Resounding success: Deployment of Dolby Atmos audio format exceeds target
“It has been an incredibly busy and exciting year for Dolby Atmos,” enthuses Stuart Bowling, worldwide technical marketing manager, Dolby Laboratories. “The format has really stepped into its own now. Dolby Atmos is pretty much becoming the de-facto standard for the industry.”
As of April 1, Dolby Atmos was quickly approaching the first installation milestone with more than 100 locations equipped, spanning the world with both the “professional hardware used on dubbing stages” that was initially deployed and prototypes of the actual cinema processor: Austria, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, France, India, Korea, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam are all covered. With general availability of the full Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor CP850 in time for CinemaCon, “all of that original equipment will start to come out of the theatres,” Bowling assures, “and exhibitors will have the option of replacing those early units with CP850s.”
Film Journal International detailed the launch of the object-based platform that renders up to 64 separate speaker feeds (for 128 objects and sound elements stacked at any one time) at last year’s CinemaCon. Following another exclusive report on the deployment at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and AMC Theatres nationwide, we are now pleased to present to our readers the latest developments in the Dolby Atmos story. In addition to speaking with Dolby executives, leading exhibitors share their experiences on the subsequent pages.
Dolby Atmos has not only been a resounding hit across movie theatres, but also with the creative communities. Bowling says nearly 40 titles have been rendered in Dolby Atmos from independents and eight Hollywood studios including all six majors, with several international films marking “a great adoption outside of Hollywood” as well. Bowling gives credit to post-production facilities for providing filmmakers with access to Dolby Atmos. “We have 23 professional mix stages around the world up and running which include the U.K.’s Pinewood Group, Skywalker Sound, Post Republic in Germany, Disney, Fox, Warner Bros. and Park Road Post in New Zealand,” he reports. Dolby Atmos has already received three major honors, including “Best of What’s New in Entertainment Technology” from Popular Science last year. “We also won the Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Award and, most recently, the Cinema Audio Society Award.” Bowling says this is a “huge accolade for Dolby Atmos in the post-production community, being nominated by mixers, sound designers and sound editors. That award was presented to us by Tom Holman,” the legendary audio maven and developer of the THX Sound System.
“It really comes down to the content creators and their confidence in our system,” believes Matt Cuson, Dolby’s senior marketing director for the cinema segment. “Because we are able to control all of the important critical points in the whole process workflow, Dolby Atmos offers predictable and consistent behavior. And content creators really appreciate that. As you can imagine, that is of extremely high value for them because they are not willing to compromise their life’s work. The Dolby Atmos system gives them the flexibility to fully express their creative vision and the controls throughout the pipeline to protect its integrity.”
Reassuring as this is, Cuson knows that Dolby Atmos is not “something that we can force-feed the industry. Mixers have their way of working and we have to accommodate their workflows in a way that they are comfortable with.” Part of the development process was spending time with companies like Avid, Euphonix and AMS Neve who all build professional mixing consoles.
“Dolby can’t do this alone,” Cuson continues. “We are also working with all the different companies that create DCP packaging software. Obviously, we have our own, which has been used on the Dolby Atmos titles so far. But we are making those specifications available to everyone so that they too can update their packaging software.” In other words, “you don’t have to use the Dolby tools to package the DCP” and not everybody has to use Dolby cinema servers either. “Doremi, Sony, GDC, Qube—anyone, in fact, who makes a server and IMB that needs to be able to work with Dolby Atmos can get specifications from us,” he explains. “In none of these cases do we charge a licensing fee. This is all free to use… So we are quite an open platform, actually. All of these natural breakpoints that exist in the workflow have hooks for third parties to add their value in and around Dolby Atmos.”
Adding value was part of developing the Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor CP850 and has resulted in “a number of unique features beyond the capability of playing back Dolby Atmos,” Bowling assures. “One is the addition of a microphone that, by constantly monitoring the environment that the CP850 is operating in, can provide feedback to the exhibitor about any speaker issues or amplification failure rates. The microphone is going to be in the ceiling,” he suggests. “As they are already installing speakers there, it is really easy to add.”
The technology behind that feature is a bit more complex, and Bowling provides additional detail. “The CP850 knows everything about the environment that it is in—the size, body and shape of the auditorium, number of speakers and the like. During setup and calibration of Dolby Atmos, the monitoring microphone would also take reference recordings exactly from where it is located. That data is then used as a base to understand what’s happening and make sure everything is playing out correctly.”
The CP850 accommodates a wide range of audio formats, Bowling continues, and has interfaces such as HDMI to assure top-quality play of alternative content from many sources. In addition to automatically registering and rendering the company’s own Dolby Digital, Surround EX, Dolby Surround 7.1 (more about 11.1 formats later), and the new-generation format of Dolby Digital Plus, the CP850 can also up-mix the audio signals that it receives. “On the non-cinema, alternative input only,” he cautions, “because we obviously want to protect the integrity of feature film content.”
This seems a good opportunity to bring up the all-too-understandable apprehension that NATO and UNIC have officially expressed about the interoperability of this generation of “immersive sound” formats such as Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1 powered by Barco, without naming them, of course. “The packaging spec that we are also submitting to SMPTE as a proposal for how to carry expanded metadata files” is open, Cuson responds. “If Barco or anybody else wanted to use a similar packaging approach, we are more than happy to support that. We don’t see any problem at all with a single DCP carrying all of the different formats that might be available.” There is some concern about the ever-growing size of that DCP, however. “I think each format has some flexibility to do lossless compression to minimize that. There is absolutely no reason why you need to have many different DCPs, and our proposal to SMPTE regarding packaging would accommodate anybody’s format.”
