A prediction made a few years ago in this publication is that this would be the decade for sound in cinema. It wasn’t that hard of a prediction, given that the prior decade was focused on picture, and after picture, there’s…well… sound. What wasn’t easy to predict as digital cinema was being developed was the acceptance of rendered soundfields, versus traditional channel-based sound that requires no rendering. The technology is so new that 10 years of open standards work on digital cinema completely missed it, opening the door for proprietary distributions. And we may be premature in saying that rendered soundfields have been “accepted.”
Two organizations took steps this month to address the issue of distribution of emerging sound formats, one viewing it as a problem, the other as an opportunity. Neither hit the mark.
The National Association of Theatre Owners, the exhibition trade body in the US, along with the Union Internationale des Cinémas, the umbrella organization of national exhibition trade bodies in Europe, jointly issued a document titled “Immersive Sound Requirements.” It’s an odd document, dictating the principle that “It is critical that there not be multiple proprietary solutions for theaters.” It then offers two acceptable distribution schemes, the first of which bundles many formats into a single distribution. If taken literally, the proposal is contrary to how the digital Composition works. But demonstrating even less understanding, the concept is already embodied in the combo 5.1 / Auro3D / Atmos distributions that are possible today.
The second scheme outlines a solution where sound is rendered in the cinema. Rendered sound, however, violates the principal of no “multiple proprietary solutions.” Rendering engines go hand-in-hand with particular speaker arrays – think of these as a matched pair. In a marketplace of rendering engines, there will be those that render to smaller, lower cost, arrays of speaker, and those that render to large, very expensive, speaker arrays, each “matched pair” of rendering engine and speaker array a proprietary system.
It would have made more sense for NATO to say that exhibitors are choosing to invest in sound systems of different design, and the industry would like the best possible sound to be delivered to all systems, as frequently as possible. This, certainly, is the white elephant in the room, and the problem that exhibition should be complaining about. It is a very difficult problem, as it points to the need to efficiently mix soundtracks for multiple systems – not a simple feat. But flaws aside, the document serves as a clear statement that exhibitors are frustrated with the current situation in new cinema sound.
MPEG, a subgroup of ISO Joint Technical Committee JTC1, always looking ahead, sees lots of opportunity to define yet another MPEG delivery format to consumer equipment. The group issued a Call for Proposals, with a wish list that only a committee could make up, including support for NHK’s 22.2 sound format, and object-based sound. The fascinating part is that they require a response in a matter of months, and expect to move forward with a solution this summer. Insiders say the solution is already 80-90% complete, and that the Call for Proposal was issued out of recognition that the format is of no use without content. MPEG has its hits and misses. Not every standard MPEG produces takes off in the marketplace. But the core message in MPEG’s Call for Proposals is that commercial interests, other than Dolby, are interested in bringing more sound to the home. Cinema owners, take note.