Immersive sound was first introduced to cinemas in 2012, independently by both Auro Technologies and Dolby, with DTS:X following in 2015. Despite its four year history, these are still early days for immersive sound, for numerous reasons. It can be quite expensive to install. It has yet to demonstrate an ROI in cinemas. And with the exception of a handful of releases, audiences have a difficult time appreciating it. If immersive sound is to become the new standard for cinema, its success will start with the mix.
With this thought in mind, a panel, creatively titled “The Mix,” was held this month in Hollywood by the local chapters of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPTE). On the panel were award-winning motion picture sound mixers Tony Lamberti and Greg Russell. Also on the panel was David Gould of Dolby, and co-moderators Jim DeFilippis (former VP TV Engineering at Fox) and yours truly. [An important note: all three immersive sound technology providers were invited to participate, but only Dolby was able to do so.]
The discussion began with the value of immersive sound from the point-of-view of a mixer. The message received was clear and simple: to a mixer, the goal has always been to immerse audiences in sound. The only difference today is that the methods to do so are becoming more sophisticated. In other words, what is now called “immersive sound” is viewed as an improvement, not an innovation. Not that the improvements are without value. It was applauded that Dolby introduced with Atmos the use of full-range surround speakers, as opposed to the limited range surround speakers made popular in earlier days by Dolby and THX for use in 5.1 and 7.1 surround arrays. This is a common compliment heard from sound mixers. [Editor note: John Allen was the first to introduce full-range surrounds in 1980, but the significance of his effort did not receive wide recognition.]
The nature of immersive sound as an improvement is evident in the manner in how immersive mixes are created. Quoting from experience, the mixers said there is no fast rule for creating a mix in multiple formats. Some mixes begin with 5.1 and move to an immersive format. Some mixes begin with an immersive format and move down the scale to 5.1. Whichever case occurs, both Lamberti and Russell complained that they are asked to do more mixes in less time. Which raises the question of how Creative Intent is managed.
Cinema is most obviously distinguished from home entertainment by its grand scale, but cinema also offers a more controlled environment than the home. To those creating a movie, the cinema is where the quality of their efforts is best conveyed. To be sure, cinemas have their set of challenges in maintaining high standards. The audience consisted of Hollywood professionals, and there were plenty of anecdotal comments. Perhaps the most notable made by a mixer who experienced his mix in multiple cinemas in Brazil, noting that in every cinema the wrong channels were coming out of the surround speakers. Clearly, this was a quality control issue related to improper placement of sound tracks on the widely-distributed DCP, which the cinemas have no control over.
Both Lamberti and Russell have worked with the Dolby Atmos format, and to some extent, Auro 3D. Neither have yet mixed in DTS:X. It was good to hear happy experiences in moving an Atmos mix to Auro. But with the constraint of time weighing heavily on the mix process, the ability to adequately manage multiple mixes will arise.
This is an area where object-based sound should help. When sound elements are treated as objects, then automated mix-down tools can better manage the constraints of alternative formats. The only format where this concept has been successfully applied, however, is from object-based Dolby Atmos to channel-based 5.1 and 7.1, using Dolby’s own tools. The great divide yet to be crossed is the translation of a mix created in one object-based format to another object-based format, such as will occur when moving from an Atmos mix to DTS:X and the forthcoming Barco AuroMax formats. Typically, it’s expected that such translations will take at least a day per format to manage. But in a production process where every day matters, it’s easy to imagine that the mixer could be removed from the process in favor of automated tools, and creative intent could take a back seat.
Standards committees like to pontificate on how to best manage such situations, but ultimately it comes down to the will of the technology providers to provide the tools. In the past, managing multiple distribution formats meant moving a 5.1 channel-based mix into Dolby Digital, DTS, and SDDS, without the need for, say, Dolby, to provide the tools for moving a proprietary soundtrack to a competitive format. But object-based sound moves the proprietary nature of the technology upstream into the mixing environment, where it’s difficult to imagine, again, Dolby, offering tools that gracefully move a mix made in Atmos to DTS:X or AuroMax. Ideally, the technology providver should not find itself in a position where it must take special steps to enable a competitor.
The best way to manage sound across platforms is to have a neutral format in which the master is created, but this concept is completely foreign to how object-based mixes are generated today. Who would make and support such “neutral” tools? Distributors and exhibitors worry today about how to manage multiple immersive formats in distribution. They might give thought to how those mixes are to be generated in the first place, if creative intent is to be preserved.