By Michael S. Palmer
Before we get to the good stuff, the SEC, FCC, NCAA, or some governing body says the following disclosure is manditory. NOTE: this article exists because Dolby Laboratories bought me a round trip airfare to San Francisco, housed me in a hotel I probably couldn't (or wouldn't) afford normally, and stuffed me silly with meals and beverages of adult and/or caffeinated varieties. Take that for whatever value you apply, but at the end of the day, I'm just a guy -- probably a lot like you -- who loves home cinema and was fortunate enough to see what the pros are cooking up for our next generation theatrical and home theatre auditory experiences.
Second disclosure. I've been to Dolby Laboratories three times now. It's terribly depressing. Sorry, that's not true; these trips have been the most explosive audio experiences I've ever had, whether sitting in Mix Room A, which features seven Pelonis Signature Series Model 110P 2-way Passive Reference Monitors and a Velodyne Model DD-15BG Subwoofer, or the Dolby Cinema Lab, which is completely isolated from the rest of the building and set up for 26.3 surround sound. No, the depressing part about Dolby is returning home, flipping on my consumer surround sound system (Denon powering 7.1 KEF iQs), and realizing it all sucks-to-my-asthmar compared to the sonic bliss my spoiled ears had grown accustomed over the previous couple days.
Oh well, such is life.
Fidelity Forum 2.0 was a two day event with over 20 journalists and bloggers from a variety of sound hobbies. Everything from the guy who bled for the San Francisco Symphony and high-resolution stereo audiophile recordings, to guys like me who wants his action blockbuster Blu-rays to be swirling infernos of percussive chaos. HDD's own resident technical guru, Josh Zyber, also attended and, from what I understand, is writing up a couple articles as well. For our purposes here, consider this piece a general introduction and mini-review of what I experienced. In layman's terms, "on a scale of awesome to lame, how much should I get it up?" Josh will attempt to go more in depth with the technology itself.
Dolby TrueHD Advanced 96K Upsampling
Day one was dedicated to Dolby TrueHD Advanced 96K Upsampling, which has just been announced to the public. From my minimal experience getting to know the Dolby culture, it's evident how much Laboratory best describes this company. Their engineers and neuroscientists and craftsmen of all types seem to be driven by one simple question:
How can we make an audio experience better?
In our first demo, the question was, how can we improve Dolby TrueHD? But the challenge was where to make the change. They can't upgrade Blu-ray itself because the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association) has strict product specs. You could put new chips or software into Blu-ray players or AV Receivers, but that could be terribly expensive for the consumer or processor heavy on the gear itself.
Then it hit them, what if the key to improving Dolby TrueHD was at the encoding level? What if there was an improvement that not only fits TrueHD's current capabilities -- up to eight full-range channels of 96 kHz/24-bit audio and six full-range channels of 192 kHz/24-bit audio -- but also works with gear consumers already have sitting on shelves and in closets?
I'm probably about to butcher this explanation, in terms of the science, but when sound is digitally recorded at 48 kHz, artifacts are introduced into the sound files. One of these is called Pre-Ringing; think of it like digital noise that shows up a millisecond before the real sound, and is most commonly found in things with fast attack rates -- drums, gunfire, explosions, glass breaking, etc. At 96 kHz, this phenomenon is apparently minimized.
What's important to remember here is that most (if not all) television and theatrical motion picture audio is recorded at 48 kHz. Because multi-track soundtracks are so complicated, and because source materials are recorded in many places, upgrading the mixing process to 96K would take a lot more gear and storage. But what if the professional sound designers could keep their current workflow, but still produce a better product?
Because TrueHD can natively handle 96K, Dolby thought if they could upsample finished audio from 48K to 96K, there would be a noticeable fidelity upgrade. But, again, what's the best way to make this happen? Sure, some AV Receivers have DACs (digital to analog converters) capable of such upsampling, but in a 7.1 mix, it requires a lot of horsepower. Also, up-resolution algorithms introduce their own flaws, which can only be fixed with expensive "apodizing" filters. How expensive? Consider Meridian Audio's 808.2 Signature Reference CD Player. It does everything we're talking about here…for $16,000.
