As expected, Dolby introduced its Atmos sound system at CinemaCon, adding a fourth player in the 3-D sound for cinema game. Three other 3-D sound systems were represented at the trade show: Auro-3D, Imm Sound, and Iosono. When confusing choices are present, most exhibitors will go with the name they know best. But to understand what’s driving all of this, it’s important to look under the hood.
The good news is that the technology community recognizes that cinema sound could be much better. 5.1 digital sound has been around for 20 years. The sole improvement offered by digital cinema sound tracks as originally conceived is the removal of compression from the audio signal. While this has been demonstrated to present a noticeable improvement in quality to audiences, it only matches the quality already achieved with lossless compression for the home. This justifies the exploration of better sound formats, although the bad news, of course, is that they won’t come cheap.
Better sound means more speakers, more amplifiers, and more wiring. Sound systems today require speakers on walls. Sound systems tomorrow will require speakers on ceilings, hanging over audiences, which causes many installers and exhibitors to pause and study their insurance policies. All four systems mentioned require speakers that hang from the ceiling, although quantity and placement vary.
Importantly, all systems but Auro-3D, for the most part, relinquish channel-based sound for sound rendering. Rendering is the process of recreating the intended soundfield in the best possible manner using the speakers that are available. Sound rendering is possible today due to the power of digital signal processing (DSP). In fact, it’s not unheard of for manufacturers to ditch the special purpose DSP of old and simply employ readily available CPUs. For these systems, more speakers, more amplifiers, and a healthy dose of digital signal processing allow the system to recreate the intended soundfield.
Interestingly, each of the four systems has determined that a different speaker arrangement is ideal, and adjusted their sound rendering algorithms accordingly. Simply explained, Dolby and Iosono require a lot of speakers, Imm Sound and Auro-3D require less. Some go further than the mere rendering of sound. Imm Sound, for example, introduces reverberation in the playback system. Some list the unforgiveable “upmix” as a feature. Not unexpectedly, Dolby was quick to focus on the words “director’s intent” in its presentation at CinemaCon.
When it comes to marketing plans, it would seem that Dolby has the advantage. Dolby has a pile of cash, and a deep need to reassert itself in cinema. If one thing was demonstrated at the trade show, Dolby hasn’t completely messed up its name, and exhibitors will gladly run to it when faced with lesser-known competing brands. Dolby hasn’t been asleep at the wheel after all, and appears to have outlined its strategy to take Atmos to the home, having had discussions with consumer electronics companies and the makers of luxury automobiles. But Dolby is not the only company with assets. Imm Sound has a partnership with GDC, enabling it to push its system into China and elsewhere in Asia. Iosono has wavefield synthesis and patents, which will keep it in the game. Last and least, unfortunately, is Barco’s Auro-3D, which has neither name, market partner, nor enviable patents.
This publication went on record last month to say that the decision for winners and losers in the sound format game will be made at the mixing desk. After all, content is king. In this, Dolby has played with impressive adeptness. Its design decisions were made in conjunction with sound mixers, recognizing that their buy-in is crucial. Dolby was not only out to impress, it also focused on value. It’s goal was to speed up the sound mixing process, reducing the cost of a mix by allowing sound mixers to focus on soundfield placement, regardless of the target speaker system. The Atmos mixing system produces 5.1 and 7.1 mixes in a no-cost post-mix process that Dolby claims has won acceptance from the mixing community. Even if the competition has a better process, acceptance in the mix room is crucial. If Dolby succeeds in becoming the defacto standard for mixing, it could be game over for the competition.
With this in mind, has to wonder that if each of the sound rendering systems were to focus only on director’s intent, would they be able to render from the same sound file? So far, the different manufacturers are too proud to entertain that thought. But for those that wish to compete with a market leader, agreement on a standard sound file format would seem the defensive step to take.
Not yet having produced a product, Dolby’s introduction of Atmos appears to be premature, with the intent to disrupt its competition. But it was a legitimate move. The first movie to use Atmos will be Disney-Pixar’s Brave, out late June of this year. Dolby plans to test Atmos in 15 cinemas at that time – and exhibitors will be standing in line. The company plans to equip 1000 screens within the following year. That may seem ambitious, but it’s a clue that Dolby has more movies lined up. Rumor even has it that there’s an Atmos system in New Zealand.