vol 8, issue 6

The future of cinema sound

17 June 2013
By Kris Sangani
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An empty cinema

Dolby Atmos improves the cinema going experience, immersing the audience further into the film

Cinema plan showing position of speakers

How a future cinema sound system might look, with speakers embedded in the ceiling

Cinema sound is set to move warp speed into a new age thanks to new techniques at post-production facilities such as Skywalker Sound and Dolby Labs.

Last month saw the release of 'Star Trek Into Darkness', the second instalment of the reimagining of the Star Trek franchise. This will be the first of many summer blockbusters to be played to UK cinemagoers using a new sound-mixing technology by Dolby called Atmos.

The new cinema sound processor supports up to 128 discrete audio tracks and as many as 64 unique speaker feeds, allowing cinemas to present movies using sound that is not only available on channels left-to-right, at the front and at the sides but also on an array of speakers above the audience, resulting in a more immersive experience.

In addition to playing back a standard 5.1 or 7.1 mix using arrays, the system will give each loudspeaker its own unique feed. This will enable the many new front, surround and ceiling-mounted height channels to achieve precise panning of select sounds such as a helicopter or rain

Empire Cinemas have installed the technology at Screen One of their flagship cinema in Leicester Square, the only cinema in the UK that currently has the new surround system.

Screen One of The Empire in Leicester Square has a rich history of sound innovation. In the summer of 2006, the sound technology was overhauled and a 56 kilowatt THX-Certified sound system was installed. Three years later, in 2009, the cinema was fitted with the UK's first Dolby 3D large screen, while the Dolby Atmos sound system was fitted last year.

Sound in cinema

Screen One was built for an immersive sound experience. It's designed like a crisp cathedral and the sounds bounces around you with synchronicity and thunder. The actors' voices are like gods talking from a higher plain of existence.

The Empire Leicester Square became the first Dolby Atmos-ready commercial exhibitor in the UK when it enhanced its existing JBL/Crown sound system. The company added extra screen channels and overheads, which already had Harman Professional speakers.

"We immediately made the decision to adopt Dolby Atmos. It's very exciting because this is the next step forward in sound development. At the same time we have a relationship with the Harman brands going back as far as I can remember," says André Mort, technical director at Empire Cinemas.

"One of the stipulations was that we had to be able to retrofit the new components into the existing set up, and we have been able to do that by adding 11 new Crown amps, 14 JBL overhead speakers, and additional JBL front surrounds and rear subs."

Mort adds: "Having carried out several demos we are delighted - you realise just how much the overheads were missed before. The size and height of the ceiling in the auditorium provides space for the sound to breathe and the overall effect is a sense of total sound immersion."

Imagine a huge battle cruiser emerging from the top of the colossal cinema screen with the thunderous roar of the ship as it captures the small fleeing vessel in its belly. You won't have to wait for much longer to experience this with the new technology as when the 3D version is released the sound will be remastered in Dolby Atmos at Skywalker Sound in California.

Will Files, sound designer at Skywalker, recently mixed the sound for the current Star Trek movie at the company's Orson Welles Studio. "This makes a more natural-sounding environment," explains Files. "There's also a tremendous amount of granularity to where you can put things in the room. This is a natural extension of what we are already doing."

In a scene where the lead characters move towards a planetoid, Files used Atmos to give the audience the sense that they are traveling with them. "Not only did we have a lot of fun moving their voices and sound effects around the room, but we had fun taking the music off the screen a little to make it more expansive."

Live events

Many cinemas are now showing live events, from football matches and pop concerts to opera. In the near future, an audio Kickstarter project will see the first public demo of game music played through Dolby's high-end ATMOS system.

The event for the launch of 'Heroes of Video Game Music' at Dolby's European HQ Theatre in London is set to see music tracks from the project played through the sound hardware set-up, previously the exclusive realm of high-end movie projects screened at a limited number of suitably equipped venues.

'The Heroes of Video Game Music' sees former Dolby, DTS, Sony and Psygnosis audio experts bring together the work of 20 famed video game composers for release on DVD and Blu-ray in 5.1 surround sound.

"I am so excited to be given the opportunity to mix some of the tracks and game trailers in Dolby's Atmos surround format for the launch event," says Rik Ede, games audio veteran and the Kickstarter project's creator.

"The ability to pan to up to 64 speakers, including those positioned above the audience, is going to be something really special and a first for games."

Ede is welcoming of any developers or publishers interested in submitting a trailer for consideration to be screened at the event. Those who would like to attend can do so by pledging at the project's Kickstarter website.

If the Kickstarter project is successful, the event is due to take place late this year or early in 2014.

Home cinema systems

Unlike other technologies such as the THX, a high-fidelity audio reproduction standard for cinemas, Dolby Atmos is unlikely to make its way into homes in the near future. It is simply impractical to expect home owners to place speakers in the ceilings of their living rooms.

Although there are currently no plans for Dolby to introduce a standard for home cinema, it is feasible. In the US, where home cinema is all the rage, some home owners are installing speakers into the ceilings of their home.

High-end speaker manufacturers such as Bose, Bang & Olufson and Harmon Kardon have cottoned on to this trend and introduced speakers systems designed specifically to be installed into the ceilings of residential buildings.

However, these are likely to be luxury items for the foreseeable future which means that the cinema experience will remain special for some time yet.

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