How I became a THX-Certified Professional

There is just something about the London Docklands on a Sunday – silent, weird, half-finished. One is tempted to shout Is there anybody out there at rows of luxury apartments that give off the atmosphere of mausoleums. It's like a futurist ghost town, straight out of the pages of a J.G. Ballard novel.

You can see why this area has found itself a favourite of movie location scouts, regularly turning up in all its desolate glory to provide pre- or post-apocalyptic backdrops to movies such as 28 Days later and Dirty Pretty Things.

So, what was I doing there, early on a Sunday, wafting around the light railway with an air of confused apprehension and just the barest smidgeon of an evil hangover? Why, oh lord. Why?

I was headed for a hotel next to the Excel Centre, where I was to be trained (or brained, I wasn’t sure which) into learning the ways of THX. I felt like a B-Movie Kung Fu student being initiated into an occult world of secret powers and elaborate beards. At the end of this momentous day, I would be a THX-Certified Professional. Or so I thought.

Origins of THX
THX is an interesting company. It doesn’t make hardware at all – the best way to describe THX is as an evolving set of standards for the complex business of creating and installing cinema systems. The company was founded by George Lucas and Tomlinson Holman in 1983. The name came from Lucas’s first movie, a dystopian sci-fi fantasy called THX1138. There's another story that circulates, that it was named after 'Tomlinson Holman eXperiment'. But apparently the origin of this story is a combination of coincidence and downright untruth.

THX offered a set of guidelines for cinema sound systems, during the period in which Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks began to proliferate. It was instrumental in developing standards for amplification power, speaker placement and configuration, and much else besides. If you go out and buy a home cinema system, its precise form is in part the result of the influence wielded by THX over the past 26 years.

The company created the first extended surround format – Surround EX – in 1999. Many amp manufacturers adapt their designs to meet the standards demanded by the company, and send them to be THX-certified. Certification only happens after many hours of extensive testing.

Optimisation, re-equalisation, and timbre matching
Now, when it comes to improving a TV’s picture using the ‘THX Optimiser’ disc, there’s not a great deal anyone could teach me. If I had a tenner for every time I’ve… etc. Been there, done that, waiting eagerly for my Blu-ray version as soon as they get around to sending me one.

But a lot of the stuff we covered on this dour docklands day was of genuine interest. Along with my fellow learners (installers, mostly) I was instructed in such arcane arts as THX-re-equalisation, timbre matching, and the ‘adaptive correlation’ that helps a system to create a suitably diffusive soundfield.

THX training: the words on-screen are a description, not advice on how to talk to your system

Trainer John Dahl was entertaining and knowledgeable, and appropriately full of interesting and mildly controversial claims like this: “Over 2kHz, sound is mostly determined by the speakers; below 200Hz it’s mostly the room; between 200Hz and 2kHz it’s a mixture of everything.”

THX trainer John Dahl

Then there was some fascinating stuff about speaker placement and room boundaries, not to mention a lengthy explanation of the various forms of THX certification (ultra2, Select2 etc), and the day was over before you could say ‘why aren’t I in the garden with a glass of wine?’

That was that. I was now a THX-Certified Professional. My mother would be so proud.

Except I wasn’t, actually – not yet. Like a trainee Jedi with a bit of a temper, I would have to pass a solemn test before receiving my officially sanctioned new status. Cripes.

So, a couple of days ago, with just a mild flutter of nerves, I took the THX exam. 86.75-per-cent, since you ask.

And that, friends, is how I became a THX-Certified Professional. It was worth the effort, I’d say. And almost worth going to the docklands for. But from now on I’m back to spending my Sundays in the garden with a glass of wine.