When Christopher Nolan first approached his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception composer about writing the music for the upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer turned down the opportunity.
“I was the reluctant bride on this one,” Zimmer recently told reporters. ”It’s an American icon. The John Williams [Superman] score was iconic, and I think it’s some of John’s best work. [I thought,] ‘Do I really want to follow in those footsteps?’”
But now the epic movie music maestro is very pleased that he ultimately signed on for what he called an “intimidating” task, and one reason is because it’s led to another chance for him and Nolan, who produced Man of Steel, to push the technology in their field. The deluxe soundtrack for Man of Steel was released today and features a new audio technology which creates a surround sound experience through regular headphones. It’s the first album to feature this new technology, called DTS Headphone:X.
Man of Steel soundtrack producer Peter Asher discovered DTS Headphone:X at a demo for Recording Academy members ahead of this year’s Grammy Awards.
“I was blown away by how great it sounded,” Asher said. “There have been lots of attempts historically to actually reproduce a proper surround listening experience out of two channels, but this was so much more effective than any of the ones I’d heard before.”
Reporters were recently treated to a demo of the technology with the Man of Steel soundtrack in the sound booth of Warner Bros.’ Eastwood Scoring Stage, where the film’s score was recorded. A representative for DTS first played a recording of Zimmer’s voice saying, “center,” “left rear,” “right rear,” etc. coming out of corresponding speakers in the room’s 11.1 surround sound system. Then reporters put on their headphones and listened to the recording again through the speakers — or so I thought. I really believed that sound was coming through the speakers again and not through the cheap headphones I was wearing. When the recording played for a third time, I found myself taking my headphones off and putting them back on again repeatedly for proof that this sound really was right next to my ears. The recording really does sound like surround — no matter what kind of headphones you’re wearing.
A video with an introduction by Zimmer played ahead of the demo of the Headphones:X mix of the score — music that ranges from soft and reflective to thrilling and bombastic. The video featured music from Man of Steel in the background, but when that video ended and the five-minute sample of the score with DTS Headphones:X technology began, it felt like the music suddenly moved away from my two ears and out in all directions around me.
During an interview with reporters following the demo, Zimmer admitted that he never listens to his scores on the CD or MP3 soundtrack. “I can’t stand it,” he said. “It’s just stereo. When I write, I write in surround. My life is in surround. Why would I settle for less? … I’ve been waiting for this moment where I can actually go and listen to one of my soundtracks without going, ‘Oh dear, it’s only stereo.’”
The DTS Headphone:X mix and encoding of the Man of Steel soundtrack simulates the 11.1 surround sound of Zimmer’s personal studio. DTS engineers went to the studio to create a binaural spatial map — like a sonic photo — of the studio, including of Zimmer’s own head to replicate how the music sounds to the composer in his own studio.
The illusion of surround sound is especially apparent on tracks featuring the score’s grand, explosive drums, which Zimmer recorded in an unconventional way: Instead of simply hiring a couple drummers to play timpani, he created a “drum circle” with 10 drum kits (as seen in the photo below). Among the drummers was Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. With DTS Headphone:X, it sounds like the listener is surrounded by these drums.
“When we came up with the insane idea of doing the drum circle, which I knew would work great in the cinema, I was going, ‘I want to have that on my CD,’” Zimmer said, also explaining that the difference between a drum circle and one or a couple drums is like the difference between a solo violin and a whole string section.
For now, there are no solidified plans to engineer a DTS Headphone:X version of the sound on the Blu-ray release of Man of Steel — music, dialogue, sound effects and all — but Asher said that he has “no doubt” that there will be discussions about that.
“Is the idea exciting to me that at some point somebody can watch this movie on an iPad, plug their headphones in, and hear it in 5.1? Absolutely yes,” Asher said.
The DTS Headphones:X version of the score is available with the purchase of the limited deluxe edition of the Man of Steel soundtrack (but not the standard edition). A free download of an app called Z+ comes with the deluxe edition — that app launches the DTS Headphones:X version of the soundtrack and works with both Android and iOS devices — and with any type of headphones.
The Man of Steel soundtrack is available now. Man of Steel, which stars Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, and Kevin Costner, opens in theaters Friday, June 14.
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