Surround Sound: Making movies sound like real life

Chad Underwood
4 min readSep 27, 2022

Surround sound makes the movie theater experience worth the price of admission.

Last year, I convinced my wife we should have a theater in our house. I had spent the preceding year learning as much as I could about theaters. I had a small budget to work with considering I needed everything.

So I hopped on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace looking for a deal like I always do.

Photo by Sandy Kawadkar on Unsplash

In my research I figured out the most important thing is the speakers.

So I started looking into the different surround sound layouts. I was familiar with 5.1 since it had been around since I was a kid. The others were completely foreign to me. There’s formats including 13.2, 9.1, 7.1.2, 9.1.4, Dolby Atmos, and many more.

Today I’m going to share my learnings.

Now let’s dig deeper into surround sound.

A quick surround sound history lesson

Surround sound started in 1941 with Fantasia.

Yes the Disney movie. The sound engineer created 4 separate tracks of an orchestra. Using these tracks he assigned specific instruments to certain speakers. The sound needs to be turned up or down depending on how the sound was used.

In the 70s, George Lucas was the first to use the technology Dolby Stereo for Star Wars. Using Dolby Stereo he was able to move the sound to the rear giving the effect of things on the screen flying by. Other films using this technique with the addition of subwoofers were able to create the effects of explosions to their sound.

Fast forward to the 90s, a new technology, DTS (Dolby Theater Systems), hit the market. Jurassic Park was the first movie to use this technology. This tech was the beginning of what me and you know as DVDs and Blu Rays.

Surround sound setup today

In all of the above examples and current day applications of surround sound, the sound engineer is creating audio with different volume levels.

These volume levels are applied to specific channels. Each speaker location is called a channel. This is similar to the way spatial audio works but on individual speakers instead…

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Chad Underwood

American writer sharing experiences in life, writing, technology, and content creation.