The history of cinema is ripe with experimentation in cinema sound. Most all cinema sound system designs focus on locating point sources for sound in the auditorium. Thirty years ago, Ioan Allen of Dolby drove the horseshoe surround array concept for cinemas, causing surround sound to emanate as a non-directional field from an array of speakers surrounding the audience. THX further developed the concept by specifying the characteristics of the speakers and the design of the array. While this has become the mainstream concept behind cinema surround sound, not everyone agrees with it. Notably, IMAX continues to use point source surround speakers in its cinemas, avoiding the surround array concept. Fortunately, what IMAX does has no effect on mainstream cinema, and the concept behind modern cinema sound has been relatively stable for 35 years. Hopefully for the better, all of this is about to change.
Wilfried van Baelen, founder of Auro 3D, demonstrates with his system that an improvement in array placement is possible that can enhance audience experience. He is not alone in introducing improvements in cinema sound. Iosono, Imm Sound, and Dolby have their own contributions. But in this author’s opinion, Wilfried’s concepts are at once elegant and profound. His speaker array does what it is intended to do – it provides an enhanced experience for the audience that is recognizable, but with minimal impact to infrastructure and budget. Dolby’s array for Atmos is interesting, but it looks and sounds like a design by committee. Iosono offers precision for sound placement in the room, but at a high cost. The question that the industry must now face is that if consistency from auditorium-to-auditorium is to be maintained, then how to pick the winner?
Dolby is attempting to win by sheer financial muscle, giving away its Atmos system to build its footprint. But the other contenders believe in what they have, and aren’t giving up so easily. The challenge that exists today, which was not present 30 years ago, is that there is no agreement as to which idea represents the best path forward.
The big difference between the choices available today and the choices available 35 years ago is that today’s solutions are each married to intellectual property. It was possible to attain consensus 35 years ago because a decision did not imply a restraint of trade. Consensus is also challenged by the truth that the industry would be far better off with competitive sound systems. The exhibition industry needs innovation to survive. Not just innovation in 2013, but innovation that can evolve over the years without taking a toll in production and in exhibition. Choosing winners and losers for cinema sound will kill competition, and kill innovation along with it.
There’s more at stake than just 1st release cinema, while we’re at it. The home market thrives on competition, too, and seeks multiple and evolving ways to deliver sound. The ideal is to create one mix, from which a variety of downstream mixes can be created without starting over.
This is where the advocates for object-based sound raise their hand. Object-based sound is not new. It’s the core sound technology behind video games. Sophisticated, complex game sound always matches the action on screen, and it does this by creating the mix on the spot while the game is in action. The key idea behind object-based sound for cinema is to render the downstream remix needed from a core object-based mix created in the studio. The rendering can take place in the studio, which doesn’t require the exhibitor to buy a rendering engine, or it can take place in the exhibitor’s projection booth, in which case the exhibitor invests in the rendering engine. To compare this to how sound is delivered today: the 5.1 and 7.1 mixes distributed widely to digital cinemas are “rendered” in the studio, while an Atmos mix is rendered in the projection booth.
The concept is simple, and has legs. It was first proposed by SRS with its Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) initiative. MDA is an open-source approach to object-based audio, suitable for stand-alone distribution to the cinema where it can be rendered by the rendering engine of choice, or for creating channel-based downstream audio formats prior to distribution. In 2012, SRS was acquired by DTS, which sees benefit in moving MDA forward.
To achieve the holy grail of a single studio mix, sound mixers must be convinced that the rendering engines for object-based sound can produce the desired sound fields needed of channel-based 5.1 and 7.1 mixes. While Dolby claims to have achieved this, it’s not evident that this is so. Skywalker Sound recently described how it addresses Dolby Atmos mixes: the “A” team is given the job of mixing the 5.1 and 7.1 mixes, and the “B” team gets the Atmos mix. There’s no time to do these mixes serially, the market value of the 5.1 and 7.1 mix is too high to allow it to be compromised, the footprint for the Atmos mix is small, and they don’t like the way Dolby’s rendering engine down mixes Atmos to mainstream formats.
But that problem doesn’t have to be solved today to make the case for standardizing MDA or an MDA-like format for digital cinema. There is already drive in the marketplace to bring object-based sound to the cinema. A competitive market should be established. The potential for a standardized object-based sound format to deliver benefits to both distributors and exhibitors is too high to discount. The year for moving this concept forward is 2013.