I’ve been following the thread in this section titled: “1977 70mm soundtrack recording” with some interest. I thought this might be a good companion piece
There has been ongoing debate for some time surrounding the audio mixes that accompany the “Definitive Collection” and “Faces” Laserdiscs - with regard to Star Wars in particular. Being quite familiar with the 70mm 6-track mix, it was clear to me from the first audition that this was a matrixed foldown of these elements with some additional sweetening – essentially the point of contention. I recently located an old article that clearly details the sources used for these soundtracks and the process of preparing the mixes. I hope to follow up shortly with an audiofile to offer a side-by-side comparison of the ’93 “Definitive Collection” mix and an audience recording of a 70mm engagement. This should further demonstrate the likeness of the two, as well as offer an opportunity to document the additions for those interested.
The following is an excerpt from an interview in Widescreen Review (as seen in issue Number: 5 September/October 1993 - reprinted with permission. To subscribe, please go to www.widescreenreview.com/subscribe.php) with Dave Schnuelle, whose title was Technical Supervisor For THX Software Certification at the time the 1993 Definitive Collection Laserdiscs were produced.
Widescreen Review: What was entailed in producing the soundtracks for The Star Wars Trilogy?
Dave Schnuelle: The people involved with the original soundtracks thought the print masters were in pretty good shape. But in fact when we put up the three print masters and listened to them we were surprised at how limited Star Wars sounded by today’s standards and The Empire Strikes Back was not that much better. And the one that should have been really good, Return of the Jedi, although it sounded better also sounded limited. So when we checked into it a bit more we found that only the two-track, LtRt (left total/right total) print masters that existed were ones that were limited for the capability of the optical sound track with Dolby A-type noise reduction, which means that the peaks were really cut down quite a bit. Thirty-five mm prints with optical sound tracks using Dolby A-type noise reduction only have 6db headroom. So the print masters made for that purpose were all pretty severely limited compared to, say, the six track 70mm print masters. At that point we decided that we would go back and check the original elements. On Return of the Jedi we knew they were all very good, but on the original two we just weren’t sure. In fact the original 6-track 70mm print master for Star Wars and the four-track master mix for The Empire Strikes Back were in good condition for their time and they were unlimited. So we decided then we needed to go back and do each movie over again, making an unlimited LtRt from the original masters.
Widescreen Review: So you used the original print master elements to make a new LtRt 4-2-4 matrixed encoded Dolby Stereo soundtrack master for each film?
Dave Schnuelle: It is interesting in that it really does show changing technology. For Star Wars we had the print master for the 70mm 6-track prints, and an effects-only master. The mixers found by listening that the best way to proceed was to use the four main tracks from the70mm print master, LCRS (left, center, right, surround), for those channels, and to add some low frequency enhancement (boom) from a separate Effects-only master run in sync. The reason to do this was that at the time of Star Wars (for which the “baby boom” format was invented by Steve Katz) what they did to derive the boom channel was to filter out the bass of the complete mix, containing dialogue, music, and effects, and add it back in as the Left Extra and Right Extra channels. The problem with this approach is seen today to be that boom is being added irrespective of its source—and that could include on dialogue where it is definitely unnatural and on music where the music mixer never balanced it in that way. So today mixers would derive the “boom” channel just from the effects, so that is what was done on re-mastering Star Wars. It is really to make the mix come much closer to contemporary standards.
In addition, there were sound effects present in the foreign editions of Star Wars that weren’t in the English-language original. That’s because the English version came out first, and (sound designer) Ben Burtt continued working after that on sound effects as the various foreign versions were made. So for this re-release, Ben came into the studio with a catalogue of sound effects recorded on a Synclavier and literally “spun them in” to the picture while watching it; kind of editing and mixing it simultaneously. Although a tremendous number of effects were not involved, this was Ben’s chance to re-do what he had learned working further on the film and incorporating it back into the “original.” So the laserdisc release really is definitive in the sense that it has in it what the filmmakers wanted to be there.
For The Empire Strikes Back the best material was the four-track master mix. It was supplemented with “boom” from a sound effects master running along in synchronization, in the same manner as Star Wars. What you must realize is that the perceived low-frequency capability of conventional optical sound tracks is very limited, and what most people remember is the 70mm version. Since the existing Dolby Stereo print masters had to be limited for optical, that means that they sound bass shy much of the time, so this addition should be considered to be really a purist one, getting it to sound more like itself.
Return of the Jedi was easier because the thirteen-track mix “stems” were available, so it was simple to make a new, unlimited print master.
Widescreen Review: Who was the mixer for these transfers?
Dave Schnuelle: The mixers on Star Wars were Ben Burtt and Gary Summers. Ben Burtt was not involved with the other two mixes on these discs. Gary re-mastered the other two films. The mixes that are on these discs are all redone directly from the furthest back material that we had and they were all redone directly to digital. Gary produced an open reel DASH format digital audio master, which was then clone-copied to the D1 video master.
Widescreen Review: So there are differences in the Star Wars soundtrack as compared to the older laserdisc releases, but no change in the soundtrack content of the other two films?
Dave Schnuelle: Yes, that’s right, but it doesn’t mean they all sound the same. Tomlinson Holman was the recording engineer on the Jedi soundtrack which was recorded in the first THX Sound System-equipped dubbing stage. So basically I think that even to the relatively untutored ear it is going to be clear that Jedi sounds better than the other two. And that simply has to do with the fact that technology moves along. I think that Gary Summers who was the mixer on all three of these new mixes did the best job he could to make them sound the same. He didn’t degrade Jedi to make it sound like the other two, but he did as much as he could to the other two to get them up to the level of Jedi.