Your author quelled the happiness at the recent SMPTE 21DC10 Mastering Working Group meeting by bringing up a discussion of Annex A of 429-2, which defines audio packaging for SMPTE DCP. Annex A of SMPTE 429-2 defines three different audio formats: 5.1, 6.1 (EX Surround), and 7.1 (SDDS). But none of these will work for Pixar’s so-called 7.1 audio format that will be available to select theatres for Toy Story 3. The new format incorporates 4 channels of surround sound, which when added to the 3 channels behind the screen, and the subwoofer (the .1 part), one gets 7.1 channels of sound. In contrast the 7.1 format introduced by Sony in the mid-90’s places 5 channels of sound behind the screen and uses only 2 channels of surround sound.
Disney has expressed – to your author, at least – its intent to permanently include the new sound format with all future 3-D releases. This is good use of the capability of digital cinema, and gives exhibitors something new to market. Dolby has not made any announcements, but it has been discussing a new 11.1 sound format with Disney, which presumably has 5 channels behind the screen (as with SDDS), 5 channels of surround in the rear (utilizing a center surround as in the EX format), and a ceiling speaker, also known in sound mixing circles as “voice of god.” If Dolby can find a studio willing to make such mixes, one can be sure that there will be an exhibitor that wants to take advantage of it.
But as strange as it sounds, SMPTE DCP is not ready for this. Through an odd set of circumstances, a “scratch pad” type format where 16 channels of sound can be distributed, and 16 channels played back, does not exist. The simple requirement is for a format that allows channel 1 in the distribution to appear at the channel 1 output, all the way up to channel 16. At the SMPTE meeting, the suggestion was to create a new “wild track format” in SMPTE 429-2 Annex A. Interestingly, Cinecert volunteered that it needed just such a format to satisfy DCI audio testing. There you go, yet another change to existing SMPTE standards.
The other glitch in the introduction of these new formats is that Dolby wants an exclusive for 1 year in selling cinema audio processors that support it. Heavens knows why – the industry went through great length to prevent anyone from becoming a gate-keeper for digital cinema distributions. 30 years ago, when Dolby did have intellectual property in film sound formats, such requests were understandable. But Dolby still has strong relationships in Hollywood, and as such, it appears that Disney will do what it can to honor Dolby’s request, even though it’s not sure why it should do so.