AES Section Meeting Reports

Pacific Northwest - September 9, 2010

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The PNW September 2010 meeting featured Tomlinson Holman with his history and future of surround sound. The meeting was held at Microsoft Studios in Redmond, WA. 31 members and 53 nonmembers attended. A $5 fee was charged for nonmembers.

Tomlinson Holman (a Fellow of the AES), is known for his decades-long work in audio and cinema, notably the original THX programs. Currently he is a professor at the USC School of Cinema-TV, is a principal in Audyssey and consults with his TMH Corp.

He began his slide presentation by proclaiming (tongue in cheek) that his history of surround sound would have all the drama of an opera in 5 acts. For the overture, he noted that surround sound existed before electronics, on the theatre stage of renaissance Venice with split choruses of singers and pipe organs. Other musical pieces through the years had performers offstage and used other directional cues.

For his "Act 1," the work of Bell Labs in multichannel audio in the 1930s and Disney's work for Fantasia was discussed. Like an opera, the loss of the Fantasound equipment at sea would mark the "first death of surround sound" to close Act 1.

Act 2 was his next rebirth of surround sound. Movies were making money during World War II.
Studios owned everything for producing and exhibiting, so were forced by the government to divest. Audiences dropped due to the post-war advent of television, so studios tried innovation to lure them back - including Cinerama, Cinemascope and Todd AO multichannel sound. Nothing really took off, and the death of Michael Todd might mark the operatic death of surround, Act 2.

The post-war HiFi-stereo boom would be Act 3. Two channel stereo became the standard for consumers, and by the 60s, quad arrived with 4 channels in 4 corners. Its failure was likely due to unclear music producing - should the perspective be from the stage, or the best seat in the house? With no agreement and poor performance of the square array, people disliked it and it failed in the marketplace.

Act 4 would be an operatic resurrection! By 1975 Dolby Stereo was used on film, Star Wars opened and demand exploded. Subsequent blockbuster films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now, and Superman - together with innovations in 35mm and 70mm sound systems further boosted surround sound in the cinema, and subsequently in the home theater.

By 1987 digital sound on film formats were being discussed. How many channels to include? Holman had determined 5.1 (really 5.005) should work and be feasible. In 1992, Batman Returns was released in Dolby Digital 5.1, and soon DTS' dual system and Sony's SDDS would appear. Film prints today need 4 tracks (1 analog plus Dolby, DTS and Sony digital).

After a break for snacks, door prize winners were drawn.

Continuing with "Act 5," today, DVD players with surround capability are in some 81% of homes and home video is 60% of studio revenues. The music business has dropped by more than half, not just from piracy but likely from poor music and the loudness war - overcompression. Additional research tells us more about the optimum number of channels needed. And finally, an operatic recapitulation - the digital standards are pretty well set for digital cinema sound, but progress needs to be made on production methods for multichannel sound, and the best number of channels needs to be agreed upon. Holman makes his case for 10.2 channels arrayed in a certain way and with dual purpose direct/dipole surrounds.

A question and answer period ended the evening.

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