THX: Better sound, to the letter

Earlier in 2010, one of the world’s foremost experts on sound, Senior Fellow and Director of Education at THX, John Dahl, visited Australia as a guest of Pioneer Electronics, and shared what THX can mean to the home cinema lover.

And most importantly, he settled the vital matter of what ‘THX’ actually stands for. The competing theories are that it comes from George Lucas’ first feature film, 1971’s THX 1138 (based on his short student film of the same name), or was derived from the name of THX’s first main movie and thus stood for the Tomlinson Holman eXperiment.

Dahl’s answer: both!

It’s the standards that matter

Now THX is not primarily about creating electronic products or new audio formats, although it has participated in developing some. It has largely remained true to its origin of setting standards. This might seem like a foreign concept in Australia, but standards need not necessarily be set by government bodies alone.

Did the “THX” name come from George Lucas’ first feature film, the 1971 “THX 1138”?

It all started when George Lucas found that experiencing his movies in cinemas was highly variable, in large part depending upon the cinema itself. Many contained poor equipment, or decent equipment that was poorly calibrated or installed. Lucas created THX with the mission of developing standards for cinemas. He wanted his movies to look and sound out in the real world exactly the way he made them to look and sound.

So THX set standards for how a cinema should be constructed and the specifications of its equipment, and then offered certification services. If a cinema met THX’s tests, it was allowed to display the three magic letters, and run the rip-tearing THX surround sound trailer.

Good marketing, indeed, and a guarantee that the movie would be free of lousy focus, tinny sound and other distractions away from the movie-viewing experience. Since then some 2000 cinemas have been THX certified. Unfortunately, only two of them are in Australia, both in Melbourne: the Village Regent in Ballarat and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.

With extraordinary prescience, as early as 1990 THX also developed standards for home theatre equipment. The aim, as with cinema certification, was to ensure that the equipment would deliver a result in keeping with the movie makers’ intentions.