Dean of Dolby: Audio pioneer Ioan Allen looks back on five decades of innovation

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Author’s note: I first met Ioan Allen, recipient of the International Cinema Technology Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, in the spring of 1976, shortly after I joined Dolby Laboratories. The company had just relocated from London to San Francisco and I spent my first few weeks literally unpacking boxes. Ioan was Dolby’s VP of marketing and I was the new “lad” who knew a bit about sound equipment and how to solder. Dolby’s A-Type noise reduction was already established as the technology of choice for professional recording studios and Ioan’s focus was applying it to improve film sound. I had a fascination with movies and their technology ever since experiencing three-strip Cinerama as a kid, and Kubrick’s 2001 in 70mm in 1968, so I got involved with Ioan’s marketing team internally known as the Dolby Film Program.

At the time, good movie sound was rare, limited to the relatively few 70mm presentations, while the vast majority of moviegoers heard characteristically poor monophonic 35mm sound. In the 1970s, 35mm prints were ubiquitous in the exhibition industry and there was no sign of any practical replacement on the horizon. Ioan’s plan was to apply Dolby’s technologies—along with whatever else it took—to improve the optical soundtrack, to bring its quality capacity up to the expectations of our generation. It needed not only to be free of ticks and pops, but it also needed to be stereo, to be able to fill auditoriums with sound much like CinemaScope did in the 1950s and 60s. The old four-track magnetic format had faded away largely due to its high expense. In essence, the industry needed a way to distribute high-quality soundtracks to theatres globally at a manageable expense and in a way that was compatible with existing industry practices.

Dolby Labs, with Dolby Stereo and its related formats, achieved this over the 19 years I was at Dolby. To this day, Dolby, with Ioan’s guidance, is still innovating and improving cinema sound. In the 1970s, the improvements appeared to come sporadically, driven by the success of titles, like the introduction of surround sound on 35mm versions of Star Wars, or the extended low frequencies of the mothership landing in the 70mm version of Close Encounters. In the 1980s, Dolby continued with the introduction of 5.1, stereo surrounds with “baby-boom” most notably used in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Also in the mid-’80s, Dolby completely eliminated noise on 35mm prints while dramatically increasing its level carrying capacity by upgrading Dolby A-type noise reduction to Dolby SR (Spectral Recording).

In the early 1990s, Dolby did what was considered by many in the industry to be the impossible. They added a fully separate 5.1-channel digital soundtrack to 35mm prints, by optically recording bursts of audio data in the tiny area between the sprocket holes. The result was Dolby SR•D, a 35mm print that can be played digitally in equipped theatres, and in conventional analog in all other theatres. The public was awed with Dolby SR•D on early titles such as The Fugitive and The Lion King.

With the coming of digital cinema, when 35 and 70mm film finally did leave mainstream distribution, Dolby continued to break ground, with the introduction of Dolby Atmos to modern DCP formats. Atmos provides excellent audio quality and allows a single mix to be adaptable across a wide range of playback conditions.

More than 40 years of continuous innovation in cinema sound would not have happened without Ioan’s leadership and involvement. Under Ioan’s direction, the Dolby Film Program took on and eventually overcame one obstacle after another.

In the early days, the obstacles appeared to be insurmountable. Dolby could solve many problems by applying its technology, but in many cases, the issues were systemic to the industry. Years of cost-cutting, complacency, often a lack of standards, and bad practice led to an across-the-board decline in cinema sound quality. With Ioan’s insight and Dolby’s team of engineers pushing the right pressure points often title by title, year by year, and format by format, film sound evolved to where it is considered state-of-the-art in most theatres today.

Not only working internally with sound at Dolby, Ioan also focused on resolving problems across the industry. His work grew to include the picture, the auditorium, and everything else that impacts the cinema experience. He has been involved in developing and improving upon industry standards and practices within SMPTE, AMPAS, ICTA, NATO and AES, to name a few, and is always pushing to make presentations better.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ioan and hear his recollections of many of the more interesting issues that came up during his tenure at Dolby. As usual, he was able to inject a few interesting stories and some of his dry humor into our discussion.

Film Journal International: Let’s talk about the very early days and how you got started at Dolby.

Ioan Allen:I was in the music business doing record production, artist management, and related. I visited Elektra Studios, on Columbus Circle in New York City, where The Doors were mixing Waiting for the Sun. They were using these sinister-looking gray boxes that were Dolby noise reduction units. I was really impressed, but not directly involved with Dolby at the time. While I was getting by in the music production business, it was not a long-term solution for my career. Later that year, I saw an advertisement for a sales position at Dolby, which I discovered was also in South London near where I was living, so I decided to apply for the job. Unlike any of the other candidates, I had actually come across Dolby noise reduction units and understood how they worked, so Ray [Dolby] and his chief engineer, David Robinson, hired me. I thought I’d take the on the job for at least 12 months or so. Now, I’m still here.

