Oscar-winning films on video sound better on Hi-Fi Stereo VHS

On Academy Awards night, Bruce Stambler took home the Oscar for Best Achievement in Sound Effects Editing for The Ghost and the Darkness. The victory is bittersweet: This week, Stambler’s work arrives on video (see review on page 84), a venue that reduces Ghost, as it has other rafter-rattling flicks like Twister and Independence Day, to a pale sonic spectre of its true self.

Why? Because the vast majority of renters will hear Stambler’s sweeping aural collage — an African soundscape filled with roaring lions, crackling gunfire and booming percussion — mashed down and mangled by the dinky audio technology inside most TV sets. ”Ideally, you wish that everybody could get into theaters to hear the sound,” says Stambler. ”Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.”

What it does work like, explains fellow Oscar-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), is ”packing 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag.” The ”bag” the sound lands in is the narrow, perishable ”linear track” at the edge of the VHS tape (unless you have a Hi-Fi Stereo VCR, which picks up a separate, far superior Hi-Fi mix recorded over the full tape width). Linear VHS tracks allow about as much fidelity as a 1960s transistor radio. ”It scrunches down the dynamic range,” Murch explains. Otherwise, the tracks would distort terribly.

Stambler sounds a philosophical note on the compromise. ”Part of the art of mixing,” he says, ”is making it work on cheap mono speakers and in huge theaters.”

Of course, you can hook up a Hi-Fi Stereo VCR (or digital-sound laserdisc player) to a five-speakers-plus-subwoofer ”surround sound” system and use Ghost to really spook the neighbors. ”Now, it’s possible to have a home theater that sounds better than what you get in movie houses,” says Murch.

The catch: That’s a couple of bucks for the rental and $500 to $3,000 for the sound system. Insert your own bloodcurdling shriek here.