READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.

0

Soundfirm: Picture Perfect

Welcome to the new Dolby Atmos mix theatre in Soundfirm’s Melbourne studios.

By

9 June 2014

When Roger Savage was preparing to move into bigger and better digs in South Melbourne he knew something was brewing at Dolby Labs. Regardless of any new surround format on the horizon Roger had already drawn up plans for a new Soundfirm flagship mix theatre. The aim: to have the premier film sound mix room in Australia. The fact that Dolby had plans of its own simply meant that Soundfirm could futureproof itself.

The room is a beauty; the audio and vision is superb.

From an audio perspective, Roger’s 2IC, re-recording mixer and sound designer Chris Goodes, had caught up with Meyer Sound’s cinema loudspeakers while on a study tour of the US. Dolby had arranged for a demo of Atmos at one of the Skywalker Ranch mix rooms equipped with Meyer’s loudspeakers. When the showreel sparked up, Chris emitted an audible gasp of admiration: “We’ve not got to the impressive bit yet Chris,” noted the Dolby dude. To which he replied: “It’s the dialog. I’ve never heard dialog sound so good.” (The Acheron’s 580Hz crossover point places most of the dialog in the horn, which makes it particularly well suited to cinema applications.)

RETURN TO FADERS

Atmos isn’t the only big change in audio post production. Brent Heber brings everyone up to date:

Many will remember the Fairlight MFX or dSP Postation (both Australian innovations) with great affection. Digidesign’s ProTools MixPlus system effectively buried those post-specific hardware/software solutions. Mixing in the box became de rigueur — a consumer computer is now commonly the heart of our professional audio world, with enough grunt to mix and process hundreds of tracks with stunning clarity.

Ironically, not so long after convincing the industry it didn’t need faders, Avid née Digidesign set about selling faders back to post studios, releasing the ProControl, Control24 and, most notably, the Icon surfaces in 2004. All this in 15 years.

Icon has been widely adopted, with Avid’s latest Eucon-based System 6 the latest innovation.

ABOUT DOLBY ATMOS SURROUND FORMAT

  • The Atmos Rendering & Mastering Unit (RMU) accepts 10 bed tracks/stems (up to 9.1) which can be mixed/panned as per usual.
  • Additionally, as many as 118 individual sounds can be pulled out of the main mix and addressed as Objects to be steered around the room based on vector metadata. Atmos replay hardware in the cinema renders the info in real time for each Object related to the installed speaker layout.
  • Each speaker channel can be addressed discretely by an Object.
  • Each speaker is full range.
  • Each Atmos room or cinema needs to be Dolby accredited. Prior to use, a Dolby rep will ping the room which applies Lake processing across every channel — every Atmos room should (theoretically) sound the same regardless of size.

The die was cast: the new room would be a Meyer Sound room.

It would also be a Harrison room. Roger has been a Harrison Consoles man for some time. The new Trion is a version of the company’s MPC5. It’s a disarmingly unadorned console. It’s like the company had spent 90% of its budget on the best/brightest coders in the land, and then designed the aesthetics/GUI in an afternoon at the company BBQ. That said, the Trion is a sound-for-picture thoroughbred:

Chris Goodes: “I’m a big fan of using the EQ and processing on the console. It’s so quick to call it up on the console. It’s all in line: compression, EQ, 16 aux and panning plus your bus outputs, which are all automatable — something ProTools still can’t do is automate your outputs. The automation is rock solid, fast and simple; very easy to edit then reconform the automation.

“Also, Harrison is now releasing an Atmos-specific panning ‘plug-in’ that allows you to hit a button on the relevant channel which then auto reassigns that channel input on the router — takes it out of the main mix and automatically turns it into an Object for panning. That info gets stored as the metadata for that Object. It’ll make workflow so much simpler.”

Roger spec’ed his Trion to include an impressive complement of faders and allow the room to accommodate two or even three operators:

Roger Savage: “You can have a sweetspot over 16 faders, and pull in any input across those faders. So if there aren’t two operators you can do that. The truth is, we have more faders than we need. But someone used to mixing in Hollywood will want two mix engineers, sometimes three. And if money is no object, naturally, that’s a good thing.”

Wedged between the two halves of Trion is a Smart AV Tango controller. Roger uses his Tango to dig into ’Tools and make tweaks or write automation within stems. Roger calls it a ‘hybrid’ approach. You can have your ProTools sessions coming up as many or as little of the Trion’s input channels as you like, with the Tango bringing its motorised faders and touchscreen to bear on what’s ‘in the box’. Mind you, Tango uses the now-venerable HUI protocol to control ProTools.

LOUDNESS: PEACE AT LAST

A lot of research has been done into how the human ear perceives the loudness of an audio signal and once that was understood a dBFS-scale measurement was developed representing a far superior way of working than using RMS or peak scales; something more closely aligned with human hearing. The key difference is that loudness is measured over time: an ‘integration time’. Consequently you can have instantaneous measurement of loudness, short-term measurement (over say 2-5s) and then ‘integrated’ over the duration of your program material.

Along the way, our headroom in the final product is also changing. For analogue transmission we always had to keep our audio below -10dBFS. With the digital age we can now open up those limiters all the way to -2dBFS, however this is measured as a ‘true peak’ or integrated peak, ie. how high the peak would really be in the analogue realm if the digital signal were put back together again. We can now mix a lot more dynamically for TV, aligning more closely with the cinema mixing experience. – Brent Heber

THE ATMOS SPHERE

Atmos is new and a pain in the bottom line to install into an existing movie theatre. Not so hard for new builds. Which goes to explain why there are so many Atmos-equipped theatres springing up in the land of the new build: China.