I was hired primarily to extend sales into areas beyond classical music, which is where the majority of the noise reduction units were going. Ray and David were more aligned with classical music than rock ’n’ roll. My big job was to get rock ’n’ roll started with Dolby noise reduction. That coincided with the beginning of 16-track tape recording, which was pretty noisy with lots of hiss. First, I managed to pitch and get Olympic Studios and Trident, the two major rock ’n’ roll facilities in London, to put Dolby noise reduction on each track of their 16-track machines. From there, and within 18 months or so, I was able to get every track of every 16-track recorder in the U.K., New York and Los Angeles equipped with Dolby noise reduction. They all needed it because there was so much interchange of material between studios. If Studio A has it, then Studio B has to get it to decode what Studio A did, and so forth.

FJI: So you started working to get Dolby noise reduction used in the film studios?

IA:I realized that that the rock ’n’ roll market was pretty finite, because we had already equipped most major facilities and not everyone would get a 16-track machine and put it in their bedroom, so I began looking at other markets. The obvious answer was the film business, where re-recording and mixing in those days was done with hundreds of tracks of magnetic film elements. There was a serious buildup of hiss because of the layers and generations they had to make.

That was when I discovered that there was much more wrong with film sound than the hiss on the magnetic elements. The problems related to high distortion, the pre-emphasis needed because of the Academy curve, badly aligned theatres, and everything ended up in mono. All of these things needed to be fixed before you could really hear the benefits of Dolby A-type noise. So, that was the beginning of a really long campaign to change the fundamentals of film sound.

Hollywood in particular had a high degree of inertia in those days and the feeling that because it was always done this way for years, they shouldn't change. I made numerous trips from London to Hollywood doing a pitch to the heads of the sound departments, like Fred Hines at Todd-AO, Waldo Watson at Universal, and many others. It was a tough pitch.

That is when I realized that while the studios and to some extent the sound people were reluctant to change, the ones who could really affect the change were the “auteurs,” the film directors. A powerful “auteur” can say to the studio that they are going to do their film this way and usually the studio can be persuaded. That is how I got Ken Russell to commit to letting us do Tommy, and Kubrick was also a great help in getting things started.

We started out just doing Dolby mono on films, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Steppenwolf and a few others. It was then that we discovered that to get an impact in the theatres, we really had to have stereo. Then I discovered that the theatre owners thought stereo had something to do with the surround speakers—that it wasn’t just on the screen—so we had to do a surround system.

FJI: That brings us up to when I joined in 1976. I recall that winter going to Toronto to install a prototype surround decoder to a CP100 for the opening of A Star Is Born.

IA:Yes, that was a real kluge! We had a Sansui QS decoder, and an Eventide delay line wired to a Dolby B-Type decoder in a die-cast box. The deal was that [Barbra] Streisand's production company, First Artists, agreed to a Dolby Stereo optical release only if we could add surrounds to it. We had already proved the idea was fine. What lead to the kluge was that there was no way we could get a proper surround decoder into production before the film’s releases, so we went with the commercial Sansui QS unit with the external delay line so we could say to the production company that we had equipped a small number of theatres. I believe it played around six theatres with surrounds.

FJI: The big break came with the Star Warsrelease in the spring of 1977.

IA:Star Wars was in May of 1977, but we had done a few smaller movies before that. It went out primarily in the major markets in 70mm, but Fox also released a 35mm version in Dolby Stereo. The 35mm version was particularly significant because it was issued single-inventory; all prints were Dolby Stereo and encoded with a surround channel.

Unlike today, where a month is a good run, Star Wars was is in the theatres for almost a year, and more and more theaters continued to get it. Previously, with 35mm four-track magnetic, there was a reluctance by theatre owners to install the stereo equipment, because they couldn’t always be guaranteed a four-track print. For Star Wars, the theatre owners discovered that every 35mm print was already in stereo, and it became an easy decision. They could pay for the Dolby equipment in a month or so, since Star Wars was selling out show after show.

FJI: Star Warsin 35mm put Dolby Stereo optical on the map. But 70mm was preferred in the major markets. There was also a lot going on to improve 70mm.

IA:The fundamental problem with magnetic tracks on film is that the film stock is quite stiff. Unlike a cassette tape that is thin and flexible, 70mm film was really abrasive and the heads would wear out fast. In practice, a cinema would probably need to change out the heads every six weeks or so to maintain reasonably good fidelity. The theatre owners were reluctant to do this and other necessary maintenance. Good 70mm sound also required an understanding of how to use a pink noise loop. We had to make special loops for every release, because each 70mm magnetic recorder was different.