Continuing that thought, what does a theatre owner do when his or her theatre has committed to one of the formats, Cuson asks. “And now a movie comes in another format that doesn’t play?” One of the advantages of the CP850 is “that we can configure our device to support any speaker configuration,” he explains. “Let’s assume there is a title and for some reason it is not made in Dolby Atmos. When the data hits the server and media block, the media block will split out an 11.1 channel format… The CP850 can be configured to play back that mix by basically mapping speakers to each of the channel arrays in the 11.1 layout. Each auditorium can have a distinct 11.1 channel configuration to use when that 11.1 content is pushed. So, with the Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor CP850, there is no risk to the exhibitor. If they buy a CP850, they can and will play any channel-based content that comes down.”
Built into the CP850’s list price of $33,750, even though “nobody ever pays that,” is Dolby’s Commissioning Service, Cuson adds. “One of our certified sound engineers will work with the exhibitor customers to make sure that their sound system is designed correctly to support Dolby Atmos. We will actually send a Dolby engineer out to the site after the installation is completed to do a proper EQ [equalization] and final system setup and full verification of the system.” He appreciates that, with “Dolby Atmos being relatively new, not everybody fully understands it yet. In these early installations, we want to make sure that the money being spent to upgrade these rooms is really getting its maximum benefit. We are committing to put our experts on the team to make sure that those installations are proper.”
To facilitate ease for those very same installations, the CP850 processor features Dolby Connect. “This technology allows plug-and-play for installers,” Bowling explains. “All they do is route Ethernet cables out of the processor into our Dolby Connect switch and from there all can be routed to Dolby Connect-enabled amplifiers. We are working with Harman, who will be first to market, and other manufacturers like QSC. Without custom cabling and wiring, the time it takes to put together a theatre can be cut down effectively. We are also working with speaker manufacturers to help them modify their planning to build products that are Dolby Atmos-aware, if you will, and designed according to specific performance requirements that are expected in a Dolby Atmos system.”
Earlier in the year, JBL announced “a new line of speakers that really helps drive down the cost,” he gives one example. “There are also some new high-density and much more power-efficient amplifiers which can save a lot around installation cost and are far more efficient from an operating cost by using less power. We are working with all the vendors … to make sure that the total solution hangs together well from a performance standpoint.” In turn, “we’re getting a lot of support from these guys,” adds Cuson. “Everybody is excited about the opportunity. We are definitely seeing changes to product road maps and are expecting several announcements around CinemaCon about Dolby Atmos-ready products in the line-ups.”
What do Dolby Laboratories have lined up for the show after a decidedly strong presence in 2012? “Something pretty close to what we did last year,” Cuson teases, ever the marketer. “We’ll certainly have our booth and suites on the convention floors as well as several demonstrations at the Brenden Theatre at Palms. We expect to have sound designers available to walk everybody through some of the mixing work.” While it was “a little too early to confirm” at press time, “we are also working with all of the distributors to identify what titles would be coming down.”
For Cuson and Bowling the highlight of the show remains that the CP850 is available for worldwide shipping now. But FJI also wanted them to highlight the results of the July 2012 acquisition of immsound. While the purchase of the Barcelona, Spain-based company has obviously broadened the immersive reach, what else has been accomplished? “The integration of the immsound organization has been going very well,” Cuson attests. “We’re very excited. The teams are philosophically compatible and so are the technical systems themselves. It’s a good cultural fit and a really good technical fit. Our system architectures have a lot of similarities. When Dolby and immsound came together, it was almost like a homecoming where everyone says, ‘This is great. We’re thinking the same way.’ So, the integration was probably much easier than anybody had anticipated. We already leveraged some of the immsound technology, particularly in the areas of how we do the room EQ. They spent a little more time on that piece of the puzzle relative to what we had done. Immsound, on the other hand, didn’t have as much work completed on the processor side… It has all been highly complementary and the results have been very good.”
In closing, Cuson returns to the initial suggestion of Dolby Atmos becoming the industry standard for immersive sound experiences and provides a helpful comparison. To explain the difference between a “committee-based standards development process” and its subsequent enforcement versus a “market-proven, de-facto standard,” he calls upon formats that we all use every day. While web pages are designed according to HTML mark-up language as “the industry standard in the pure sense of definition,” in the reality of the marketplace HTML represents a lowest-common-denominator type of approach. “Any popular website is likely to be augmented with Flash and Java Script,” which are both proprietary extensions to HTML pages. “Content creators generally aren’t always satisfied with an HTML-only type of experience.” Likewise, “HTML is not used for the interchange of documents because it’s not predictable,” Cuson asserts. “It’s not consistent. As you go from device to device, there is a high degree of variability which makes it unacceptable for that use.” That’s where the “end-to-end control” of a PDF file comes into play. “You’ve got a page description language that describes how a page should look. Adobe with PDF is similar to what Dolby has with Dolby Atmos,” he concludes. “We have a way of describing audio and we have a way of rendering the audio. Those two things are tightly tied together. It is guaranteed to sound as great as what you wanted it to sound like.”
For more about the rollout of Dolby Atmos, click over to our related article, "Sounding off: Exhibitors sing the praises of Dolby Atmos."
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