As it happens, Soundfirm is big in the People’s Republic. It has a Beijing branch office, in fact. Saying that, Soundfirm Melbourne houses the studio chain’s only Atmos room. So when the final mix of Filmko Entertainment’s big-budget, CGI-heavy blockbuster, The Monkey King, arrived in the inbox, it headed south.

Chris Goodes: “We got the bed tracks premixed in 9.1. We ran a ProTools HDX2 rig that was full: 512 voices coming into the console on 112 inputs. We had another ProTools system loaded with another 256 voices and other FX.

“We mixed natively in Atmos from the beginning, which meant there was no need to undo the original surround sound mix. It also allowed us to have fun separating out elements such as the music. For example, we placed the choir in the ceiling at one point making more space on screen.

“So the final mix was mostly 9.1 with the occasional Object movement. But those moments really pop when they’re happening.”

They sure do. Fight scenes — of which there are plenty — are dynamic beyond anything you’ve heard in conventional surround. And loud. With nearly 50 full-range loudspeakers coming atcha full throttle, it makes for some intense sonic moments.

Before the final cinema mixes were due, the film studio needed a 5.1 version ready for Chinese new year. With time of the essence, Chris hit the ‘5.1 Fold Down’ button on the Dolby RMU and was pleasantly surprised.

Chris Goodes: “The 5.1 auto fold down worked very well. We played through the whole film and it sounded great. Dolby had done a lot of work in the coding. Even perceptively, they’re doing some clever things with height — pychoacoustically it’s approximating some of the height information from the Atmos mix.”

WORKING REMOTELY

Faster, cheaper internet has meant the wide-scale adoption of file sharing sites like Dropbox and Yousendit. While ISDN became a thing of the past for remote voiceovers and ADR. Source Connect was the final nail in the coffin and we could now start recording at decent quality from DAW-to-DAW over the web. Timecode lockup was added, dropout capturing/buffering was added and now it’s commonplace to record someone on the other side of the world using this sort of technology. The post pro world has shrunk considerably as a result and many freelancers are taking on work from home without the overheads of bricks and mortar. – Brent Heber

MANY DEATHS OF TAPE

Timecode and the various niche machines that read it and acted on it were vital for post production 15 years ago. Sony announced the end of its DAT machine production in 2005 and most soon followed, allowing hard drive-based sound recorders to flourish. Now, a location sound recordist might hand over a USB stick, a hard drive or a DVD-RAM disk full of Broadcast Wave Files. Smooth sailing from hereon? Not quite. Even though DAT replacements have been around for years, most video software to this day have a bunch of gotchas about how they deal with location sound files, and film productions are still rife with workflow problems trying to get audio in sync in this new digital age. – Brent Heber

OPEN SOURCE SOUNDTRACK ENCODING

Since 1976, Dolby Stereo and its later surround incarnations have ruled the cinema sound roost. The whole point of Dolby Stereo was quality control at both ends: noise reduction and encoding to put the soundtrack onto the sprocketed film, and then decoding hardware to read it and play it back in the cinema. In a masterstroke, Dolby only licensed the encoding devices to dub stages, and sent out a technician to operate it. So if you wanted to finish a project on film, you needed to pay Dolby for this service and we’re talking five figures.

George Lucas emerged as an unlikely saviour. He chose to demonstrate a new digital format for cinema called the Digital Cinema Package (or DCP) by releasing Episode 1 The Phantom Menace on this format, played digitally in four cinemas in the USA. DCP was originally developed as a package to distribute films digitally but the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) saw its full potential. A DCP contains MXF media, with JPEG2000-encoded video and BWAV mono audio, 24-bit/48k. That’s right, the audio in the DCP is just uncompressed wav files — no more expensive Dolby licenses and equipment hire, any ol’ bedroom cowboy can now make a film soundtrack. The democratisation of film sound hasn’t been without its land mines. Interestingly, Dolby is doing its best to reinstate the old status quo with the introduction of Atmos. – Brent Heber

QUICKTIME IN NICK OF TIME

In the days of Issue One of AudioTechnology, an audio post house would be routinely sent video on tape, Betacam, SP, digital, you name it. Some of these decks cost upwards of $70k, so the ‘price of admission’ kept novices out of the industry. Although QuickTime movies existed back then, the common trend was to plug in the tape and capture the images, convert that into a QuickTime movie, spot it into your workstation and start working. These days, we’re skipping the middle man and the picture editor exports all manner of video files for different people depending on their craft: the composer will get one, the audio post guys, the colour graders and all these 1s and 0s then go to air, often submitted to broadcast now as a digital file. – Brent Heber

FUTURE READY?

Like any big generational change, it’ll take time for the Atmos juggernaut to truly gain momentum. Cinema take up in this part of the world is slow, and as a result local producers aren’t jumping out of their skin to pony-up for an Atmos mix. But as a sound professional or, indeed, as a film director, once you’ve heard what an Atmos mix is capable of, there’s no way of unhearing it. The creative possibilities are endless. Only time will tell just how much audiences will demand it.

Roger Savage clearly sees it as a big part of his future: “We’re building an Atmos room in Soundfirm Beijing at the moment. It’s hard to find a room big enough in downtown Beijing. But that’s now happening. We believe in Atmos and are excited by its future.”

RESPONSES

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More for you

Filter by
Post Page
News Avid Issue 83 Meyer Sound Feature Broadcast Reviews Software + Plug-ins DAW Plug-ins Waves Microphones Wireless Microphone Systems Shure Cameratop Microphone Lavalier Microphone d&b Audioteknik L-Acoustics PA Systems Line Arrays JBL Professional Recording Utility & Other Software Lewitt Audio Game Sound Yamaha
Sort by
READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.