Market pressure can be the cause of new and unexpected behaviors, and in the case of immersive sound, it has also created odd bedfellows. NATO appears to be taking sides in a technology battle, without understanding the commercial implications of its actions. NATO’s support for DTS’ MDA immersive audio format inadvertently could accelerate the introduction of immersive audio in the consumer market, as well as have a negative impact on the preservation of creative intent in cinema.
Digital cinema has been struggling with immersive sound. Prior to its emergence, for over 40 years, little had changed in the placement of speakers. The speaker placements for 5.1 and 7.1 were agreed by convention, not by standard, with Dolby and THX driving. The two immersive sound formats now popular, Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro3D, have little in common in terms of speaker placement, and this isn’t going to change. The speaker placement dictated by each format is integral to the format.
With such different speaker placements emerging, one would hope that it’s possible to take a mix meant for one system and correctly reproduce it, as the sound mixer intended, on the other. However, neither Dolby nor the creators of the Auro format agree that this is possible without engaging in a remix. There is one company that claims this is possible, however, and that’s DTS. Notably, DTS no longer has a stake in cinema, having sold its cinema-related assets in 2008 to Datasat.
DTS is promoting its Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) immersive audio distribution format as an “open” distribution format for cinema. However, the company hasn’t been convincing about “open.” According to attendees that do not wish to be named, DTS has held sizeable meetings, with Barco and NATO in attendance, for the purpose of readying an MDA proposal for SMPTE. But the meetings are by invitation only, with time and location kept secret by all attendees. According to Dolby, its requests to attend have been met with silence. Even your author’s requests to participate have been met with silence.
The explanation for this behavior is complex, as there are several agendas in action. Exhibition would like to have mixes made available for the commercial sound system of choice, and is attracted to DTS’ promise that MDA is the answer. Barco, of course, needs content. Being new to cinema sound and weak in muscle when it comes to gaining movie mixes, Barco seeks allies in both DTS and NATO. DTS, on the other hand, has nothing to gain cinema-wise by promoting MDA, but a lot to gain consumer-wise. DTS has legitimate concern that Dolby will trump it in the consumer market by adapting Atmos mixes to a new immersive consumer sound format. While DTS could also introduce an immersive sound format for consumers, it doesn’t have access to immersive movie mixes, and could be left holding an empty bag. To add to the complexity of agendas, Auro, the company that licenses the Auro3D format to Barco exclusively, and only, for commercial cinema, also seeks to establish an immersive sound format in the consumer market. (Barco has no participation in Auro’s consumer format.)
The motivations of the players are diverse, and the story doesn’t get simpler when considering the technology that underlies it all. MDA, as presented at the Cinegrid conference last December, was envisioned as a mezzanine interchange format that combines spatial position and movement data with chunks, or “objects,” of sound. A rendering engine is required to translate data plus sound objects into an immersive sound field. (Just as a rendering engine is required for Dolby Atmos.) At CinemaCon, DTS demonstrated its rendering engine driven by the MDA format. The assumption made at that time by your author, since reconsidered after discussing it with both Auro and Dolby, was that it would be easy to adapt an MDA distribution to any speaker system with an appropriately designed rendering engine.
But the rendering of surround sound is not so straightforward. A simple, calculated pan across speakers in front of us results in the expected movement of audio, say, from left to right. But a simple, calculated pan across speakers located elsewhere in the room does not create the expected movement of sound. The proper rendering of surround sound is an art that could (and may already) lead to intellectual property. To obtain a soundfield that matches what the sound mixer intended, an entity is needed to ensure that the mix, the rendering engine (if one is used), and the speaker placement, all properly work together. This is what Dolby does for Atmos, and what Auro and Barco, together, do for Auro3D.
The conclusion of this author is that an open MDA or MDA-like distribution, without a company such as Dolby overseeing end-to-end results, will lead to a marketplace of 3rd party rendering engines that are unlikely to deliver the soundfield originally intended by the sound mixer. Content creators would no longer be assured that audiences would properly hear their immersive sound mixes, tarnishing the connection that feeds cinema with top content.
The winner, of course, would be DTS, if MDA were to be adopted as a standardized distribution format for cinema. DTS would gain the immersive movie mixes that it needs in order to introduce its own immersive consumer sound format.
There is no sin in having a commercial agenda for a standard, but there is one player whose agenda doesn’t fit, and that is NATO. NATO has unwittingly become the prime supporter of a process designed to benefit DTS in the home.