I you enjoyed our talk with sound designer Make Mangini in Episode 006B, check out this look at the technology behind the latest cinema surround formats.
The introduction in 2005 of the Digital Cinema Initiatives standard brought with it the largest wholesale change in motion picture presentation since the arrival of widescreen cinema and stereophonic sound in 1953. It differed greatly from the past because picture and sound specifications had already been carefully vetted by committees with an eye toward scalability of the DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) that are sent to theaters. For the image, this meant 2k resolution was the minimum, but 4k was supported; in sound, all theaters were expected to have basic 5.1 systems, although the standard allowed for a total of 14 channels. Two additional channels are reserved for mono mixes for hearing impaired and visually impaired patrons, the latter being narration on top of the mix. However, it was inevitable that variations would soon occur, and these were first in picture with various implementations of 3-D. As soon as this was starting to sort itself out in 2012, two different immersive sound formats arrived to break the 7.1 barrier that was the limit for almost all previous DCPs. First, in January 2012 Auro Technologies, in association with Barco Cinema, introduced Auro-3D with the film Red Tails in Auro 11.1, which was shown in about 2 theaters in the U.S. The development of Auro-3D began seven years prior, with research that CEO Wilfried Van Baelen had done at his Galaxy Studios in Belgium. The Auro-3D cinema format, in its basic 11.1 cinema iteration, adds a 5.0 height layer—three screen speakers and two upper surround channels—above the standard 5.1 system—plus a top layer comprising a center-ceiling “Voice of God” channel. The system can be expanded to 13.1 with the splitting of the lower surrounds into four channels, as in 7.1. Utilizing their proprietary Auro Codec, the additional tracks are encoded in the four least significant bits of a standard 24-bit, 48kHz mix, so that only one 5.1 or 7.1 printmaster needs to be shipped on DCPs, with the additional height and top channels decoded in the cinema. Auro Technologies has a complete suite of plug-ins to aid mixers, including the Auro-Panner, to place sounds in the 3-D field, and Auro-Matic Pro, which allows upmixing of mono, stereo and 5.1 elements to their 11.1 and 13.1 formats. The second “salvo” in the new format wars occurred in June 2012 when Dolby Laboratories introduced its Atmos format for the Pixar animated film Brave on 14 screens. Dolby had been researching expanding cinema speakers for years, going back to 2002 and We Were Soldiers, which utilized an overhead VOG channel.