about the problem with different sound mixes for different viewing setups also struck a chord. I remember watching LOKI on Disney+ on my desktop with external speakers, and noticing that the score and sound effects drowned out the dialogue, no matter what I tried. It may have been optimized for a different setup. I may have turned on the subtitles for a few episodes.

That said, this seems to be a problem with some types of films (and directors) more than others. On the whole, I don’t think I have a problem understanding the dialogue on rom-coms, or animation, or even Marvel films generally.

This also reminds me of how some singers in pop music are harder to understand than others—certainly harder than, say, Broadway songs, which make a virtue of crystal-clear enunciation. It’s definitely a choice, and sometimes it’s just cultural unfamiliarity—if someone chooses to sing in their natural regional accent that my ear is unaccustomed to, that’s not a flaw. At least it’s an opportunity for more mondegreens. :-)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Dec 03, 2021 9:56pm

A lot of people have reported sound problems with Disney+. I’ve noticed it, too. The sound is just too damn low even when you’ve got your volume cranked way up.

Thu, Dec 02, 2021 10:48pm

A thing I’ve heard from people in the home-media mastering side, rather than the sound production side, of the business is: now that the default for home media is something like 5.1, the stereo mix is a poor relation that gets generated automatically – and the centre, which often acts as a dedicated speech channel, gets blurred into the effects in the sides.