For the first time ever, SMPTE now has a full Technology Committee devoted to cinema sound. The majority of the group’s members hail it as a breakthrough. The senior members of the cinema sound community are expressing concern that the precepts upon which the industry has grown for the past 40 years are about to be tossed out the window. There is truth to both views.
The greatest challenge when establishing a new Technology Committee for standardization efforts is that of leadership. When 28DC was established, it being the first Technology Committee for Digital Cinema, leadership was in abundance. One could argue that there were too many leaders. There was money to be made in digital cinema, causing the committee to attract top talent. But that was also the greatest strength behind the effort, as strong, even if diverse, leadership funneled the drive of passionate engineers. We live with those results today: a successful industry was launched.
The challenge for new standards in cinema sound are very different, however, than those faced when developing digital cinema. No one will make big money by improving cinema sound. And unlike digital cinema, where there was a strong drive for the use of standardized, non-proprietary technologies, the improved cinema sound systems now being introduced are proprietary. The two major manufacturers involved, Dolby and Barco (Auro3D), are not interested in changing their sound systems, nor are they interested in sharing their intellectual property with their competitor. Neither is contributing leadership to the effort. That leaves only passionate engineers to drive SMPTE 25CSS. And therein lies a problem.
To add more challenges to the leadership issue, none of the work undertaken by 25CSS will affect distribution. That leaves out major studio participation from 25CSS. Even though its chair, Brian Vessa, oversees digital mastering for Sony Pictures, his presence is not matched by other studios.
25CSS has tasked itself with three significant efforts. It is evaluating alternative means to measure and adjust sound, an effort that is long overdue. It is pursuing a specification for pink noise when used as a signal for measuring cinema sound systems, also an effort long overdue (at least 40 years overdue). And it is pursuing a common layout for speaker arrays, a noble task, but one unlikely to yield any fruit.
Two successful efforts out of three would not be bad news. But each of the efforts undertaken has a membership with widely diverse opinions to manage. Without quality leadership, even those efforts most likely-to-succeed could fail. Worse, they could yield low quality results, leading to standards that confuse, rather than benefit, the industry. Thus the concern from the seniors in cinema sound. 25CSS is indeed a group to keep an eye on.