It's All About Sound
by Harry Williamson
Michael Schurer, owner of Michael's Audio & Video in Fraser [now in Winter Park], talks about how sound creates an emotional effect. The viewing experience, he said, "is enhanced by sound," with the viewer "immersed in the presentation." Surrounded, if you will; hence the name surround sound, which, according to an industry pamphlet, is defined as follows:
Surround sound refers to the use of multiple audio tracks to envelop you in sound, whether you are watching a movie or listening to music. The surround sound movie soundtrack lets you hear sounds coming from all directions, so you can feel like you're in the middle of the action.
Schurer works with homeowners in Grand County to recreate a movie theater in their homes, along with installing house-wide sound and information systems. He talks about designing wiring systems that "allow the easy integration of all of the technology a homeowner might want." This ranges from so-called "smart homes"—where everything from heat to lights is automatically controlled—to satellite broadcasting, High Definition TV, high-speed Internet, and the owner's computers—all tied into the same system.
"What I do has a very noticeable impact on the way people live," he said. But, sooner or later, the discussions always come back to sound. Michael talks about the power of the sound in specific movies, such as how in "Out of Africa," the sound creates the feeling of actually being in the grassland, with the melody of crickets startlingly broken by the crunch of the grass under lions' paws. He talks about how in "Top Gun" the sound "literally puts you in the seat" of an F-14 fighter.
"The way it's filmed, the way the sound works with the visual, you feel like you're actually moving in a Navy fighter," he said.
With Michael's surround sound systems, the viewer is there, part of the actionand the danger. For example, the sound effects in "Saving Private Ryan" make the movie exhaustingalmost too much. Blood on a uniform would be little more than red without the "zing" and "thud" of the bullet. Later in the movie, there is a scene where the American soldiers in a mostly destroyed town prepare to defend an important bridge from German tanks. With the sound of artillery in the distant background, and the defense preparations made, one of the soldiers finds a record player that still works. He puts on a record, and the plaintive voice of French cabaret singer Edith Piaf sings of lost love and remembrance. With the distant guns and Piaf's melancholy voice in the background, Private Ryan and Captain Miller lean back in chairs in the rubble-strewn street, and talk about their families. It's a moment of peace for the vieweruntil, way off to one side, the viewer hears the first murmur and soft clack of a tank. The sounds build and build long before any enemy is actually seen. Then Piaf's voice is gone, the Americans begin to scurry to their positions (Captain Miller actually says, "lock and load"), and the viewers scoot a bit further into their seats.
How did the sound in music and movies come to be so powerful? Schurer began to work with video and audio equipment back in his native Chicago area in the early 1980s. By that time, sound recording had moved from monophonic, with all the sound coming from one speaker, to stereophonic sound using two speakers. With that advancement, sound went from having just one dimension to being two-dimensional.
"All of a sudden, we went from a point source of sound, to having more of a wall of sound," he said. He describes, however, how moviemakers were unable to make the two speakers workunless the entire audience sat right in the middle of the theaterand how changes in film-making had to wait until the creation of quadraphonic, or four-channel, sound in the early 1970s.
"In movies, Ray Dolby used this to put three speakers in the screen, sending one channel of sound through several other speakers in the theater," Schurer said. "Now you could see and hear a car drive across the screen. The impact was enormous, since moviemakers no longer had to rely only on visual effects. "
The movie surround sound that is known today started in 1976 when Dolby Laboratories introduced the four-channel Dolby Stereo format. Cinema surround went digital in 1992 when Dolby Digital Surround, a 5.1-channel format was introduced. Sound, in effect, had moved into its third dimension, now not simply moving across a flat screen, but having width, depth and height, becoming more a 360-degree sound field.
Schurer said that changes in the 1990s, and continuing today in how sound is recorded digitally, are mostly "small variations on the same theme." He added that ninety-nine percent of what is being done today in movies is on a five-speaker format, with left front, center front, right front, left surround, and right surround speakers, and with a separate, low-frequency effects channel carried on a subwoofer. He said that the bass sounds improve when run through a subwoofer, which in the better systems has its own power source, and this also allows today's speakers to be much smaller and more efficient. The newest systems, such as Dolby Digital EX or DTS-ES add one (6.1) or two (7.1) rear speakers, in an industry that Michael believes is still in its infancy.
"I-MAX is a 26-channel systems, and I wouldn't be surprised that as early as 10 years from now everything is going to be wireless," he said. He added that more and more of his time is now devoted to keeping up with the changes, attending seminars, studying the Internet, and talking with suppliers about what's new and exciting. "The big change in the home is that the TV set and the record player used to be in different rooms. Now it's all one system. The sound for television shows is now recorded in surround sound, and today's equipment breaks everything recorded in stereo into surround sound," he said.
Schurer says he works with homeowners to design exactly the system they want by first educating them on what's available. He added that his store, located on Doc Susie Avenue in Fraser [now at King's Crossing in Winter Park], carried all of the products and brands, priced to compete with Denver.
Moving to the Colorado mountains to do photography, he said he moved back into audio-video work as builders found out about his background and asked him to help. He started his business, which now has seven full-time employees, approximately 10 years ago, by putting a ladder on the ski rack on his Volkswagen, and selling satellite systems.
He now works with owners, both before and after their homes are built, often working with architects and builders to incorporate systems into the design of the home. This includes having the right type of speakers, as needed, throughout the home.
"The goal is to design the perfect system for a specific owner. You want it to be impressive, but still easy to operate. You also want the system to be visually acceptable, so it doesn't take away from the esthetics of the home," he said. "My goal is often to make it both awesomeand invisible," Michael added.
The telephone number at Michael's Audio & Video is 726-8763.