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The Low-End, Sensual Sound of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut

40 Years Later, Francis Coppola and John Meyer Fulfill Their Dream of Delivering the True Impact of War

This is a story about low end. Yes, it’s about Apocalypse Now, one of the seminal and best-sounding movies of the 20th century, all dressed up for its recent premiere on April 28 in a 40th anniversary, final-cut edition at the Tribeca Film Festival, in The Beacon Theatre. There will be plenty written about its 4k scan from the original 70mm print and the re-recording to Dolby Atmos. But it’s not about that.

It is also not a story about the re-imagining of Walter Murch’s groundbreaking, award-winning sound design and mix, which Larry Blake detailed in an excellent Mix feature back in 2001, with the 25-year re-release and the addition of new material, including the French plantation scene. It stands the test of time as one of the finest tracks on screen. That’s not debatable. But that’s not this story.

Nor is it about the October-April Dolby Atmos remix-premix led by Peter Horner at Zoetrope, and later on at Dolby’s True Grit dub stage. There’s a good story there, no doubt.

This is a story about two men who truly care about sound and cinema, who have spent 40 years thinking, not obsessively but occasionally, about how to improve true low-frequency impact on the screen. How to deliver the visceral punch and concussive shock wave of an explosion through sound, by diving into Infrasonics, down below 20 Hz. In this case, it’s a war movie. In the two men’s minds, it’s about how we experience the world around us, and how movies can more accurately portray that world.

Sensual Sound, Down to 13 Hz

“Sensual Sound is when you ‘feel’ the movement of air vibrating everything, including your bones, before you actually hear it,” says director Francis Coppola from his Napa home, just days following his 80th birthday celebration in early April. “At the time of its shooting, there were no picture digital effects, so essentially what you see is what we did. Nothing in the picture was faked, simulated, digitally created or composited. As far as sound was concerned, we were at the forefront of what became Dolby 5.1 surround sound.

“When you see the B-52 strikes in this new version, you hear them and then you feel them,” he adds. “It’s the difference between just hearing something and being inside a room that’s shaking. You get scared when the room is shaking.”

The premiere at The Beacon included a large, custom Meyer Sound, Dolby Atmos playback system, featuring 12 VLFC subwoofers that extend down to 13 Hz, placed in an end-firing cardioid array, supplemented by six 1100 subs. In August it will be available on Blu-ray going down to 16 Hz, for those who can even play that back.

Both the event and disc will promote Sensual Sound, a collaboration between Zoetrope and Meyer Sound that marks what John Meyer calls “the first steps into a whole other dimension of sound, where we are just beginning to understand how it works on the brain and the body outside of the audible range. We’ve experimented with the VLFC at Metallica shows and at Roskelde, but cinema seems to the perfect venue for how we can even begin to understand this new tool creatively.”

Explosions, thunderclaps, helicopters, rumbling trucks and elephant’s footstep nearby—these are the types of low-frequency events that trigger a primal response in the brain whereby adrenaline is released. And pretty much all these sounds are in Apocalypse Now. So when work began on the re-release, the folks at Zoetrope called the folks at Meyer Sound, just as they did the first time around back in 1979, when they faced the same challenge: How can we make an audience “feel” what war is really like?

Beginning the Low-End Journey

“The company was only a few months old in 1979, and we had just started selling our first product, the ADT studio monitors that John had designed in Switzerland,” Helen Meyer, co-founder of Meyer Sound recalls. “We got a call and then a visit from Tom Scott, who was working with Walter Murch at Zoetrope, and they said that they were trying to re-create this incredible low-frequency sound. John had been working on these big 650 subwoofers to go with the ADT monitors, and he knew immediately what do.”

“Subwoofers going around at the time could only go down to about 60 Hz,” John Meyer explains. “We were trying to bring it down to 27 cycles for rock and roll, and we got it to about 30. That’s what we were demonstrating in Berkeley when Tom Scott came and listened to us and told us about a shootout they were doing at Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco.

“So we brought our only two subs over,” he continues. “There were a lot of companies there, but we were the only one with real low end. You could feel it in the theater, feel he sound hit you. The other ones didn’t have any real power in the lows, and maybe got down to 50. I can remember Francis said, ‘I want to feel those explosions in the bathroom, I want to feel them everywhere!’”

Those early experiments with low end took place during the nearly two-year post-production work on the film. The playback system was intended to be installed around the country in theaters showing the film in 70mm. After the studio abandoned that concept and released the film mostly in 35mm, it turned into only about five theaters with the Meyer subs, putting on hold the young company’s entrance into cinema.

