1970's Cinema Sound Systems

I’m curious as to whether anyone else has noticed that sound in cinemas in the 70’s (maybe before that as well, but too young then to remember) had a very specific quality to it. Hard to describe, but was equally apparent on music played before the picture started so it was clearly a property of the cinema sound systems rather than recorded sound on the film.

It had a sort of voluninous, deep bass, without much impact, a smooth almost recessed midrange and a smooth delicate treble. It was not realistic at all but somehow had a very appealing quality.

I could never recreate anything like it at home when watching movies. Doing some research on-line it seems that professional cinema sound systems back then were mostly old valve amps driving very large horn-loaded speakers, obviously hidden below or behind the screen.

I guess it was that combination and a large auditorium that produced the very specific voicing. Meaning it is something probably impossible to recreate at home.

Even though it was hardly realistic it was enjoyable and I do miss it when I watch those films now at home, despite my system being far more realistic!

Anyone else noticed this - or is it just me?

The sound in cinemas from early 1950s (and earlier) at least through to late 1970s was reproduced by large horns behind the screen (google Altec Lansing Voice of the theatre). Being horns they had a very open sound, and were very efficient, while multiple 18" bass drivers were common. Cinemas then were also very large spaces, not usually cuboid, and seats/people provided a lot of sound absorption and diffusion. I don’t recall the characteristics you describe, not noticing anything lacking, though of course limited by the range of music played.

I once had a pair of speakers that were, or were clones of, the smallest of the VOTC speakers (A7), main boxes 4’6 by 2’6 by 2’ housing a single 15" driver with a horn covering upper bass to lower midrange, plus additional mid/HF and “super tweeter”’ horns in another box on top. The main box was far too heavy for me to
lift, so I split it into two parts, with gasket and clamps to fix, and I could just about manage it. They didn’t sound good at low volume in my lounge, but in a pub or moderate sized hall with volume cranked up (driven by a 50wpc hifi amp), people thought there was a live band playing until they saw it was just a disco.


In the 60/70s you where probably listening to the sonic characteristic of an optical soundtrack embedded into the film reel.

Probably not very hifi, presumably the cinema speaker system would be designed to match the optical soundtrack.

Buy yourself a 16mm projector and a few films if you want to recreate a sound digital can’t match. It’s good fun as well.

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