THE CINEMA AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
By Simon Honywill
Douglas Adams' incredible four book trilogy 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' tells the story of anti-hero Arthur Dent's adventures as he unwittingly hurtles around the Universe with his new found colleagues Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android. On his travels he encounters the appalling poetry of the Vogons, a highly improbable, gravity assisted whale, and Disaster Area, the loudest rock band in the Universe. So loud are they that it is necessary to listen to them from a bunker on a neighbouring planet to avoid physical annihilation. At a critical point in the story, Arthur rejoins his friends and enjoys dinner in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. One thing that Adams managed not to include in his odyssey however was the Cinema at the End of the Universe, which would have been a fine opportunity for 'The Guide' to wax lyrical about the power of the projection, the size of the screen and enormity of the pan-dimensional sound system.
It's a gross omission, because I can honestly say that the Cinema at the End of the Universe exists. It is here on Earth, it is in a suburb of Johannesburg, and I have just recently visited it. What's more, it has an enormous, pan-dimensional sound system, all of it bearing the badge of Martin Audio.
I was visiting South Africa for the first time (a major tick on the wish list) to assist two new-found friends in their quest to set up a training establishment where they aim to teach young people the fundamentals of sound engineering, an honourable ambition that they are well on their way to fulfilling. Their day jobs however are with Audiosure, the South African distributor for Martin Audio, and it is through this that they know the owner of the Cinema at the End of the Universe, as it shall now be known. This pleasuredome is the obsession and ongoing project of a South African businessman, who we shall refer to as Mr.B.
Mr.B is fanatical about good sound. He is applying this fanaticism to some very interesting ideas for communications for business, but that's not what this is about – this is about his cinema and the implications of what he has created. Over some extremely fine South African red wine, we talked about his pursuit of perfection, and the extents to which he has gone to ensure the best possible cinematic experience. We also talked about just how far off the mark most cinemas are when it comes to sound, and how important it is to convey every aspect of audio in daily life in the highest possible quality. After all, why do otherwise? There is a big, wide world out there that takes poor quality audio for granted, and excuses like 'budget' are becoming less and less acceptable as bandwidths increase and technology and materials improve.
Allow me to try and express just what this monument to audio-visual experience is like. For starters, Mr.B's entire house is designed around it. It is constructed from 1m thick reinforced concrete, dense enough to allow a helicopter to land on the roof without bothering the inhabitants and their viewing. The auditorium is about the size of the smallest screen you might find at a modern multiplex, with a marked difference in the quality of the seating – 12 very comfortable sofas, each with a buttkicker installed under every cushion. The acoustics are as near to anechoic as I have encountered anywhere outside of an acoustic research facility and it takes a little getting used to. It is also silent, completely. The extents to which the air-conditioning has been designed to make no sound at all is unprecedented, and the way that all air-con should be. To prevent any electrical noise, the entire system is earthed to a specially installed giant copper plate laid on top of the concrete foundations. The screen, for the size of the room, is huge, but it is what is behind and below it that's really impressive.
In front of the screen is a void not unlike an orchestra pit in a theatre, but there are no delicate violins, no shiny brass here. Instead, lined up across the width of the screen are four of Martin Audio's mighty ASX sub-bass cabinets. That is FOUR! The ASX is one of the most powerful bass cabinets ever made, capable of 152dB peak at 1m. They have hearing damage warnings engraved into the top of them. One would do the job, but Mr.B likes headroom – 34kW of it in the sub alone. If that were not incredible enough, the legacy bass system is still in place behind the ASX array – eight Bose Cannons and four Servodrive bass cabinets. Fortunately, these no longer play a part in the low-frequency reproduction of the system – should they be turned on with the ASX's I fear the reinforced concrete would not be enough to contain the pressure.
Above the bass bunker, behind the screen is the main left, centre and right system. It is mounted on a heavy-duty motorised platform to ensure that the coverage is optimised for the number of people in the auditorium. It consists of three Martin Audio Screen 6 systems (their largest), each one a three way, fully horn-loaded beast that has massive power and clarity. Again, headroom is the goal here, and the concept of using this system to its full capabilities would simply be dangerous. Consequently, the dynamics and fidelity are unequivocal. Add to this a surround system consisting of Martin Audio Blackline F15 full range cabinets, and you are set for an unprecedented cinematic experience. I could try and explain the projector, the optical glass that was imported from Germany, the data storage and transport, but it would be pointless as I don't really understand it. Needless to say it does a fine job of ensuring Mr.B's film and music collection is reproduced to the best possible standards. It looks great, but it plays second fiddle to the audio.
So what of the experience? Movie sound production is a confusing affair, and I think there are few sound designers and mix engineers who really nail the medium to the best it can offer. That said, I also think that the vision of the film makers is never translated as they would want to the public's ears. Having mixed in surround for a concert movie I found it almost impossible to find anybody that could give me a straight answer as to the correct way to approach it. My experience of that mix at the cinema was so shatteringly disappointing that I hope never to have to hear it again.
Mr.B played a few clips of movies that he felt were worthy of his system for various attributes – clarity and imaging of dialogue (John Cleese narrating Winnie The Pooh), musical balance and imaging (Bolt), dynamics and impact (Thor end credits – huge bass but a poor orchestral mix) and the grand finale, the first ten minutes of Gravity (I thought there was no sound in space, but there certainly is now). It was at once, beautiful, involving and utterly visceral, so much air was being moved by the system in the big pieces (not forgetting the seat shakers). We've all seen big movies on big screens, but nothing could prepare you for this, so totally different was the whole almost overwhelming experience. And then he played some audio files, with all the lights off. I cannot begin to describe the intensity of listening to a brilliant surround mix of Blue Man Group in these circumstances – and then a stereo recording of vocalist Rebecca Pidgeon – remarkable for its amazing imaging, depth and warmth.
This was an evening of superlatives in many forms – wine, vision, audio, specially imported Bulgarian Lutenitza. Mr.B freely admits that there is no budget for this project, and he will continue to tweak and improve whenever he feels it is necessary – whether it is or not is arguable, but there is ALWAYS room for improvement (I suggested a few things myself…couldn't help it), no matter what the situation. But what I came away with was a head full of ever more thoughts and ideas about how we perceive audio and what we are prepared to accept and why. This system takes the enjoyment of a cinematic spectacle several levels higher, surely a distinct advantage over the competition for any movie house, and whilst I recognise that cinemas do install high quality audio systems they are never operated by anybody with any idea of what they are capable of, as I found out to my own unhappiness through the miserable trip to my local Vue with my family to hear my own attempt. Even at Universal's preview theatre in Central London, where impressing people is what the place is intended for, the in-house technicians had no idea that their system wasn't functioning properly when this concert film was previewed to the press. Disastrous.
If I had one complaint about the evening at Mr.B's pleasuredome it was this – he didn't have Gladiator! Next time perhaps?
Credit must be given to all those who assisted in the design and installation of every aspect of this remarkable acoustic, sonic and visual creation. Mr.B. would especially like to thank the team from Audiosure in Johannesburg.