by Michael S. Palmer
Last week, our friends over at Dolby were kind enough to fly a few home theatre journalists up to San Francisco to participate in the inaugural Dolby Fidelity Forum.
Apparently FTC guidelines mandate that I inform y'all Dolby picked up said tab. In the same spirit of keeping everything transparent: I was provided with one round trip ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco, one night in a hotel, and one delicious glass of 12-year-old Macallan single-malt scotch whiskey which I ordered neat. The other folks on the trip also got a free dinner, but sadly I had to leave early. Clearly anything else you read about the Dolby Fidelity Forum by any other writer will be one dinner's-worth more biased. Hell, I'd write just about anything for a free dinner (This just in…Sky No Longer Blue and VHS Poised to Take Back Home Video Market from Blu-ray). While in San Francisco, it was openly communicated that no coverage of said event was required. But what the hell, I had such a good time I figured I'd share.
This first-ever Fidelity Forum was a chance to for us laymen to meet the geniuses who work at Dolby Laboratories, a gorgeous brick walled, open beamed, converted burlap sack factory. And no, that's not a bias. These guys are literal geniuses (they make Mensa look stupid). Imagine one day you're sitting around, bored, and you decide to do some calculus. For fun. And in doing your best Will Hunting chalk board scribbling impression, you invent a brand new mathematical algorithm which is then developed into a software program like Dolby Pro Logic IIz, or Dolby Digital Plus. It's mind boggling. So much so, that I aim to stop contemplating it in three…two…one…
Where was I? Oh yes, so my dumb ass was let into the hallowed halls wherein Sound is made soundier (not a direct quote). Here's a recap of what we experienced:
Part One: Dolby in the Cinema
November marks 40 years in Dolby Cinema history, which started in 1970 with Dolby A Noise Reduction. By 1977's 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', they had created Dolby Stereo. 1992's 'Batman Returns' gave birth to AC-3, or Dolby Digital. In 1999, Dolby Digital Surround EX premiered with 'The Phantom Menace.' Dolby 3D debuted with 'Beowulf' in 2007 with the goal of making 3D more affordable for exhibitors (Dolby 3D utilizes existing screens versus more expensive ones, and 500-use reusable glasses). And as I've already covered, Dolby 7.1 premiered on Disney / Pixar's 'Toy Story 3' earlier this year. Currently, there are 1,000 cinemas worldwide set up for 7.1 and in the last six months, seven films have be mixed theatrically for 7.1 (which will then translate directly to Blu-ray in either 7.1 TrueHD or DTS-HD MA) including 'Tron Legacy', 'Step Up 3D', 'Tangled', 'Megamind', and the third Narnia film.
Personally, I had yet to demo 7.1 theatrically, but had read a few reviews where in the reviewer wasn't blown away. For this, we entered Dolby's "working laboratory" theater. This is a custom crafted auditorium which sits on polypropylene blocks and is completely isolated from the rest of the building. Further, the seats were designed in such a way as to replicate the sound environment of a full house regardless of how many people are in there.
In short, it was the best sounding theatre I've ever been to.
It made me want to throw my home speakers off my balcony and burn down my local cineplex (by the way, if my local movie theatre happens to coincidentally burn down, I was WAY joking just a minute ago, geesh).
For our demo purposes, we not only heard great mixes, but also learned more about bringing 7.1 to theatres. As I've said before, upgrading an auditorium already equipped for Dolby Digital EX to Dolby 7.1 is relatively easy, quick, and cheap. It required a free firmware upgrade and an extra $100 audio cable. But first Dolby had to prove to Pixar that 7.1 would actually make a difference in their films.
So Dolby took 'Toy Story 2' to Skywalker Sound and re-mixed two sequences (crossing the street to the toy barn, and Barbie's tour which ends in gumballs flying everywhere). The Pixar team was so impressed, they agreed to mix 'Toy Story 3' in 7.1, but Dolby still had to convince exhibitors 7.1 was worth the investment. For this, they returned to Skywalker Sound with scenes from 'Finding Nemo' (fish are our friends), 'Up' (escaping the cave with the dogs chasing), and 'The Incredibles' (Dash learns to run on water, and the family teams up for the first time).
I’m officially sold on 7.1 in cinemas and homes. I love it. Instead of always watching the screen, I closed my eyes much of the time to let the sound tell the full story. The results are impressive and in direct comparison, audibly more immersive than standard 5.1, in my humble one-man's opinion. It's a little hard to describe, but the extra discrete channels seem to pull the audience forward. I felt more in the world. It was both a subtle a change over a 5.1 soundscape, and much more dynamic. For example, 360 degree pans were more precise. And there were interesting moments where music and/or sound effects could be placed only in the side channels, or only in the back channels. Meaning, something could launch off screen center and travel directly to the back which made it feel like that something had traveled over your head. I really enjoy this format, and look forward to finding my nearest 7.1 cinema and adding two more speakers to my home system.
Next, we turned to 'Toy Story 3' and two scenes from 'Avatar' (which Dolby had also remixed into 7.1) for our Dolby 3D demo. Here I'm more torn. My favorite 3D experience thus far is in the large, super bright screens of real IMAX. I have to admit that going directly from digital 2D projection to 3D was the first time I noticed how much darker 3D is in comparison. Images were not as clear or colorful, which is a shame because both films sounded great in 7.1. I didn't get a chance to talk to Dolby reps in depth about this, but I did get the sense that they are working on it. Hopefully in the near future, we'll get a 3D exhibition experience where brightness isn't an issue.
Part Two: Dolby Anywhere
After leaving the Dolby Theater, we went to two more demos.
