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SOUNDS ODD  by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
10. Surround Sound - A Man Cave Original
We tend to think that we’re the first people in history to enjoy "surround sound.” But guess what? We’re about 5,000 years too late to claim that distinction.

In 1982 (a mere 30 years ago), I worked for an accounting firm near George Lucas’s ranch in Northern California whose clients included audio engineers at Lucas Film.

When their first THX soundtracks came out in 1983 (with Return of the Jedi), they blew our minds. A substantial improvement over previous film sound, THX soundtracks bounced from speaker to speaker, and engulfed the listener in a tsunami of sound that forever changed our movie-going experience.


It’s remarkable, then, to realize that our ancient ancestors probably experienced a similar miracle using a careful combination of features from the land around them.

Scientists from the Prehistoric Picture Project - a joint research venture between the University of Cambridge (England), Fritz Lang Institute, FH St Pölten (Austria), and the Bauhaus University, Weimar (Germany) - speculate that ancient people took advantage of a combination of strategically carved petroglyphs, landscape acoustics, and fabulous storytelling to enthrall early audiences every bit as much as Star Wars industrial light and magic does today.

Imagine it:
A carved rock face on a cliff in Valcamonica, a long and deep valley north of Brescia in the Italian dolomite Alps.
Images of men, weapons and animals appear on a shallowly-engraved rock surface that has been chosen for its orientation to the setting sun. As eerie shadows creep across them, the figures appear to move.
While this is happening, a storyteller weaves a tale that mesmerizes his audience. Across the valley, his ‘accomplices’ watch intently, waiting for a cue to play drums and flutes and horns that gather in intensity, and echo back to the group gathered beneath the changing rock face with subtle reverb.
You could argue that this was one of the first examples of ‘voice over’ tied to a moving image, and one of the first examples of surround-sound.


Scientists from the Prehistoric Picture Project are recreating these scenes using modern filmmaking techniques.

Archaeo-acoustics, a relatively new branch of archeology, is finally adding the sound that has been missing from this "silent science” since we first started finding evidence of our ancient predecessors thousands of years ago.

The thing that fascinates me about the Prehistoric Picture Project is that even though everything else has changed in our modern world – the images and sounds that we find compelling, and the relative sophistication of our audiences – the need for compelling storytellers has not changed.


If ‘The Oldest Profession’ is unmentionable, surely a close second for that title is "Compelling Narrator.”

Great storytellers have been a vibrant part of human culture since time began, and voice actors are part of that long, long tradition.

Remember that, the next time you’re at your microphone. Fortunately, the rest of us don’t have to go to ‘a galaxy far, far away’ to hear your story, or a chilly mountainside in the Italian alps. We’re as close as our speakers or earbuds.

This article was adapted from Prehistoric Picture Project – Making Rock Art Visible.

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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Comments (2)
2/4/2013 at 12:09 PM
How fun!
jennifer dixon
2/4/2013 at 10:51 AM
Elizabeth ,
I enjoy your articles! Entertaining and educational.To be elevated to second in line to the 'Oldest Profession' certainly helps put things into perspective!!! ;-) Let's hope we are as much in demand..... Great day all.
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