The next problem was how the 70mm channels were being used. Unlike the Todd-AO 70mm of the 1950s where they made a true six-channel mix, by the 1970s the studios would generate a four-track master, and for the 70mm releases they would spread the mix by combining the left and center tracks and center and right tracks to create the left-center and right-center screen channels.

Most depressing was that for the four-track mix of A Star Is Born, the mixers had spread Barbra Streisand's voice across the three front channels. Then, after the 70mm spread, you finished up with a huge out-of-phase mono coming from the screen. We knew we were missing the extreme low frequencies, so I thought it would be better to drop the combined channels and use the center-left and center-right screen channels as additional low-frequency “bins.”

We did a test at the Academy theatre with a reel of Capricorn One and I demonstrated this to Gary Kurtz, who was producing Star Wars. We let him hear our proposed “baby-boom” format with the extended bass, and much better stereo definition from the screen. He approved and that is what we did on the Star Wars 70mm prints. And later, that format was augmented on Close Encounters’ 70mm releases where afew theatres put in dedicated sub-woofers, and many tied the existing A4 loudspeakers together with plywood sheets, creating a baffle to further improve LF response.

FJI: After Star Wars, I recall that the 35mm matrix for Dolby Stereo continued to evolve.

IA:Right, around 1979 we changed the matrix decoder on the movie Hair from the modified Sansui QS matrix to our own Dolby MP matrix that was designed by Craig Todd. The MP matrix was directly film-related in that there were two orthogonal axes: amplitude that is going left to right and phase that is going from center front to rear. By making them orthogonal, we managed to effectively get much better separation between the channels.

FJI: After Star Wars, Close Encountersand a few more blockbuster titles, almost every studio in Hollywood wanted to release titles in Dolby Stereo.

IA:One of the most useful things that happened around that time was to get Terry Malick to do Days of Heaven in Dolby Stereo. There was tendency then, as maybe now also with Dolby Atmos, for people to say that this new soundtrack format is destined for the “bang-bang, whiz-bang” movies. And the nice thing about Days of Heaven was that it was really subtle, with great ambiances, fields of waving corn and such. This showed that the wide-range, low-noise aspects of the Dolby Stereo format were every bit as useful as the ability to handle the spaceships coming from behind your head.

You recall, we were quite busy at the time, building CP50s and installing theatres as fast as we could. I realized that we couldn’t handle the installation ourselves. We were going to have to train a group of elite outside installers, so we started doing training courses. I am proud to say we went way beyond how to align a Dolby unit. We were teaching people about light on the screen, maintaining proper aspect ratio, and the other fundamentals of good movie practice. This gave Dolby a reputation in the industry as being more than just an equipment vendor. We were seen as a fountainhead of good film practice because we were establishing a format, Dolby Stereo, not just selling a piece of equipment.

FJI: I believe the next technology to come along was the 5.1-channel stereo surrounds, widely used on the 70mm prints of Apocalypse Now.

IA:We realized there was going to be a demand for stereo surround as far back as 1975 while using the QS matrix on Tommy, but none of the theatres had been wired up with multiple surround channels. Around 1978, we began experimenting with stereo surrounds on 70mm. The Dolby 70mm “baby-boom” prints had some unused bandwidth on the left-center and right-center tracks, because we were only carrying the low-frequency information. So we put a left surround and right surround on the tracks along with the bass used for the fronts. We did an unannounced test with Superman, and played it with stereo surrounds at the Northpoint theatre in San Francisco. We then came up with the SA5 surround adapter for the CP100 and this was the beginning of 5.1 in theatres.

Apocalypse Nowcame along around six months later. Apocalypse Now was great for us because Walter Murch was such a good sound designer. He had created the language of how to “talk” in 5.1. Working with United Artists and American Zoetrope, we pre-surveyed the theatres and actually turned down a number of theatres that were in bad acoustical shape or couldn't properly handle the stereo-surround format. My guess is that around 25 theatres played it in Dolby 70mm with 5.1 audio. As you recall, we had happy days in the release of Apocalypse Now.

FJI: Yes, you and I took a strange trip to Russia for the opening of Apocalypse Nowat the 1980 Moscow Film Festival.