“But we kept making them, and that actually became one of our very first products, the 850,” says Helen Meyer, adding that John then took the sub across the bridge and hooked up with the Grateful Dead. “Almost all of our key products over the years were designed for an artist or someone in the field who wanted something that didn’t exist and asked us to help them create something. We become inspired by that.”

“Early on, John and Helen extended their small Meyer Sound company to our small movie company,” Coppola says. “Both grew in size and stature as a result of our dynamic collaboration. Meyer Sound is certainly a high-level company that I am proud of being associated with.”

Of course Coppola couldn’t have imagined back then that 40 years later he would again be sitting down with the Meyer Sound team, again talking about low frequencies.

Back to the Present

It’s not that Coppola and Meyer weren’t satisfied with what they accomplished in 1979. They excelled with the technologies of the day, but it still didn’t create that feeling they both knew existed out in the world. “I’ve heard loud explosions,” Meyer says. “And even back then I knew we didn’t create the full power. It was better, and I knew there was another dimension to it, but we didn’t know how to achieve that then.”

In the intervening years, Coppola continued to make and produce films, and Meyer Sound branched into touring, Broadway, recording studios, installations and even sound for restaurants and train stations. It’s a company built on research, testing, analysis and cross-pollination of the full-frequency, linear playback systems the company is founded on. And they never really left cinema.

So last October, when Zoetrope called again, it was originally meant to be a discussion about upgrading the re-recording stage from 7.1 to 7.1.4. It ended up bringing the conversation full-circle, back to the LFE channel, and the introduction of the VLFC (Very Low Frequency Content)—a relatively new product designed originally for touring—to audio post-production and playback. This time Miles Rogers, Meyer Sound’s business development manager for Cinema Worldwide, took the call. Zoetrope had been one of Meyer Sound’s first customers when they developed Acheron for the screen channels. Rogers knew the facility and the team well.

“Apparently, Francis and John had been working together for years about low-frequency impact, and essentially these two guys invented the Low Frequency Effect channel in film.” Rogers says. “Meanwhile, John and I had been talking about the use of VLFC in cinema for a while, but there really wasn’t a project out there that could make use of the LF channel in the storytelling. An effect is one thing, but it has to be a part of the story.

“So when I started talking to Colin [Guthrie, chief engineer] and Pete [Horner, re-recording engineer] at Zoetrope about the Atmos implantation, I said, ‘We have this sub that goes down to 12.5 Hz and it’s the perfect tool for you to realize what this film has always wanted to realize in the LF range. They said yes! John and Helen said, yes. So I brought two of them up to the second floor of the barn in Napa, put them in and aligned them so that we had summation and extension of the LF channel, and I said to just play with them and let me know what they thought. They did exactly that.

“Not only could they monitor and hear into the Infrasonic for the very first time, they could feel it in a way so that they could creatively design, make it a part of the story. ‘Do we want the rumble to roll out, or do we want it to kick you in the chest?’ With a full-frequency, linear system, you can do that.”

During the back and forth with the mixers, the Meyer team figured out how best to calibrate the subs so that they could print the LFE channel without losing headroom. Too much LF energy, and headroom is shot, forcing people to sometimes highpass the LFE channel to preserve their headroom.

“Effectively, we ended up with a calibration per the SMPTE standard,” Rogers explains. “We have a standard for the screen channels and we have 10 dB of in-band gain for the subwoofers. Each third-band octave for your screen channels is going to be 72. For your subwoofers, each third-band octave is going to be 82, so you have 10 dB of in-band gain. With the VLFC we are calibrating it to be an additional 10 dB of gain above that so you can print your master 20 dB down of level, but reproduced at full level. We can get that because of John’s commitment to linear response.”

Coppola describes it as “Power Without Distortion.” To Meyer it is simply how he makes speakers. “You don’t have to make the rest of the film loud if you have power in the subwoofers,” he says. “I think the low frequencies became very, very important for Francis in the making of the film, and this time around he wanted to push it even more. After the months at Zoetrope, we took two VLFCs over to the Dolby mix studio and they played with them, adding not just low frequency, but textures, like a pulsing sound. After a couple months, they were adding depth with low frequency. The VLFCs add a whole different structure, one that we didn’t even imagine when building it.”

But it’s that collaboration between technologists and creative that has been at the heart of Meyer Sound—and certainly at the heart of Zoetrope, and by extension Walter Murch—from the very beginning. From back in 1979 on the original Apocalypse Now, and still very much alive today in the Sensual Sound of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut