Creating an audio-scape: Cinemas explore immersive sound
Cinema sound is back in the spotlight, and exhibitors around the world are being asked to evaluate new soundtrack formats being offered by Dolby Laboratories, Barco, and possibly others that may come in the future. Immersive sound has become the general industry term used to describe these new advanced formats, all capable of delivering more channels and therefore a better, more realistic sound experience than the previous 5.1 or 7.1 formats.
At the CineAsia convention in Hong Kong, attendees will have the opportunity to learn much more about immersive sound via presentations and a panel discussion with representatives from the sound companies, along with exhibitors who have already installed these new systems.
Why Immersive Sound?
The impact of sound in movies by its very nature is illusive. While the audience is largely unaware of a soundtrack’s technical characteristics—as well as its limitations—the creative community, the directors and sound designers fully understand that a carefully crafted soundtrack can draw the audience deeper into the story, and bring together a heightened experience that defies tangible definition. The desire for filmmakers to take cinematic presentation quality one step further and bring the audience closer into their world is the underlying reason that technology companies like Dolby, Barco and others are continually innovating and improving their sound formats. The drive toward the current generation of immersive sound systems starts at the top with the filmmakers who are, as always, seeking better ways to tell their stories.
Exhibitors also are aware that advanced sound can make a huge difference in audience perception of a feature, and therefore its box-office performance. Especially in the Asian market, where there is high audience awareness of many points of differentiation between cinemas, exhibitors understand that home audio systems have likewise evolved to where conventional 5.1-channel sound is no longer a marketable attraction. Exhibitors know it takes something unique in cinema sound to keep the audiences returning, and the current generation of immersive sound formats is the very thing that they need.
Barco Auro 11.1
The conversion to digital projection opened to reliable and practical 3D images around 2005, with soundtrack technology remaining basically the same since the mid-1990s. In 2011, Barco, typically thought of as a projector company but with deep historical roots in audio, working with their Belgium-based partners Galaxy Studios, introduced their Barco Auro 11.1 soundtrack format. Barco Auro 11.1 is intended to do for sound what 3D did for the picture by adding the ability for filmmakers to control a sound’s direction and height within the auditorium. Built on top of a standard 5.1 configuration, Barco added five more channels higher up behind the screens and around the auditorium, and included a top ceiling channel, bringing Barco Auro to an 11.1-channel configuration.
Not to be outdone, in 2011, Dolby—who had been working on advanced sound for years—introduced their next generation Dolby Atmos™ format to audiences. Dolby Atmos probably represents the most radical new advancement in cinema sound since the introduction of stereo and surrounds in the 1950s. Dolby’s approach was to forget about using a fixed number of channels, and to give each cinema the ability to specifically render the Atmos soundtrack into the number of loudspeaker positions needed for that individual auditorium. The intent is to have a single Dolby Atmos mix that can deliver the same creative result across a wide range of auditoriums of various sizes and shapes.
While both Barco Auro 11.1 and Dolby Atmos share many of the same goals, the route each takes is quite different, and deserves much more discussion and consideration by the technical community and forward-thinking exhibitors. Exhibitors are once again in the position of having to make decisions about sound formats—if or when to upgrade, and if so, which system to choose. The decision is not necessarily a technical one; there are non-technical factors to consider such as the power of brands, the availability of the titles supporting the formats, the cost of the equipment upgrades, and the competitiveness of the individual markets. For each exhibitor, a different combination of factors comes into play.
Immersive sound, whether it is the Barco Auro 11.1 or Dolby Atmos format, is in its infancy, with less than 500 systems installed worldwide as of December 2013. But for exhibitors, now is the time to listen and learn more at this year’s CineAsia convention, as cinema sound is poised to take its next big step forward.