Multiple new cinema sound formats are being introduced, creating a situation that is similar to that which occurred in cinema two decades ago. We review the history, and the lessons.
It was the Optical Radiation Corporation, in a collaborative effort with Eastman Kodak, that first introduced digital sound on film with its Cinema Digital Sound (CDS) format, designed for 70mm film. The year was 1990, and the movie was the 70mm release of Dick Tracy. L.C. Concept followed with the first CD-ROM-based version of digital-sound-for-35mm with the experimental re-release of Cyrano de Bergerac. Dolby Laboratories followed in 1992 with a printed digital-sound-on-film technology called Dolby SR/D, first released with the movie Batman Returns. It was 1993 when DTS introduced its own CD-ROM-based version of digital-sound-for-35mm film with the movie Jurassic Park. Soon after, Sony introduced an entirely different version of digital-sound-on-film with SDDS. Most formats worked with the same speaker placements. Notably, SDDS differed by placing 5 speakers behind the screen in its 7.1 format.
For cinema sound, the 90’s was a time of innovation, and exhibitors paid the price. Early releases with digital-sound-for-film supported only a single digital format. While convenient for distributors, it was exhibitors who had to invest in the different systems in order to play the digital audio tracks for the movie. It was many years later when film printing technology evolved such that the three surviving formats – DTS, SDDS, and SR/D – could be printed on the same print. In the meantime, multiple brands of equipment had been unnecessarily purchased, and the pain lingers today.
Interestingly, once again, 5 innovative systems have been announced for sound in cinema. But unlike the systems of the 90’s, the systems proposed today differ in terms of loudspeaker placement and sound processor, and each requires its own mixing system. This complicates the game quite a bit. In the 90’s, it was the exhibitor who experienced the bulk of the pain, as the (5.1) mixes could all be the same. Arguably it was the unbalanced nature of the pain in the 90’s that allowed the condition to persist. Today’s situation is different, though. Both distributor and exhibitor will feel the impact of multiple sound formats. While one would think that this would trigger a useful reaction, in reality, neither group has any control over the situation. Concern over violation of restraint of trade law will cause studios to stand back and watch, even though they may not like it.
Solutions, therefore, have to come from the manufacturers. Iosono’s proposal, originally promoted by this publication, is to encourage a market of competitive movie mixing systems, as well as competitive cinema playback systems, while standardizing the distribution channel. This works well with object-based sound, as it is the audio processor that renders the sound in the auditorium over a loudspeaker system that it is matched with. Give the playback system a standardized object-based sound file, and the audio processor will do its best to accurately render it in the auditorium given the speakers that it must work with.
Discussions towards this end began at CineEurope in Barcelona, which also happens to be home to Imm Sound. In fact, Europe is also home to three other providers of proposed systems, with Iosono based in Germany, Auro3D in Belgium, and Illusonic in France and Switzerland. If the European manufacturers succeed in developing a standardized object-based sound file format, it will not only heal the errors of the 90’s that were created by the Americans and the Japanese, but it will place Europe back in the heart of the cinema industry, where it once was over 100 years ago.
Interestingly, the common file format concept for object-based sound in pro-cinema has its match in the consumer space. DTS, which recently purchased SRS Labs, is pursuing an open format for delivering object-based sound to the home through the 3-D Audio Alliance (http://www.3daa.org/). Dolby, so far, is not participating in either effort.