IA:We flew over with Francis, his family and a few others for the festival. Much of this is written up in Peter Cowie’s book on Apocalypse Now. The festival organizers insisted we fly on Aeroflot. We took a CP100 and everything else we needed, along with a 70mm print. The venue was the huge State Central Concert Hall next to the Kremlin that seated around 2,500 people. The projection room had six Russian-made 70mm projectors with carbon-arc lamp houses, each about the size of a Volkswagen. Each projector had a dedicated projectionist. There was a room off to the side just for the power amplifiers where there were racks of large vacuum-tube models from the ’50s.

They were simultaneously videotaping the movies that were being screened. That was a huge issue with Apocalypse, so we got them to put black canvas bags on all the cameras in the auditorium. And as you recall, we were carrying the 70mm print back to our hotel rooms at the Rossiya every night. Then we found that the rooms next to ours were occupied by several of the “projectionists” that had been hanging around in the booth.

We struggled to get it all working, but finally got it sounding reasonably good. Opening night for Apocalypse, the auditorium was packed with the Russian elite, the Politburo types and such. Francis introduced the movie and the lights slowly dimmed as the black masking began to dramatically expand from a small centered square to reveal the huge screen. But halfway through the lights dimming, the enlarging square suddenly started to become a strange shape as the bottom right edge got tangled and stopped moving. Then there was the sound of cables breaking and things coming apart behind the screen. Everything stopped, and we sat there for an hour of so with a full house waiting while a crew disassembled the masking by hand.

FJI: Once the movie finally got going, the sound was good, but strangely it was simultaneously being translated into Russian and everyone was listening to it through tiny headsets. You could tell by the audience reaction that they were hearing the translation about 20 seconds late. Then, those from the Soviet Eastern Bloc countries had their own interpreters listening to the Russian interpretation, so there was a second 20-second delayed chain reaction in the audience. In the end, I don’t think many understood the movie at all.

IA:The highlight had to be when they wouldn’t fly us out via London on Pan Am as they committed to do. They wanted us to fly back to New York on Aeroflot, but we were afraid that the airline might mysteriously lose the print. So, prior to the last screening and after a good bit of frustration, I removed a few modules for the CP100 and hid them. I basically said if no Pan Am tickets, then no sound. They managed to produce the Pan Am tickets about five minutes before the show.

FJI: After Apocalypse Nowin the early ’80s, Dolby Stereo optical was going well, and 70mm 5.1 continued to be used. The next big step in 1986 was upgrading the noise reduction on 35mm Dolby prints to SR.

IA:The significance of SR was not just noise reduction, It was extending the bandwidth, particularly the power bandwidth, so you could record loud high-frequency sounds without saturating the film.

FJI: Around the same time, there was the first discussion of digital soundtracks, particularly since digital recording was first being used in music recording studios.

IA:Yes, but the first digital systems in the recording studio were not that good. In effect, the introduction of SR gave professional analog recording several more useful years. As for digital on film, there were a few hypothetical systems proposed but nothing really ever happened. None of the earlier proposals seemed remotely practical. The first commercial digital system was the CDS system introduced around 1990 and developed jointly by Kodak and ORC, the lighting company. Their big mistake was to replace the analog soundtrack with a digital track, requiring special prints. And there was no fail-safe backup should it fail—which it did.

We had been thinking for several years of ways to do digital. Our big decision was where to put the digital data, since we didn’t want to upset the analog track. It was either in the picture area or we had to find another place. We did some research on recording it using a hologram in the picture area, but it would have been expensive and overly complicated. We realized we could get a lot of data on the film without doing anything that radical.

We did some tests where we added sections of black film between the trailers and the feature on a number of release prints that ran in theatres across the country. We got these black strips back and analyzed where the wear was the worst, what the dirt looked like, what shape was it and such. The answer we got was rather non-intuitive: The safest unused location was in the sprocket area between the holes. That also told us how much data compression was needed by looking at the dirt to determine the optimum bit size, which turned out to be about one mil. We ultimately found it best to record square bits in 100 by 100 blocks, which set the overall data rate, and from that we knew we could reliably record 5.1 digital channels there using our AC3 audio data compression.

FJI: It was an exciting time of innovation at Dolby.

IA:There were lots of great ideas in that technique that never got publicized. One of the cleverest was there was extra data capacity. Every so often there was a block that you don’t need, and using those we were able to put the latest decoder firmware at the head of the film. So without anyone knowing it, the theatre would be loading in the latest version. Now, we have a problem with digital cinema that many theatres are not updating their firmware, leading to compatibility problems. Here was an idea of automatically updating the equipment, even if there was no maintenance engineer involved. It was like filling your car with gas, and discovering you also got new tires.

We were also using the extra blocks to fully replicate the data that was going to come up at the end of the reel, which is where the glue from the splicing on the platter would spread and damage the data that could cause a dropout.

