The story of subwoofers, surround sound & modern movie watching


When the opening credits for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” begin rolling, one of the first things fans will hear is a rerecorded version of the THX signature audio known to sound industry insiders as the Deep Note. You probably don’t recognize the Deep Note by name, but you’ve likely heard it hundreds of times in theaters since it was first introduced in the opening credits for Return of the Jedi, and you’ll recognize it instantly if you listen to it on YouTube. It’s arguably the most recognizable piece of computer-generated music in the world. The history of subwoofers, Star Wars, and the Deep Note are all part of the same story.

The Subwoofer Awakens

September 1964 in El Cerrito, electrical contractor Raymon Perkins Dones of Aladdin Electric patented the first subwoofer. Known in the Bay Area as a pioneer in ensuring equitable contracting work for minority builders, Dones conceived the subwoofer as a portable means to reproduce and augment low-frequency bass sounds in a way that would create the illusion the bass was coming from the same direction as the rest of the speaker system. By 1965, Aladdin Electric was calling Dones’ subwoofer “the Octavium” and marketing it as a way to improve the quality of home speaker systems. By 1970 other subwoofer brands were on the market, and stereo fanzines were taking note of the new technology.

Musicians Discover Subwoofers

Subwoofer technology soon made its debut in the music recording scene in Los Angeles, where Jonas Miller opened the first high-end audio salon in 1969. Miller partnered with Ken Kreisel, a teenage amateur audio engineer to form the Miller & Kreisel Sound Corporation. Some of Miller’s clients were complaining about electrostatic speakers delivering poor bass quality, so Kreisel designed a dedicated woofer that would only reproduce the frequencies that were too low for the regular speakers. In 1973, Steely Dan recording engineer Roger Nichols had Kreisel bring the first M&K Subwoofer to The Village recording studio in West Los Angeles to install it for recording Steely Dan’s third album, “Pretzel Logic.” Since then, subwoofers have become a mainstay for the music industry, and M&K Sound has remained a major provider.

Surround Sound Comes to Theaters

Meanwhile the legacy of the Octavium subwoofer was making an impact on movie theaters. Universal Studios was trying to come up with a gimmick to promote its 1974 disaster film release “Earthquake,” intended to capitalize on the success of “Airport.” Universal sound engineers came up with idea of using a subwoofer system based on the Octavium concept to generate enough sub-audible bass to simulate the feeling of an earthquake during one of the movie’s scenes.

The new sound system, dubbed Sensurround, pumped bass into select theaters at 120 decibels, equivalent to the decibel level generated by a jet taking off. Sensurround worked too well, causing cracks in the ceiling of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, interrupting audiences from nearby screens who were trying to watch “Godfather II” and knocking inventory off of shelves in stores near theaters. But audiences loved the gimmick, turning “Earthquake” into the third-highest-grossing film of 1974 and earning Universal’s sound team an Academy Award for Best Sound, with a special technical award going to Sensurround.

Warner Brothers introduced a new surround-sound format called Megasound, also known as Split Surround. Megasound built on Dolby’s new 70 mm film “Baby Boom” format, popularized by the 1977 success of Star Wars. “Superman,” “Star Wars” and “Jaws” were the guinea pigs for this new format, which became the forerunner of Dolby’s 5.1 surround sound system.

Bringing Surround Sound Home

The release of “Star Wars” in 1977 accompanied the introduction of VHS videocassette recorders to the United States, and Lucasfilm and THX soon set to the task of bringing the theater surround sound experience to home entertainment centers. As DISH home theater expert explains, today’s home theaters are based on the 5.1 model first developed in theaters, where sound comes out of two speaker channels to the front left and right, one in the center, two surround channels, and one subwoofer. This simulates how your ears actually hear sound coming from all directions, in contrast to mono or stereo speakers where all the sound is coming from in front of you. The center channel is included to better anchor the sound and make movie dialogue easier to hear. The subwoofer handles the bass. Since it only handles very low frequencies that are too low for other speaker channels, it is counted as .1 channels instead of a sixth channel, hence the term “5.1.” Most home theater systems let you adjust the sound quality of each channel independently and then balance the volume of the entire system using a master volume control.



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