Immersive Content: AES 57th International Conference On Entertainment Tech

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Issues of acoustics, the challenges of low frequency reproduction, loudness, processing, personalization and immersive audio formats were the focus of the Audio Engineering Society’s recent three-day 57th International Conference in Hollywood, CA.
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HOLLYWOOD, CA—Issues of acoustics, the challenges of low frequency reproduction, loudness, processing, personalization and immersive audio formats were the focus of the Audio Engineering Society’s recent three-day 57th International Conference in Hollywood, CA. Taking as its theme “The Future of Audio Entertainment Technology,” the conference presented workshops, paper sessions and panel discussions on audio delivery via the cinema, television and the internet.

Sony Pictures’ Brian Vessa, also chair of SMPTE’s Technical Committee 25CSS, outlines the issues motivating cinema audio standards initiatives. It has been hard to avoid the topic of immersive audio recently, and this conference was no exception, dedicating the entire final day to the subject. From ambisonics and binaural to channel-based schemes such as Auro-3D, the object-based systems being produced by Dolby Labs and DTS, as well as the hybrid MPEG-H standard, the many and various immersive formats were discussed in great detail over the weekend by the manufacturers and their product users.

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Immersive sound in the cinema— and, increasingly, in the home—is being driven more by manufacturers, content creators and audio professionals than consumer demand, it seems. “We did a lot of audience research on the experience of immersive sound. Most novice listeners find a marginal difference between 5.1 and immersive sound,” reported Brian Claypool of Barco, which recently acquired IOSONO and is a partner with Auro Technology.

Claypool wondered if there should be “baseline performance criteria” for immersive content, in order to make the differences more obvious. It is “simply not possible” to standardize the sound of an immersive mix, argued Dolby’s Charles Robinson, who spent time at Skywalker Sound during the development of Dolby Atmos. Mixers there have an expression, he said: “If it sounds right, it is right.”

Attempts at standardization could well slow innovation, according to Bert Van Deale of Auro Technologies. Immersive sound has come to market very quickly and is such a young format that it would be foolish to set anything in stone just yet. “We might be overlooking things; in five years, with hindsight, we might say we should have done it differently,” he said. Robinson agreed, commenting, “If we’d locked Atmos down at the start, it would be less good now.”

A panel discussion on streaming delivery of audio content chaired by the DTV Audio Group’s Roger Charlesworth spent considerable time on the topic of high-res music. Music streaming is increasing and downloads are decreasing. “That’s what the consumer seems to want,” said Jeff Dean of Meridian Audio. Hi-res downloads and streaming are seen as a premium product and priced accordingly, said Dean. Although the numbers are currently small, the labels are getting more content to the services because of consumer demand. “HD Tracks had their best year last year by far,” he reported.

Film sound veteran Brian McCarty, chair, AES Technical Committee for Digital Cinema and Television chair and co-chair of the 57th AES International Conference provides a summary of the three-day conference program in his closing remarks. Dolby Atmos-encoded movies started to become available on Bluray Disc late last year and the ATSC is currently developing its next-generation U.S. broadcast standard, which will include support for immersive sound and is due for initial implementation perhaps five years from now. Meanwhile, certain OTT (over-the-top) cable outlets are offering Dolby Atmos content, as is Amazon via its Kindle Fire HDX 8.9.

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Streaming is extremely competitive, said Sean Richardson of Starz Entertainment. “Continuing to push the limits with technology and quality are legitimate differentiators as long as you approach it correctly,” he said.

Brian McCarty, chair, AES Technical Committee for Digital Cinema and Television, who co-chaired the conference with Dr. Sean Olive, commented, “I call the last 10 years the ‘dark years,’ because all of a sudden, portability became the only factor for audio. I think those years are over; we’ve seen renewed interest at the AES in higher resolution formats. As far as I’m concerned, we should ban all of the lossy formats.”

As McCarty noted during his summary of the conference on the last day, many panelists pointed to the personalization of content and the virtualization of immersive formats to headphones—principally through streaming services—as offering tremendous and immediate potential. “We’ve seen many different techniques for developing and delivering these immersive standards and other audio formats to the headphone market,” said McCarty. “We need to start putting production workflows in place to deal with them.”

Going forward, there will also need to have standards put in place by the AES—as well as SMPTE, a partner in the conference—if immersive sound formats are to be able to interoperate and exchange object-and channel-based audio essence and metadata. Sony Pictures’ Brian Vessa, chair of SMPTE’s Technical Committee 25CSS working toward a set of standards for cinema audio, observed that studios must sometimes mix to three different masters and multiple deliverables, which each utilize very different workflows. “That increases their post production schedule and costs, and they have to manage more DCP inventory; it’s a big management headache,” he said.

Exhibitors might also be reticent to invest in a particular proprietary format. “Once you do, you’re restricted to titles created in that format,” he said. “We have a lack of interoperability. It looks like we might need some standards.”

Sponsors for the AES 57th International Conference included Auro-3D, Avid, Dolby, DTS, Harman, MPSE, NBCUniversal Studio Post, Sennheiser and SMPTE.

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