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NAB: Calling for a 'Common Language' for Sound Systems

"Potential chaos -- format wars, cost and confusion" loom for the industry without an open standard, warned John Kellogg, senior director at audio technology developer DTS.

LAS VEGAS -- John Kellogg, senior director at audio technology developer DTS, urged the creation of an open standard for immersive audio, warning that without one, the industry faces “potential chaos -- format wars, cost and confusion.”

That was his message at the NAB Technology Summit on Cinema on Saturday. He argued that with the arrival of numerous immersive and object-based sound systems, “mixing a film seven different ways isn’t really sustainable.”

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“NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) has called for a standard format,” he said, adding that this is something that standards setting body Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers is exploring.

SMPTE's technology committee on digital sound systems is actually laying the ground work for a new audio standard aimed at creating a consistent sound experience in theaters. “It will need to be a standard that can be [implemented] in a straight forward way in the field,” explained chair Brian Vessa, who is executive director, digital audio mastering, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

A parallel project to incorporate immersive audio content – such as Dolby Atmos or Barco's Auro 3D – into the new standard will start this July. “The industry doesn't want a variety of ways to deliver immersive audio to cinemas,” he said.

Kellogg agreed, saying, “our belief is we need an open object-based audio platform that needs to be defined and standardized to facilitate a single deliverable.” He suggested DTS’ MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio) Initiative, an open object based archiving/mezzanine format.

Panelist Stuart Bowling of Dolby described Dolby Atmos as "an open platform for third party developers.” Following his NAB panel he told The Hollywood Reporter: "Dolby believes the industry will find Dolby Atmos provides higher performance and consistency than other solutions, even those that might be proposed by an industry group."

He added that Dolby “will continue to work with industry bodies, including NATO and UNIC (International Union of Cinemas), to share our expertise and address best practices as the evaluation of potential open standards continue.”

Audio standards are also being addressed in the broadcast world, where a technical specification for broadcasting Ultra HD pictures at 4K and at 8K resolutions to the home are in place, though there is as yet no agreement on an international standard for related audio. That may be about to change as standards body International Telecommunications Union, which drafted the original Ultra HD specs, meets this month to discuss the issue.

David Wood, chairman of the ITU working group, explained: “As more consumers buy 80-100 inch screens then it becomes valuable to have sound localized vertically as well as horizontally. It is this combination of lateral and vertical which is the focus of discussion in the ITU and other bodies, but there are several different approaches to achieving it.”

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Candidates include the 22.2 channel system favored by Japan public broadcaster NHK; scene-based audio, of which the chief example is Higher Order Ambisonics; and object-based coding.

James Caselton, head of product marketing at Dolby, said that while Dolby's focus today is on Atmos for cinema there is no reason why its principal can’t be applied to broadcast. “While we are not talking today about Atmos for the home, the implication for the future is toward much more placement and customization of sound for the consumer,” he said.

Alan Delaney, a senior director at DTS added: “The shift to 4K video is creating a new competitive landscape for audio innovation. Ultra HD requires that the whole broadcast chain from cameras to set-top-boxes be refreshed and it’s prime time to rethink how we create and deliver audio to the home.”