Dolby realized that the only way for them to increase the fidelity of soundtracks and reduce digital artifacts while not making it more expensive for movie studios or consumers is after the mix, but before the TrueHD encoding process. So Dolby licensed Meridian's apodizing filter technology and cooked it into the latest version of their professional encoding software. This means we're about get all the benefit of 96K recordings from 48K source material without having to change anything in our systems (assuming your AVR is capable of doing 96K digital to analog conversions).
Okay, I've butchered the behind-the-scenes long enough. The most important questions are, does this really matter to the average consumer (the will I care quotient)?
To be honest, I was pretty skeptical. I can tell when someone's playing a low res .mp3 file on a nice home or car audio system because it sounds tinny and harsh, but Blu-ray sounds awesome as is. 48K has to be good enough, right?
To be fair, 48K is good enough and will most likely remain a standard for most Blu-ray presentations. But when you hear 96K, you might just hope studios encoding in TrueHD will click literally one button, in the encoding software bundle, and instantly upgrade all their Blu-ray soundtracks. Is it change-the-world dramatic? Not always. Sometimes the difference is subtle. And, it affected each listener a little different.
As a demo, Dolby played back-to-back recordings at 96K and 48K straight out of ProTools so there would be no difference in volume levels between the demos. We sampled scenes from 'The Lost Bladesmen', 'The Dark Knight', 'Kung Fu Panda', 'Flowers of War' and a couple music selection. To be very clear, the only demo currently slated to appear with Advanced 96K Upsampling is 'Flowers of War'; the other clips were for test purposes only, courtesy of the various studios.
To my ears, because I'm an action-junkie, 'The Dark Knight' scenes had the most impressive improvements. We heard the scenes where Batman HALO jumps into a Hong Kong skyscraper as well as Batman riding the Batpod (I mean to say motorcycle, whatever that's called) through the mall, an alley, and racing towards the Joker in the 18-wheeler (though sadly, the clip ended before it flipped). What I felt and heard, as we jumped back and forth between 96K and 48K, was akin to listening to the sound in a large room with lots of echoing surfaces, and then listening in a smaller room that had been professional calibrated. The 96K material sounded warmer and precise. Gunshots and shattering glass seemed more lifelike and realistic. At 48K, those sound were still pretty excellent (the speakers for this demo looked very expensive), but those percussive, explosive moments had much more noticeable harshness and edge to them.
As long as the studios don't charge a crazy-premium over standard Blu-rays -- they shouldn't because it doesn't cost extra, save for a little more encoding time -- I personally cannot wait to pick up Advanced 96K Upsampling Blu-ray titles.
In terms of what's available now, you can currently pick up 'San Francisco Symphony at 100' as well as the Joe Satriani concert film 'Saturated: Live in Montreal'. Also, as I said a moment ago, the Asian market release of Christian Bales 'The Flowers of War' (from Best * Original Production Limited) is slated to release this summer in the format; I'm not sure about the North American Blu-ray. To tell whether or not a title has this technology, look for the special gold badging, which will appear as a circular sticker (pictured), a gold bar along the lower portion of the Blu-ray's front cover, or as a technical specification on the Blu-ray's back cover.
For more information, be on the lookout for Josh's blog posts, read this detailed .pdf from Dolby, or check out these two videos. First, we have a short piece on the ' San Francisco Symphony at 100' Blu-ray Disc:
And, here's the full 45 minute Saturated Panel from Fidelity Forum 2.0:
On day two of Fidelity Forum 2.0, we finally heard the technology I've been most excited about: Dolby Atmos. Atmos was announced a couple weeks ago and, if you don't know what I'm talking about, have a look at this short video explaining the technology:
As I said above, we went into the Dolby Cinema Lab for this, which is set up for 26.3 surround sound, including six speakers on each side (two of which are full range), five rear speakers, and six overheads. The Atmos logo trailer was mixed at Dolby Burbank in a 38.1 speaker array, the Atmos launch demo took place in Las Vegas in a 47.3 configuration, and Skywalker Sound just built a new Atmos-capable mixing stage in a 41.3 setup.
Sounds complicated, right? Atmos actually begins with a 9.1 based configuration (the current Dolby 7.1 format plus stereo height channels), which sound designers will mix in a familiar workflow. However, what makes Atmos amazing is that it includes "object" mixing. Meaning, any individual sound effect or music clip can pan anywhere in a 180-degree hemisphere. The Atmos cinema processor -- which can be configured for any professional theatre -- will place that object discretely in as few or as many speakers as the filmmakers intend. What's particularly impressive is how scalable it all is for any venue. In terms of technical requirements, Dolby suggests a pair of height channel speakers for every pair of side channel speakers, full range surrounds because of added LFE capabilities, and individual speaker amplification (this allows for more discrete placement).
