Barco is a display company. Audio is not in its DNA. But looking ahead to the pending sales cliff, every company in digital cinema, including Barco, is looking for ways to expand products and services to mitigate loss in future sales. Barco cannot be criticized for taking a leap into cinema sound through its exclusive cinema license with Auro3D. In fact, there are opportunities in cinema sound waiting for those with muscle to get in the game. But whether or not Barco is playing the right game deserves review.
There is a lot to like about Auro3D. The 11.1 speaker layout and soundfield were designed after much experimentation and thought. There are three tiers of surround speakers in the auditorium, positioned and angled to allow the mixer the ability to excite the room with a realistic sense of atmosphere. Sound mixers like mixing to the format. It isn’t gimmicky, and it lends itself nicely to folding down the surrounds to a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 mix. Exhibitors like the sound of the system, and note that it doesn’t require a massive array of speakers above the heads of the audience. It’s not uncommon to hear that the Auro3D soundfield is preferable to that of Dolby Atmos.
But those aren’t the features that make Auro3D a proprietary format. The distribution scheme is designed to squeeze an 11.1 mix into a standard 5.1 sound track. The compression scheme is clever, and the people behind Auro3D are very proud of it. But frankly, digital cinema could fit the 11.1 channel format in a standard 16-channel uncompressed audio track file, and deliver to the same speaker array and create the same soundfield. The intellectual property behind Auro3D doesn’t have much to do with the sonic beauty of Auro3D. That is indeed a major issue for Barco, which has licensed the IP.
One doesn’t have to know much about cinema sound to know that Barco’s competition is Dolby Atmos. The two companies are motivated differently for their cinema sound products. Dolby’s primary goal is to extend its brand in sound. After being asleep for 10 years, the company woke up to realize that its brand value wasn’t as strong as it could be. It bought the naming rights to the Hollywood theatre that is home to the Academy Awards and the American Idol finals (formerly Kodak Theatre), and re-invigorated itself as a cinema sound company by introducing Atmos. What makes Dolby particularly tough to compete with is that the company doesn’t need an ROI through sales from its cinema program. Atmos can be funded as brand promotion. Dolby has just under $1B in annual revenue, and can afford to give away hundreds of Atmos systems to build a sufficient presence in cinema, bolstering its name and reputation with cinema audiences. In contrast, Barco’s only purpose for entering the cinema audio market is to make an ROI. It cannot afford to give away its systems: it does not have a presence in the consumer market that will benefit from co-branding with cinema. It didn’t get in the cinema sound business to give systems away.
Dolby has plenty of other strengths, too. It’s the most trusted name in cinema sound, and no sound mixer will get criticized for recommending them. Given this, it’s a no-brainer to understand that if a high-channel-count mix is going to be created for a movie, the chance of Dolby being used is very high, if not 100%.
Sound mixers may like Auro3D, but they only want to create one mix for a movie. They aren’t given budget or time to create multiple mixes. When creating multiple mixes, the goal is to match creative intent across platforms. Dolby considered this when designing the Atmos mixing system, and incorporated an automated method for synthesizing the 5.1 and 7.1 mix, allowing the mixer to spend more time mixing Atmos, and having to spend less time on the legacy mixes. Of course, Dolby Atmos does not synthesize an 11.1 mix for Auro3D. And of course, Auro3D mixing tools cannot generate an Atmos mix.
Where things go wrong for Barco and Auro3D is in the mixing room. The deal announced this month to produce Dreamworks movies in the Auro3D format is impressive, but not impressive enough to make Auro3D a success in cinema. To win over the other studios, Barco has to address the single mix issue.
That’s not an easy task. Dolby has done a brilliant job of defining the game in its own terms. One of the pillars for Dolby’s platform is its intent to distribute Atmos in a proprietary track file. Fundamentally, this is no different a strategy than the proprietary distribution which Barco requires. But Dolby dominates the mix room, and Barco doesn’t. If only one mix is to be generated, and that mix is Atmos, then Barco is out of the game. To achieve the goal of single mix, a method is needed to translate Atmos to Auro3D. There are three ways to do this, all of them requiring an uphill climb.
The first two methods translate formats in the mixing room. A cross-mix may be possible directly in the mixing room’s digital audio workstation. The workstation software used for Atmos is Pro Tools, with Dolby’s plugin. Once the mix is created, it may be possible for an Auro3D plugin to pick up the files created in Pro Tools and automate the 11.1 mix. Barco has even suggested as much. It’s such a simple idea, that Dolby most certainly has thought of it, too. One would expect Dolby to engineer a way to protect its mix so that it only works with its plugin, if not now, then soon.
The second option, also to be executed in the mix room, is to generate demand for the 11.1 mix such that Dolby is encouraged to include it in its own plugin. Several people in the industry have suggested standardizing the 11.1 format, as the 16-channel track file in the DCP can carry it without need for Auro3D’s intellectual property, and the soundfield of the format is well liked. But for Barco, this is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The third option is to redefine the game into one that both Barco and Dolby can play. Obviously, no game defined by Barco is going to be readily adopted by Dolby. As much as it is a long shot, it’s the one that remains standing. If the distribution format employed by Atmos were open, then anyone could mix to it. An open distribution format would open up the market for competitive mixing tools, as well as competitive rendering engines inside the cinema sound processors. It would require Barco and Auro3D to redefine their own game, by moving away from their clever compression scheme, and into an open distribution scheme that would embrace object-based sound. Once a standard distribution format is created that includes object-based sound, Dolby’s public-company-minded attorneys would have a difficult time allowing their engineers to turn their backs to it. It’s more difficult, however, to visualize Barco and Auro3D traveling this path, as it requires R&D in an area neither company is currently proficient in. But it’s an option nonetheless, and there aren’t many to choose from.