The good news for Dolby and Barco is that immersive audio is slowly growing its footprint in cinemas. At CineEurope, it was announced that Dolby Atmos now has 200 installations either in place or on order, and Barco’s Auro3D now with 70 installations. Atmos has stacked up 46 titles, and Auro says they’ll have 21 by the end of the year. The bad news for distributors and exhibitors is that these aren’t compatible formats. NATO (the US trade body of cinema owners), joined with UNIC (the representative of European trade bodies for cinema owners) in February to issue a public statement seeking immersive audio distributions that would play on all immersive audio systems. While the subject of a common distribution format for immersive audio gets a lot of talk, no one has done the hard work of demonstrating that such schemes preserve Creative Intent.
Among those who have been talking is DTS. DTS is no longer a player in cinema sound, but has been rallying others to support a distribution technology it now owns called MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio). MDA promises to be a royalty-free licensed distribution format for cinema sound, encompassing both object-based sound and channel-based sound channels, the combination of which is now called “immersive sound.” (This is a simplification – there are other audio technologies to which the term “immersive sound” can also be applied, but only objects and channels are used today in commercial implementations.) MDA could overcome the limitations of present-day Interop-DCP and SMPTE-DCP distributions, which are limited to channel-based sound. NATO, reportedly, has gone as far as to lend its support to MDA. But not everyone is on the MDA bandwagon. Dolby is moving forward in SMPTE with a different approach that will allow providers of immersive sound tracks to package them in a proprietary manner. Dolby doesn’t get a lot of kudos for its proprietary approach, but they can’t be faulted for taking strong measures to preserve Creative Intent.
In my December report on this subject, I gave the pitch for object-based sound, but with the important caveat that “sound mixers must be convinced…” that object-based sound tracks would render in an acceptable manner to channel-based formats. This is about preserving Creative Intent. I will expand what I said in December: sound mixers must also be convinced that an immersive sound distribution mixed for one format will render in an acceptable manner in a different immersive format. In other words, if Atmos was distributed in MDA, it should play acceptably on a non-Dolby system that is also capable of rendering an MDA sound track. That’s what open distribution is about, right? But will this preserve Creative Intent?
Next to preservation of the first release window, the preservation of Creative Intent is an important differentiator between cinema and consumer entertainment. Picture and sound in the cinema ideally are no different than that which the director experienced when buying off on the final release. Conversely, consumers get what they get when viewing the same release in a home or portable format, where the full experience of Creative Intent is hit-and-miss. This is unlikely to change for a long time: consumer companies are much more concerned with selling high volume entertainment products than with setting and abiding to strict standards designed to satisfy directors.
The pitch behind object-based sound is that, if done properly, Creative Intent will be conveyed in the cinema, regardless of the design of the immersive sound system. For this to be so, it places enormous reliance on the precision of rendering engines and associated speaker systems. In a competitive market, there could be several rendering system designs, and Creative Intent must be preserved across all of them when using a single distribution. So far, no one has proved this is possible. With all of the attention that MDA is getting, this is worrisome.
To be sure, Dolby is not the only company concerned with Creative Intent. At CinemaCon, and more recently at CineEurope, I had lengthy discussions about the multiple rendering engine dilemma with Wilfried van Baelen, the inventor of Auro3D. While Mr. van Baelen has now incorporated MDA into the studio mixing platform for Auro3D, he isn’t keen to have Auro3D mixes played on a MDA-compliant rendering engine other than the design used in the mixing room. It appears that neither Auro nor Dolby believe that a single distribution is possible.
To better understand the difficulty, it’s useful to review some basics of human hearing. We’re designed to localize audio when it is in front of us. When the sound is from behind, we may correctly perceive the general direction of the sound, but we’re much less capable of specific localization. Accordingly, an attempt to render a complex pan mixed for one immersive MDA-based sound system, say, from right front to left rear, over the heads of the audience, with a completely different MDA-based sound system, will be challenged to produce acceptable results.
The industry is setting high hopes for a single distribution format for immersive sound. But without proof that an MDA distribution can play correctly on rendering engines and speaker systems of different design, all of the talk about a single distribution format is moot. In particular, NATO and UNIC, who represent cinema owners in the US and Europe, could be sacrificing Creative Intent with the push for a standardized distribution for immersive sound. There is a lot more to consider in this than the matter of convenience.