So how does it sound?
We were fortunate enough to demo the Atmos logo trailer (created by Erik Aadahl, best known for his sound work on 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'), four sound only clips, the climax of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', and a secret clip about which I may not write despite it being the presentation highlight. Overall, when I first heard 7.1, I felt as though I had been sucked forward towards the screen. With Atmos, it sounds like you're literally in the world of the movie; the height channels are a big part of this, but the precision with which bullets ping and helicopters fly is impressive and perhaps the most lifelike I've ever encountered. But remember, all of these demos was designed to call attention to the new format; like anything, Atmos can be as aggressive or subtle as needed.
The Atmos logo sounds like a cross between the THX and 'Transformers'. It has a wide dynamic range with heart-stopping base and an incredibly immersive surround experience. The four sound-only clips were fun as well. A thunder and rain sequence was akin to sitting in a covered porch during a summer storm; I could hear the individual drops of rain hitting the ground, while others dripped off a roof. It was incredibly realistic. Next, they panned a song 360-degrees around the room, first in 5.1, and later in Atmos. The 5.1 had gaps, uneven levels, and bled across multiple speakers at a time. In Atmos, a single voice traveled in an exact line.
Then, Dolby took two conversations from 'The Dark Knight' and played them at the same time on the same side of the auditorium. In 5.1, you couldn't understand anything. In 7.1, things were clearer, but the conversations sounded on top of one another. In Atmos, it was like sitting at a restaurant and isolating two other tables conversing around you.
The last sound-only demo was originally created for Vodaphone commercials in the U.K. It began on a in-flight jetliner. After a terrifying crash sequence, a man swims to safety and encounters cannibals on a jungle island. While not as good as 'The Grey' plane crash, this was also incredibly immersive. Fellow passengers opening overhead bins sounded like they were doing so above you. In a moment where we were bobbing up and down under the water, you could hear the water rising up around you and receding. It was pretty cool.
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' wasn't my favorite demo, but the sequence where the gorillas leaps into the crashing helicopter was pretty good. Perhaps in its current form a little too chaotic and not as discrete as the other clips, especially the finale that followed, which was perfect.
When properly mixed, Atmos is an unmatched force in theatrical motion picture sound capability, but when and where will you get to hear it?
Dolby just went over to Skywalker Sound to do a "test-mix" on Disney/Pixar's 'Brave'. If all goes well, Atmos will debut on 15 screens in the US when 'Brave' hits cinemas on June 22. Though the official list hasn't been released (look for that in the next couple weeks), these select cinemas will all be in major cities. AMC's "ETX" auditoriums, which already have built-in height channels, are likely conversion candidates.
Again, this is mostly a test. Atmos doesn't officially debut until next year, when Dolby is planning to run a "Road to 1000" campaign in hopes they'll have 1,000 Atmos screens by the summer of 2013. In the meantime, they plan to work with Hollywood's top filmmakers to mix the biggest movies in the format for next year.
To learn more about Atmos, here's the Launch Event and Panel:
Fidelity Forum 2.0 Wrap Up
Visiting the Laboratory is an aural treat. Despite the amazing demos, my favorite part was probably the visit to Mixing Room A, where we sampled the B.O.B. (featuring Halley Williams) song Airplanes and the Owl City song Fireflies in 7.1. Not only was the equipment drool-worthy (sorry about the puddle, fellas) and the room perfectly tuned, but we were able to isolate vocals and other track elements and learn how mutli-channel audio is mixed. Fascinating.
As for the other technology explored, Dolby TrueHD Advanced 96K Upsampling is a fun new home theatre improvement. I could hear it and I look forward to hearing as many movie soundtracks in the format as possible. Since I've already got the gear, why not, right? I suppose the only potential downside is the inevitable studio double-dip release, but that would probably happen anyway. Dolby Atmos won't be in our homes anytime soon, but as a theatrical experience, I'm eagerly waiting for 'Brave' and whatever follows.
Will either change the movies forever? For some, yes; for others, no. But at the end of the day, what's most important is Dolby, and many other companies out there, won't settle for what's "good enough."
Because they always need to make it better.