Sensurround for Earthquake Commemoration
Meyer Sound Helps Pacific Film Archive
Resurrect Sensurround for Earthquake Commemoration
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Larry the O, Meyer
15 April 2007
"I called Meyer Sound not knowing anybody there and expecting I would
have to write letters upon letters to get anywhere, but they put me
through to (Executive Vice President) Helen Meyer who quickly agreed to
help with the project."
- Video Curator,
Pacific Film Archive, University of California Berkeley
Through the years, Hollywood has tried just about everything to
supplement the usual film experience in order to create more excitement
in moviegoers, including some things perhaps best left to the history
books. Everyone has seen footage of audiences wearing 3D glasses, and
who can forget
Smell-O-Vision? It seemed to Steve Seid, video curator of the
Pacific Film Archive (PFA) at the University of California Berkeley,
that it might be fun to resurrect some of these stunts. Accordingly, in
2004 Seid planned a retrospective film series highlighting various
gimmicks the film industry has dabbled with. He soon involved Meyer
Sound to help bring back one of these ploys.
One of the attention-grabbers Seid wanted to revive was
a system developed by MCA Universal in the early 1970s to add very
low-frequency effects to movies, especially the blockbuster disaster
movies popular at the time. This crude but pioneering system
foreshadowed the dedicated low-frequency effects channel in today's
digital 5.1 surround sound decades before 5.1 came into widespread use.
However, a Sensurround screening carried an implicit requirement for
loudspeakers capable of reproducing the very low frequencies the system
generated at sufficient levels to create the desired sensations in the
audience. In the '70s, producing this amount of very low frequencies was
not easy. Fortunately for Seid, subwoofer technology had improved hugely
in the intervening 30 years since Sensurround's brief existence, in part
due to the development efforts of Meyer Sound.
Conveniently for Seid, the Meyer Sound factory is located in West
Berkeley, only a few miles from PFA. "I called Meyer Sound not knowing
anybody there and expecting I would have to write letters upon letters
to get anywhere," says Seid, "but they put me through to (Executive Vice
President) Helen Meyer who quickly agreed to help with the project."
Meyer Sound loaned PFA the subwoofers it needed, and the showing of
1977's "Rollercoaster" was happily accompanied by the desired
In the fall of 2005 Seid again contacted Meyer Sound to see if there was
interest in taking a second shot at Sensurround. This time, the occasion
was a film series being planned as part of the San Francisco Bay Area's
commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake and
fire. Company founders and owners John and Helen Meyer were both
enthusiastic about the idea and turned the project over to Design
Associate Brian Long in the company's Design Services department. Long
had an interest in film technology, having spent time at Universal
Pictures Post Production Sound Department as part of his thesis work at
the University of Southern California.
in 70mm reading:
Recreating Sensurround in England
Selling Sensurround equipment
2832 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
subwoofers on the floor. Image by Brian Long.
"We were fortunate to have the time to research the technology
thoroughly and devise the most accurate method of recreating it, so that
the technology would integrate well with modern film projection systems"
Long says. Between the different versions of the technology and the way
its information was stored, research was very much in order just to
understand the system enough to recreate it.
Long found out that Sensurround's extended low-frequency content came
from a noise source triggered by control tones on an audio track.
Depending on the film format (of which there are a great many), the
control information was stored on either the optical track or one of the
magnetic tracks. In the original, Mark I version of the system, the
noise source was a noise generator card in the controller unit, but the
Mark II version recorded the noise directly onto a track on the film.
However the noise and control signals were stored, the resulting signal
was sent on to amplifiers that drove custom-built subwoofers.
Sensurround was utilized for only 5 films: "Earthquake" (1974),
"Midway" (1976), "Rollercoaster" (1977), "Battlestar Galactica"
(1978), and "Zoot Suit" (1981). Despite its short life, Sensurround
was quite effective, and the lore is filled with tales of people running in
fear and plaster falling from theatre ceilings the night "Earthquake"
Long's research led him to Thomas Hauerslev of
www.in70mm.com, a website containing
extensive documentation of Sensurround's technology and history. Hauerslev
knew of multiple Sensurround systems in active use at 70mm cinemas in
Europe, which was a good start, but, unsurprisingly, there were
complications. To start, there were several flavors of controller boxes (to
accommodate Mark 1 and Mark 2 formats, and optical or magnetic storage for
the control information), but the other conundrum was that the
"Earthquake" print was in the Mark I optical format and the only known
extant 35mm Sensurround controllers were Mark II boxes, without the Mark I
controller's noise generator card.
Sensurround control box (grey box) in the projection room. Image by
Over the course of the next few months, help came from Darren Briggs, Thomas
Hauerslev, Jeff Taylor at Universal Pictures, Ron Surbuts at Dolby
Laboratories, and the late R.J. Stumpf (one of the original Sensurround
patent holders). Finally, a working 35mm Sensurround Mark 2 control box —
modified to be compatible with Mark 1 prints — was found and loaned to PFA.
Surbuts provided extensive technical support in interfacing the box to a
current Dolby film processor.
The one-of-a-kind controller was integrated into the PFA theatre's playback
system in combination with a mixing console and a Meyer Sound CP-10
complementary phase parametric equalizer to alleviate grounding and gain
issues. A Meyer Sound UPM-1P ultra-compact wide coverage loudspeaker and M1D
ultra-compact subwoofer enhanced the projection booth monitoring system,
while six 700-HP ultrahigh-power subwoofers were deployed at the front of
the theatre. Sensurround's original specification for locating the
low-frequency loudspeakers were different than this, but current fire codes
did not allow the original locations. However, the modified placement did
little to affect the performance.
San Francisco's earthquake centennial proved to be a series of events
stretching out over weeks and spanning the entire Bay Area, from an
earthquake photo exhibit at the city's Museum of Modern Art ("SOMA MOMA," as
it is known) to an exhibit about the earthquake's effect on San Jose at
Silicon Valley's California History Center, and, of course, the actual
commemoration event at Lotta's Fountain in San Francisco at 5:12 AM on April
18, the day and time that marked 100 years since the city shook. PFA made
their whimsical and successful contribution to the affair a week and a half
before that day, presenting a screening of "Earthquake" with, well,
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