This One Goes Up To Eleven

Wired has this article about a new “super” surround sound which uses more than 300 speakers in a theater to truly recreate an environment and place sounds anywhere within the room. Three hundred speakers is a couple more than the 6 that most theaters have today. (Actually theaters usually have more than 6 speakers. You’ll often see many along the sides and in the back corners but they broadcast the same sound. There’s still only 6 individual channels of source material that get played through those speakers.)

It’s an interesting idea and those of us in the sound industry have often joked about the fact that eventually there will be speakers covering every single inch of space in theaters. (Obviously there was a bit of truth in that humor.) However without having actually seen the demo myself—someone please add me to the list next time 🙂 —I have to say that I have some doubts about this system.

I don’t have doubts about the fact that we will have more than 6 channels of audio in a theater in the future. That’s a given. In fact it’s the present. There is actually a 6.1 system (7 channels) from Dolby called Dolby Digital Surround EX which adds a center surround speaker directly behind the audience. Often only the “high end” first run rooms in a movie complex are setup for EX. Plus not all soundtracks are mixed to support that. But all that aside, we will probably see other additional speakers added in the future. (If I had my way we’d have a high center speaker on the ceiling of the theater in the front. IMAX makes use of it because the screens are so large but for regular theaters it would allow sounds to not just go side-to-side but also up and down. Try to imagine a jet fly by with a high center speaker. It could be awesome.)

There are a couple of things that confuse me about this system. The first is how many channels of sound do you actually have? Ok, sure it has over 300 speakers. Does that mean there are 300 channels of sound? When we finish our final mix on a movie we wind up with a 6 track master. Dolby encodes that into data that sits between the sprockets of the 35mm print for Dolby Digital. DTS writes those tracks onto a CD-ROM which gets shipped with the print for theaters that support that standard. And SDDS writes it to both edges of the film—outside the sprockets. (Actually SDDS is a 7.1 system with 5 speakers up front instead of 3, but very, very few theaters have it anymore. Yet another proprietary format that Sony botched.) What do you do with a 300 track master?

Three hundred channels of sound is a completely unreasonable amount of material to turn over at the end of the mix. I’m certain that they actually use fewer but the question remains: how many?

Another big problem I see is their current interface. I have been on the stage with pretty much every big-name mixer in town and I cannot imagine any of them wanting to play with a light pen to place sounds around the room. It seems like it would take way too much time. Even though movie budgets are balooning to huge numbers, the vast majority of that goes to actors’ salaries and special effects. Sound budgets are often smaller today then they were 10 years ago. You no longer have 30 sound editors on a crew cutting film and 5 assistants helping them. More often than not it’s 10 editors and 1 or 2 assistants. And it’s a similar thing on the dub stage. Typical films today predub in 3 or 4 weeks and final in 2 or 3. That’s it. Seven or eight weeks on the final dub stage to create the master track.

Again, I wasn’t actually at the demo so I don’t know how easy it really is to use. But when I think of the time it can take on a stage just to pan a bunch of stereo car bys through the center speaker because an editor didn’t turn it over as an LCR—not to mention the time involved to create a large action sequence like a gunfight bullets and debris flying all over the room—it seems that the light pen positioning would be awkward and slow. The pictures included with the article show a Pro Tools system sending what appears to be a single sound into their positioning system. That’s not a realistic test for time, ease and usability. They should try it with the hundreds and hundreds of tracks that get turned over for your typical action sequence. How long does it take to do it then?

A final problem I see is the home theater market. DVDs are huge business for the movie industry. Lots of people have little 5.1 systems in their living rooms. How do you take a 300 channel mix and bring it down to a 5.1 for the DVD release? How many weeks are you willing to spend on that? And I do mean “spend”. How much money will a studio pay for that down-mix? That’s what it will really come down to. Your typical home theater cannot possible recreate the same range of frequencies that a good theater can, but at least the speaker assignments are the same. Now try to untangle a mess of sounds spread out over 300 channels and focus it down to 6. It seems to me that it would take weeks to do that.

After a day to do the printmaster on the final stage we usually spend 2 or 3 days making all the versions—Dolby Stereo, Dolby Surround, Mono, plus the M&E (music and effects) for the foreign versions. Now you need to extend that by what? A week? Two weeks? Just to get a 5.1 for DVD release? And what about the theaters that can’t afford the “super” surround system? You’re still going to need a 5.1 version for them.

It’s a pretty cool idea. I’m not sure how soon we’ll actually see it in action. Or if we’ll ever see it in this incarnation. (I’m telling you, they should have invited me to the demo. I’d tell those Germans what they need to focus on. 😉 )

Thanks (once again) to Boing Boing for making me aware of this. (It’s kind of like the old “Are you a Beatles person or a Stones person?” question. Only this one is “Are you a Boing Boing person or a Fark person?” I’m a Boing Boing person.)