Surround Finds Its Sugar Daddy

There are two kinds of audio professionals working today: those who work in surround, and those who will be. But what kinds of projects will we be working on?
You’ve heard it before: surround is coming, surround is coming! Well, it’s obviously arrived now in a big way, but not necessarily where we music mixers expected it to land. For surround audio has finally found the sugar daddy it has craved for 25 years, and its name is television.

The first wave of surround audio to find significant consumer acceptance was introduced by Dolby Labs in the late ’70s with its multichannel analog soundtracks for films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters. This ushered in substantial changes not only in the way film soundtracks were produced and mixed, but in actual movie theater system design as well.

The second wave of surround acceptance goes back only seven or eight years to the record-breaking consumer embrace of DVDs. Really catching fire by 2001, this format provides for discrete digital 5.1 delivery to home theaters in a manner far easier for the consumer to operate, and enjoy. And consumers did enjoy it, and voted for 5.1 surround audio with their wallets as evidenced by the explosion of DVD players, DVD content, and 5.1 home theater sales.

The third wave of surround (not coincidently the name of my production company) really crested only in the last 12 months in the long-awaited, and now finally widespread, ability of broadcast television networks, satellite and cable operators, and terrestrial affiliates to deliver discrete digital 5.1 audio to significant numbers of households, and right into their home theaters.

The major broadcast networks all now have parallel HD transmission channels that carry 5.1. audio. Premier cable channels such as HBO do as well. And with elite specials such as the Grammys, Superbowl, and Oscars, and episodics such as The Sopranos providing high-quality Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks through your digital cable box or satellite dish to your living room, the audience for surround is suddenly expanding exponentially.

So what does this mean for the audio professional trying to find opportunities to mix high-quality surround audio? It means that independent producers as well as film and TV studios have realized that to future-proof their productions they better finish in HD/5.1 starting now. And they are. Primetime dramas, sports, even American Idol all broadcast in 5.1. Only the advertising industry is behind this curve, simply because unlike a film going to DVD, or a television drama airing on one network, advertisers distribute to multiple networks who all have a different HD/5.1 master delivery spec — which is a tricky topic for another day.

But what about music? What about high-resolution 5.1 music? What about lossless? 96k? 192k? Does this all mean that high-resolution surround is over? Of course not. But common sense suggests that surround sound itself, encoded as Dolby Digital or DTS, has a far bigger potential audience right now than does high-res surround.

The five brilliant nominees for this year’s inaugural Best Surround Sound Album Grammy award are all spectacular examples of artful expression through sound. They each serve the music, as they expand its impact with 5.1. But all five of them were only released in high-res formats, and not encoded on DVD-V, thereby limiting their potential audience to that infinitesimal fraction that own universal, DVD-A or SACD players. Do these high-res-only releases sound incredible? Absolutely. Do I wish they could be experienced in the standard-issue DVD-V home theater? Hell, yes. Actually, I’d just like to be able to find them at retail or online; which is nearly impossible. And that’s a message all by itself.

While the multi-national mega-corps circle warily in the upcoming HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray fight to the death, a new hybrid format snuck into town: Dual Disk. Along with a Red Book layer, the flip side is capable of supporting either DVD-A high-res audio or, more to the point, DVD-V-style encoded surround music. So for just about the first time, music-only (non-video) 5.1 projects are getting into homes in a format the typical fan can play. What a concept! No wonder consumers are supporting Dual Disk much faster than the high-res-only formats.
Which finally brings us to the HD-Tivo, soon built right into your Comcast digital cable box, ready to record tonight’s Cubs game in Hi-Def for your endlessly repeated torture in the privacy of your very own home. With discrete 5.1 surround sound. On television.

Surround Professional Magazine