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71 The Next Frontier

by Steve Harvey. With 5.1 audio now well established in a variety of broadcast, film and video formats, all eyes are on the next frontier of multichannel surround, 7.1. But while this newer 8-channel format has a commercial outlet on Blu-ray Disc, producers and post producers are, perhaps not unsurprisingly, wary of jumping wholeheartedly into 7.1 as memories of the short-lived DVD-Audio format linger and digital online delivery threatens to leapfrog in popularity over hardware discs.

Randall Smith (left), seen here with Post Haste Sound co-founder
Allan Falk, was the first to use the DTS Neural UpMix suite,
on the recent Blu-ray 7.1 release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
by Steve Harvey.

With 5.1 audio now well established in a variety of broadcast, film and video formats, all eyes are on the next frontier of multichannel surround, 7.1. But while this newer 8-channel format has a commercial outlet on Blu-ray Disc, producers and post producers are, perhaps not unsurprisingly, wary of jumping wholeheartedly into 7.1 as memories of the short-lived DVD-Audio format linger and digital online delivery threatens to leapfrog in popularity over hardware discs.

According to Bob Heiber, vice president audio, Deluxe Digital Media, approximately 40 7.1 remix projects have come through the Chace Audio by Deluxe facility in Burbank. Chace, long on the bleeding edge of sound technology for disc-based home theater delivery, as well as theatrical presentations, now has four suites capable of handling 7.1 post.

But, cautions Heiber, “Everybody is thinking about it, but nobody is committed to it 100 percent. A lot of the work was preemptive, you might say.” The majority of the projects at Chace were initially for New Line, which was subsequently acquired by Warner Bros., who elected to not release almost all but a couple, reports Heiber.

As he notes, “The affordable 7.1 box systems are just coming to the market now. Blu-ray Disc (BD) player penetration is improving, so it’s just now that we’re starting to see the ability for the home theater enthusiast to really enjoy this at a consumer price level as opposed to an audiophile price level.”

Plus, Blockbuster now devotes significant shelf space to BD titles, Heiber observes. “The distribution guys are really starting to push it onto the consumer in a way they may not even be quite aware of. By controlling it in the distribution medium they can force the technology onto the consumer, because the rental price is the same and the prices of the players have come down to that of standard def players.”

Craig Robinson, an audio production instructor and engineer at MediaTech in Austin, TX, reports that the school is not yet teaching 7.1. “I’m waiting on the sidelines to see what happens. Eventually, if the industry does indeed take off with it, then we will apply it to our teaching curriculum,” he says.

Robinson has fond memories of DVD-A, which promised consumers not only a 5.1 experience but also a significant improvement in quality over CD and other playback formats. “Nobody bought into it, and it’s just sad, because it’s a fantastic-sounding audio format.”

Two things killed the format, he believes: “The confusion to the consumers about what to buy, especially when Sony came out with SACD. Retailers didn’t know whether to put it into their audio CD section or a different section.”

Further, while SACD offered compatibility with CD machines, DVD-A discs could not be played on DVD-V players, he points out. “People would buy the disc and expect it to play on their regular DVD player, and it wouldn’t. It upset consumers.”

The worry for some is that 7.1 might also go the way of DVD-A and quickly fade away. Heiber offers another factor possibly working against the faster adoption of 7.1 by consumers and professionals. “What has been an obstacle, I think, is where is direct delivery, internet delivery, electronic delivery, to the home? What provisions will be made for 7.1 when you have limited bandwidth? I think that’s put people on the fence a little bit, consumers especially,” he says.

For all that, he says, “You can put me down as a 7.1 adopter! I have it in my home theater. I was redoing the den and I had the opportunity, so I said, let’s put it in.”

Potentially adding to the confusion, post-production and authoring tools support a multiplicity of 7.1 speaker layouts. No one expects consumers to rearrange their speakers from one disc to the next, of course, so two configurations have emerged as favorites, according to Randall Smith, senior audio engineer at Post Haste Sound in Los Angeles. Post Haste took over the former Widget multi-room facility at the start of this year, expanding out of the company’s original Santa Monica home.

“You can do either the left-side and right-side surrounds at 90 degrees or back at 110 degrees with the [existing] surrounds moved together. All of our requests have been for the side surrounds at 90 degrees,” says Smith.

But 5.1 projects are still outstripping 7.1 work, he admits. “It’s been a slow process to get it established.”

Indeed, a recent project remixed by Smith, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was only the second from Fox. “It varies from studio to studio. We’ve done a bit of work recently with some smaller clients like Lions Gate. Some of the smaller studios seem to be more adventurous and more willing to try this out,” he reports.

Happily, audio tools now exist that take some of the heavy lifting out of remixing into 7.1, from whatever original multichannel elements (mono sources typically require a lot of manual work). For example, Smith employed Neural UpMix from DTS software to remix Rocky Horror from 5.1 and other elements to 7.1 for BD release this year.

“We had an original 5.1 printmaster [originally mixed at Chace, during Smith’s time there] that was used on the previous DVD release, and then we had a mono DME (dialog, music, effects) stem that was used as a source for the 5.1. It was the U.S. version of the picture cut, so it was missing one of the songs. That wasn’t a huge deal, because we were using it mostly for augmentation in a few spots, and as the primary dialog track during the music sections.”

Multiple original 2-inch, 24-track tapes were digitized and cleaned up. “We took seven or eight tracks and remixed them completely and then, because there are some vocal differences, we ended up using the mono dialog stem as the main vocal source for them. For the rest of the music, we ended up using the DTS Neural UpMix program, trying to get it enveloping to match the rest of the music.”