The first was called a "Day in the Life of a Mixer." This was a fun session where Dolby explained how they will sometimes take popular You Tube music videos (like This Too Shall Pass by OK Go) and remix them into 7.1 to use for demo purposes. Dolby also collaborates with the San Francisco Symphony to record and mix performances for the PBS series 'Keeping Score'. I find it quite impressive that they can use different mixing techniques to give listeners choices in how to hear the same recording. For instance, there could be a 7.1 mix which resembles a traditional stereo mix -- side and rear channels are left as ambient or audience or hall sounds. Or, one could elect to hear 7.1 music as if he or she were sitting in the middle of the orchestra. Hopefully in the future, more music-based Blu-rays will offer these kinds of multi-angle or multi-location experiences.
Next, we went into Dolby's Demo Room which featured a 9.2 home Pro Logic IIz set up including two front height speakers and six floor-standing full range loudspeakers for the front, side, and rear channels. Here we spoke about Dolby's goals of being available anywhere on all screens including cinemas, televisions, computers, and mobile devices. We demo'd Pro Logic IIz using 'I Am Legend' (the scene where he's driving the Mustang around the city) flipping the height channels off and on. I'll admit this was a little harder for me hear, most likely because the floor-standing speakers were so good they already made everything in the room sound full and tall. But there was an audible difference. Things like birds leaping into the air and other non-directional sounds were no longer relegated at ear level. I'd like to spend more time with Pro Logic IIz.
Perhaps most impressive is the addition of Dolby Mobile on the phones like the Nokia A8. The phone, which has a mini-HDMI output for connection to HDTVs and AV Receivers has a 720p video out and can run Dolby Digital Plus. For the second time that day, we watched the 'Tron Legacy' teaser trailer, and while it certainly isn't competing with Blu-ray or Dolby TrueHD, the video looked on par with most cable channels and sounded pretty darn good. HD on phones might not appeal to everyone, but Dolby asked us to imagine emerging markets like India. There, a person's first HD device might not be cable or Blu-ray, but rather their phone which they can hook up to a large TV (our demo TV had to be at least 50-inches) and enjoy a relatively solid picture. Well done on that.
Part Three: Dolby's Sandbox
Ah, the best for last.
Well, technically, only last for me as I missed a round table discussion and, sigh, dinner. Moving on… In my favorite part of the day we huddled into a small, former conference room with padding on every wall and speakers standing and hanging all around us. How many, exactly?
Anyone out there in the mood for 23.1 surround sound?
Nope, not kidding. Welcome to Dolby's Sandbox. A room which boasts 24 channels of surround sound. That's 16 speakers at ear level, 6 elevated, 1 directly overhead, and 1 subwoofer.
I know what you're thinking. 7.1 or 9.2 are already too many speakers for most people to handle. These guys must be crazy if they think I'm going to buy that much gear. Well, they may be a little crazy (in a mad scientist way), but they're not foolish enough to think this is a set up for everyone.
So what exactly are they experimenting with and trying to achieve?
Well, dear readers, they're studying "phantom imaging." You know how if you listen to headphones or any stereo source and even though there are only two speakers, it sounds like parts of the music is somehow coming from dead center. Tah-dah. Phantom imaging.
Dolby's end-goal, it seems, was to figure out how many speakers were necessary to create a fully immersive, 360-degree surround sound experience. Eventually they settled on this 24 channel set up and just like going from 5.1 to 7.1, what a difference discrete mixing makes on this many speakers. We listened to recordings from 'Batman Forever', the score from 'Once Upon A Time in the West', an airplane flying over head, and an off Broadway musical. Jumping from a standard 5.1 to a full 24 channels was startling. The airplane was the best experience; it didn't feel like surround sound anymore…it felt real. The movie clip and the musical were just as interesting. Surround sound pans and voice locations were extra precise and enveloping.
But how does this translate to the real world? Again, most of us -- even early adopters -- aren't going to be installing 23.1 systems in our homes. And can you imagine trying to mix every form of cinematic content discretely in 24 channels? It's a pretty big challenge, but here's where it gets really freakin' cool:
Dolby wants to develop a universal sound format that is "direction oriented" rather than being locked to a specific number of channels.
A format which can be blown up to 24 channels if you want, or shrunk down to 6 as is standard. What this means is that anyone with a home cinema can have systems ranging from 5.1 to an entire hemisphere of sound (ala the 23.1), all feeding off of the same soundtrack. To experiment with this notion, Dolby took 24 channel discrete mixes and boiled them down to 5.1. Then, using that math I cited earlier to create something akin to a Pro Logic, they blew the 5.1 back up to 24 channels using a matrix based off of phantom imaging.
The results were fascinating. With my eyes closes, they sounded nearly identical. And it's exciting to imagine a home cinema world with a half hemisphere of surround sound (if that's what you want).
But here's the remaining challenge. In the current, experimental form, the matrixing of the phantom images causes some aberrations. For example, when listening to the 5.1 mix of the off Broadway musical blown back up to 24 channels, we isolated channel 10 to see what was on it. Unlike the discrete version where channel 10 only played channel 10, in this "matrixed channel 10" played channel 10 along with bits and pieces from other channels (Does that actually make any sense to someone who was not there? If no, let me know, and we'll talk further.). It was muddy, and something Dolby is unsatisfied with. I’m sure they'll work to improve this unnamed "universal format" until its of audiophile grade.
But wow, just…wow. I'm still not sure I really understand it, or half the things we experience at the Fidelity Forum. It's all beyond me, but at the same time, the day was all to short. I'm looking forward to more surround in my local cinemas as well as on any screen I can find. And the future…the universal surround format…getting anything like it, or built from it, will be exciting times for anyone who loves music, movies, or television.
Thanks again to all our friends at Dolby for such a great day.