FJI: It’s been my observation that Dolby seems to do its best when it has competition. After Dolby introduced the 35mm SR•D system, new competition came from DTS and Sony SDDS.

IA:We’ve always had competition, ever since the early days. With the analog systems, other companies would make cinema processors and decoders in order to play back the Dolby Stereo-encoded films. With the digital competitors, we felt we had a distribution advantage over DTS because of their separate discs, and we believed we had an engineering advantage over SDDS because their bits were too small and they were in a bad area on the film.

FJI: Beyond Dolby-specific issues, you have spent a great deal of time working through various cinema-related issues with industry organizations.

IA:Yes, its gets back to Dolby’s success, because we were more than just an equipment vendor. We were uniquely in a position to take on the bigger issues, such as controlling the level on trailers, and getting rid of the toxic silver in soundtracks by getting dye tracks established. With Dolby Stereo and Dolby Digital rolling along, I found I had the time to go out to try to do these things. It is always good to have a new challenge. TASA [the Trailer Audio Standards Association], for example, was quite a challenge with the marketing departments at the studios, as they really didn’t want to lower the levels. They wanted to keep them loud.

With the dye tracks, the inertia in the industry was unbelievable. We have managed to get essentially every projector in the world converted to a red light. It took a lot of pleading to get the studios to initially begin issuing dye-track prints when they knew there were only a handful of readers out there. It was the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. But luckily, we had companies like Disney who made the commitment to release everything with dye tracks as of a certain date, and we managed to get the theatres to equip in time. I think these are the kind of projects that only Dolby can pull off.

FJI: You also do quite a few presentations and lecturing at various film schools and such.

IA:I’ve lectured at USC for a couple of decades now. And I do a lot of trade show discussions, talks, training courses and such. And for years, I ran a jury at the Norwegian Film Festival reviewing movies. At the end we would have a retrospective, and these Scandinavian directors would attend where I could critique their work. That was fun.

FJI: Cinema has always been this strange blend of art and technology. How do you see this interaction working?

IA:The fundamental question has been: Does the art lead the technology or does the technology lead the art? Put in our terms, are the kinds of movies being made now those that force the industry to adopt immersive audio and Atmos? Or is the availability of these sound technologies causing the kind of movies being made to change? I’d say it is possibly a bit of each. You can make the same analogy with visual effects. New technologies enable filmmakers to step ahead, and filmmakers push technology vendors to develop new processes that open these doors. Cinema has always been that way.

A current example is Ang Lee’s new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It is a shame that is being shown in so few theatres that can take advantage of that technology. This film really merits the new technology and was made with the technology in mind. But relatively few people will see it the way it was intended to be seen. The high frame rate, particularly on the close-ups, makes the acting seem so intense.

FJI: Looking forward, where do you see sound technology evolving? Could it be that we are nearing the endpoint in its evolution?

IA:I recall seeing an advertisement from the 1930s for a phonograph player that said, “At last! Perfect reality.” It shows that was considered perfect for the 1930s, or what might have likewise been considered perfect in the 1950s with a Todd-AO print of Around the World in Eighty Days, is certainly not considered perfect in the year 2016. I think what we have now with Dolby Atmos is pretty close to perfect, but I can’t say how it will be viewed in fifteen years, or what might come along to replace it.

With cinema sound, the quality is the result of a long chain, stretching from the microphones, through the post-production process, ending up with the loudspeakers and acoustics in the auditorium. The weakest link puts the limitation on the overall quality. In many cases today, it is the budgets. It is often the duration of the final mix that determines its quality.

FJI: Forty years ago, the big issues were getting the frequency response high enough, or getting the distortion low enough. Now, we have moved onto higher-level issues, like adaption of sound to multiple environments with immersive audio and such. This is being resolved today. Do you see a time that perfect film sound just will be assumed, and sound will disappear as an issue?

IA:In a sense, Dolby Cinema is already doing that. The combination of Dolby Vision high dynamic range and Atmos, bundled together and properly aligned and well maintained, is really a different experience. It is a synergy of all those things together that takes watching movies to a new level. With the technical issues out of the way, maybe it will allow the industry to focus on what is really important: comfortable seats and good scripts!

FJI: Ioan, I would like to thank you for taking the time for this discussion. I congratulate you on your 45 years at Dolby and your recent ICTA Lifetime Achievement Award. We are looking forward to you continuing your work keeping cinema presentations great.

Bill Mead worked with Ioan Allen at Dolby from 1976 until 1995, and continued working with cinema sound at Sony until 2001. Today, he is the publisher and editor ofDCinemaToday, a website that follows cinema technology, and is a contributor to Film Journal International.