Cinema sound is experiencing a renaissance. It may be limited for now to large format theatres, but it’s a renaissance nonetheless. Several new high-channel sound formats are now in the market, and more are to come. The 16 channels of uncompressed sound in the SMPTE DCP format are beginning to have the ring of Bill Gates infamous “640K is enough.” Creative minds want more channels than 16, and the race is on to commercially achieve this within the current framework.
Cinema has long been the playground for experimentation with sound. In recent years, Dolby tinkered with adding more channels by introducing the 7.1DS format. 7.1DS took the existing plane of surround speakers, divided the array differently, and introduced two more channels of sound. While a few movies were released in this format, the audience wasn’t impressed. Something more is needed.
Prior to the introduction of 7.1DS, IOSONO spent a few years demonstrating its multi-speaker wave field synthesis sound system in a sound stage on a Warner lot. Wave field synthesis introduces waves of energy that converge in space, producing a sound wave that appears to emanate from a position in the room, versus from behind the screen or from a surround array. It is a fascinating thing to hear. IOSONO, while much more interesting than 7.1DS, is still limited to one plane of sound. With IOSONO, the sweet spot is within that plane. If one pokes their head above the plane, the effect goes away. IOSONO comes with a big price tag. The system, when first introduced, cost upwards of $150K for the speaker array, processors, and amplifiers required to cover a reasonably sized auditorium.
Neither Auro-3D nor IMM have attempted to go down the wave field synthesis path, focusing instead on the perception of spatial sound by adding multiple speakers in a hemispherical array. Your author has yet to hear IMM’s system, but has listened to Auro-3D, most recently in Hong Kong at CineAsia. As with IOSONO, with the right effects, it can be quite stunning. The advantage of the hemispherical array is that it costs less than a wave field array, and clearly adds a different dimension to the sound. But with all of these systems, when it comes to music and dialog, it’s difficult to convey much beyond left, center, and right. In addition, all of these systems employ some form of proprietary compression to encode the audio into the 16 channels of the DCP.
However one may analyze it, sound effects played through these systems produce an experience not heard in cinema today. And while it may seem that the big name in sound, Dolby, has taken a back seat, Dolby is not without a healthy trick or two up its sleeve. While no announcements have been made, enough information has leaked to sketch out Dolby’s plan.
First, some history. Dolby has not had the best luck with compression schemes for cinema. It was no secret that, when presented with early digital cinema demonstrations, the noticeable improvement to audiences was the clarity of the sound. That was due to the pristine uncompressed sound of digital cinema, which, to be polite, simply trumps the sound of massively compressed Dolby Digital tracks commonly found on film. Rather than add more channels of sound to digital cinema using a new compression scheme, Dolby plans to introduce a new digital description technique based on an extensive library of digitally stored sound wavelets. To reproduce sound using Dolby’s technique will require special distributions and proprietary Dolby electronics in the playback system. In terms of speaker arrays, it remains to be seen whether the company plans to move down the wave field synthesis path or the hemispherical array path.
It will be a bold move for Dolby, and very possibly, a good one. Fundamentally, the requirement for special distributions and proprietary Dolby electronics is no different than the requirements of each of its newly minted competitors. This move will place Dolby in its element. It was Dolby who first introduced proprietary electronics to cinema sound, and as Dolby demonstrated so well in the past decade, it has no idea how to compete in the non-proprietary world. Dolby servers now rank 4th place in the US. It has at least three competitors to contend with for specialized sound, none of which have Dolby’s brand strength. Barco’s Auro-3D has perhaps the best chance to compete, as Barco will soon be able to bundle projector, media block, and sound in one package.
For exhibitors, the renaissance of sound should be welcome. Adding some well-placed amps and speakers will generate a lot more value with audiences than a mere digital projector. And with 3-D losing its shine, exhibitors are likely to embrace these new sounds formats all the more in 2012.
But for distributors…well, that’s a different story. In the 90’s, when multiple digital sound formats appeared for film, the distributor was in charge. There were real technological limitations in the early days for recording digital sound on film. As a result, if only select formats were recorded on the film, then the exhibitor scrambled to buy the necessary equipment to play the movie with full effect. But with digital cinema, the exhibitor is in charge. There are no technological limits that allow the distributor to pick and choose. Consequently, the distributor is obliged to distribute everything, giving the exhibitor what they want. This, of course, requires that the specialized sound track be delivered in time for distribution. However one looks at it, this is not a pretty situation for distributors.
If hemispherical sound becomes popular, the next step, encouraged by studios, should be to normalize the speaker placement so that one mix can accommodate all systems. Normalizing the distribution format, however, may be challenging. If more than 16 channels is required, and the different encodings are readily available, then the distributor has no choice but to distribute multiple DCPs. For distributors, high-channel sound will be synonymous with “grin and bear it.” For those who plan to bring new metadata schemes into play that allow systems to choose the right CPLs, this will be your time to shine.