This was the first post project to use the newly released software, he reports. “I needed to tweak UpMix a little, solely because the source material didn’t have a lot of surround activity. It’s kind of a passive program. If you have a 5.1 element and you want to spread it out to 7.1 it takes the surround information and decides where it’s supposed to go based on the spectral content and things like that.”

With 7.1 penetration in the home still relatively small, DTS Neural UpMix has one particularly nice feature, he continues. “It downmixes really well. It was nice just knowing that the music was going to fold back down to 5.1.”

The software can also intelligently handle any differences between the disc’s speaker configuration and the home theater layout, notes Tom McAndrew, pro audio manager, North America for DTS. “Our encoder can set a metadata flag that tells the consumer’s AV receiver what the mixing environment was. Some consumer AV receivers will do a spatialization effect to try to recreate that.

“It’s great to do a 7.1 upmix but not so good if you have a consumer environment that’s only 5.1 or stereo, and the result of the upmix is destructive in those lower speaker count homes. This product does not do that.”

Neural UpMix offers an assortment of tools, he continues. “It upmixes 5.1 to 7.1 and also 2-channel to 5.1 and 2-channel all the way to 7.1. So we think it also has a lot of applications for broadcast post, and things where you have a 2-channel budget but you have to deliver a 5.1 show.”

McAndrew, who formerly worked as an audio compressionist at an authoring facility, admits that he was initially skeptical of 7.1. “When I first heard about it I thought, this is silly, that’s too much. But I heard it, and I was instantly sold. I love the way it sounds and what it does for various different kinds of titles.”

Disney, for example, has released animation classics such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pinocchio and others on BD. “Every single one came out with a 7.1 upmix—doing 7.1 remixing, not using Neural UpMix. They did a very elegant job of creating these immersive environments from these original mono mixes,” says McAndrew.

DTS has paid a lot of attention to the quality and ease of the professional workflow with Neural UpMix and the DTS Master Audio suite, according to McAndrew. “The Master Audio suite is very easy to use, it’s a fast encoder, and it’s a single file that comes out. The lossy and the lossless component are all one file, so it’s one encode and one QC pass. The professional workflow is what’s really made a difference for us in terms of adoption of DTS on Blu-ray Disc.”

Smith certainly appreciated the workflow during the remix of Rocky Horror. “We did do an entire pass with it folded down to mono, just to be sure we had our downmix set up correctly. We did emulate the stream, so we were listening to the encoded DTS Master Audio stream folded down to 5.1, which we really think is an important thing to do,” he comments.

Before Post Haste opened the new facility, which is largely unchanged since it was vacated by Widget, one studio was adapted to handle 7.1. Smith is unsure about the uptake of the format, however. Certainly an audio-only version, similar to DVD-A, seems unlikely to catch on.

“We’re at the point in our society where we’ve stopped actively listening to music and listen to it much more passively. You’re in the car or out running, and you have music on to keep you slightly distracted. But you aren’t really engaging in it the way that we used to, growing up, where you’d put something on and just listen.”

Plus, he says, “PlayStation 3 is still, as far as I know, the best-selling Blu-ray player. I think most, if not all, of the receivers made in the last couple of years are capable of doing 7.1. I just don’t see a lot of people grabbing onto that.”

But Smith suspects that not all source material might benefit from a 7.1 remix. “It depends on your source elements, particularly if you’re going back to a show that’s 35 years old. We don’t want to turn away work, but we try to be as honest as possible and let clients know if it’s something that’s going to be worthwhile. If someone came and asked for On Golden Pond or Driving Miss Daisy in 7.1 we’re going to tell them it’s not a great idea.”

Chris Reynolds, technical supervisor/mixer, Chace Audio by Deluxe,
recently performed a 7.1 remix of Dances With Wolves,
available from MGM on Blu-ray in January 2011.

Indeed, it appears counterintuitive, but the director’s cut of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, due for MGM release in 2011, recently got the 7.1 treatment from Chris Reynolds, technical supervisor/mixer at Chace Audio by Deluxe. “In my memory, I was thinking it had these big battle scenes but they’re really short, and there’s not even a lot of gunfire; it’s mostly music. But the cool thing about [7.1] was the ambiences. In the scenes where he’s out on the plains, it really gives it some great depth and space. You really feel more enveloped.”

Reynolds is open to using various upmixing techniques, he says. “Some of it is discrete, but we use a lot of different plug-ins. Recently we’ve been using the DTS Neural UpMix. Really, it’s just what sounds best for what we’re working on. And I’ve used a lot of different approaches depending on musical genre.”

In addition to nearfield 7.1 remixes for the home market, Chace has also worked on some 7.1 videogame trailers for BD release. And a little forward thinking has proved effective on several 5.1 film projects, he reveals. “We’ve done a couple, three new films where we made a theatrical mix at the dub stage, but while we were laying everything down, we were keeping the surrounds separated, creating everything we needed to do a nearfield 7.1 mix. That’s something that some of our clients have really liked. We’re mixing your movie, it costs this much, and you can get a set of 7.1 deliverables, too. And because we’ll be thinking about it that way, all it’s going to add is a day in a nearfield suite.”

As for future business, “I think there’s some interesting potential as 3-D, particularly catalog, tries to make its way into the home,” offers Heiber. “A few films were released in stereo in the ’50s, but most were mono. We have a couple of clients asking us to look at these pictures to see the potential, and if there is enough material that we can manipulate authentically.”