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Movie sounds

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Great sound generates great envy. That’s the lesson learned by a roomful of playthings in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear, the talking action figure, arrives with an all-copper-wire ”quality sound system” and makes poor cowboy-doll Woody ashamed of his tinny, old-fangled pull-string voice box.

Well, Woody, cheer up: You’ll soon have tens of millions of aurally deprived video viewers to keep you company. That’s how many people are expected to take in Toy Story on VHS cassettes, and not one of these viewers will be able to hear every last bit of ear-candy brilliance the movie has to offer — no matter how fancy a surround-sound system they might have hooked up to their hi-fi stereo VCRs. That’s because Toy Story was originally mixed for six-track playback in the best movie theaters.

Four-time Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who helped crank up Toy Story as well as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, says that until last year there was no way to bring all the swirling, 360-degree sonic majesty of any hit movie back home, be it Toy Story or Twister or Independence Day. But then a technology called Dolby Digital AC-3 (as in Audio Coder 3) landed on laserdisc and in high-end audio salons. To hear Buzz fly around your living room with more pinpoint accuracy than in any cavernous theater (or to appreciate a 100-plus catalog of AC-3 titles), all you need is an AC-3-encoded laserdisc ($30 and up) and two slightly more expensive items — an AC-3-decoding laser player (from $300) and a Dolby Digital receiver (from about $1,000, though prices are expected to drop to $800 by next year). Well, isn’t it always the accessories that cost you?

For the privileged few thousand who have so far purchased such equipment, Rydstrom says, Toy Story delivers six totally independent channels of sound (tape’s two channels can’t encode a multichannel surround-sound field nearly so cleanly). Three AC-3 channels span the front of your viewing area, two more cover the back, and one delivers nothing but bowel-shaking low frequency. The result? When a huge gas truck nearly runs over Woody at the ”Dinoco” station, you’ll hear it pass directly over your head as gravel crunches loudly just behind your right shoulder. (On VHS or with a non-AC-3 laser player, the impact isn’t nearly so vivid because the rear-channel sound remains slushily monophonic.)

With AC-3, the sound in dozens of other scenes is startlingly real and ingeniously oversize (especially at moments when distant birds caw evocatively), thus mimicking the experience of the movie’s dinky denizens. ”Nothing gets muddied in AC-3,” says Rydstrom. ”It gives you an archival copy of what we originally put into the film.” It sure does — provided you have a bank account that soars to infinity and beyond.

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