Surround Encoding and Monitoring

Feb 1, 2013 9:00 AM, By Kevin Becka



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It all starts with a bed mix of 5.1 or 7.1. On top of that bed mix is a hybrid solution that marries in objects that can be placed anywhere within the speaker configuration. At any one time, the objects can be placed in the field between or directly coming from the speakers, simulating up to 64 discrete speaker feeds. All this data is stored within the master mix, which then is rendered real time at the venue to match speaker placement, size or geometry of the space. This allows for an accurate rendition of the mixer’s intent to be carried through to the venue, no matter the gear they have. As long as they have the Dolby Atmos decoder, it’s all done via the math. Right now, Dolby is using the same RMU in the mix studio and commercial theaters as they wait for the availability of Dolby Atmos Cinema Processer (CP850), which should be available in spring 2013.

While a mixer may have a good shot at upholding integrity with basic stereo mixes playing back over quality speakers or headworn devices, surround content complicates the matter. With all the different surround encoders and decoders, plus a rash of software and hardware “helper” devices and upmixers meant to enhance the quality of a listener’s experience, there’s no telling how your mix will sound when it gets to the end of the line. It took years to achieve normalcy in television. Today there’s no guarantee that a Verizon phone will act the same as an AT&T phone.

This is where DTS thinks it has the answer with its new Headphone:X system fresh out of CES 2013. Headphone:X takes advantage of the advanced properties of the DTS-HD audio codec, which is said to precisely simulate the experience of being in any movie theater or the movie’s mixing stage, and fine tuning that experience to an exact seat location within the room.

DTS went to great pains at CES to demo their system, collaborating with Focal to create a unique 11.1 speaker playback system as a reference, then quickly A/B them with Headphone:X. Michael Farino from DTS explains: “The system is not a matrixed upmix but a re-creation of the discrete playback in a particular space.” So for content creators, nothing changes. Farino continued: “An engineer would mix the music/film as they would in any space, then the mixes can be played back from the perspective of the sampled environment.”

The ability to make all this happen is within the Headphone:X metadata, which is captured using a proprietary system. Right now DTS can only produce this room capture data but is working on simple user tools so creators can sample their own spaces. For DTS and surround playback, this is a groundbreaking product that if it delivers as promised, can provide high-quality surround playback and assure broad distribution with little affect on the engineer. Plus it’s scalable from stereo to 11.1, meaning existing mixes from stereo on up can be played back in the modeled environments.

For Genaudio’s AstoundSound encoding process, Greg Morgenstein, Genaudio’s senior mix engineer, wants the pure surround mix as a source for his encode. Genaudio AstoundSound is a 4-D sound localization cue technology intended for professional and consumer software and hardware product integration. Morgenstein’s “playground” is Astound Studios, a 5.1 studio built specifically for AstoundSound.

When Morgenstein creates the AstoundSound encode, he would rather have the full surround mix, or start one from scratch, as his intention is to accurately re-create the original surround listening experience over two speakers and headphones. To check the finished product, the 5.1 original and a fold-down created with a Waves plug-in is checked against the Astound encode, which is created by running parts of the original mix through plug-ins. The center will go through a single plug-in, and the front and rear stereo pairs will each have their own plug-ins. This gives Morgenstein the ability to customize the encode for each application—it’s not a one-size-fits-all encode.

So in answer to the opening questions, engineers can pretty much carry on with business as usual, unless of course you find yourself on the Skywalker Sound stage and get to mix a jet-by with a new ceiling speaker. But all mix engineers would be wise to brush up on the wide range of options out there in surround delivery and develop techniques to make sure the integrity of their mixes follow through to the AMC Theater or the iPhone on the train.

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