I am pleased to have this opportunity to share my observations with the readers of Surround Professional magazine as we prepare to explore this year’s NAB, and on the heels of an extremely successful broadcast of the 2002 Winter Olympics in HDTV and 5.1-channel surround sound. The production was a tremendous effort, put together by a number of talented professionals who were eager to put the show on the air and, from what I observed, had a lot of fun at the same time.
As engineers and producers, it’s not that often that we really get to make a difference by experimenting with steering and exposing a new technology with the level of enthusiasm we had in Salt Lake. Congratulations broadcasters! TV is alive and well with HD and contributes to the wow-factor for consumers and pros alike with stares and smiles like never before. I�m hooked. I want all my favorite shows in HD and all my sound in 5.1. Now if it were only that easy for the TV engineer part of me.
The digital television transition has been with us officially since 1996. The audio specification has been written and just about all the equipment necessary to distribute and transmit great-sounding programs with multichannel audio is available. So why aren�t we engrossed in our HDTV and why isn�t all of it with 5.1 surround?
Let’s take a look at the big picture.
On the consumer front, over 12 million Dolby Digital 5.1 receivers have been sold and 53 million DVD players are out there. This is terrific. We have consumer awareness and a thirst for the technology. Hollywood generates plenty of high-quality films with multichannel sound that satisfies some of our high-tech itch and lights up 5.1 indicators on our disc players while rocking the house. This is great so far, but everyone wants more.
In a TV world made up of multiple suppliers such as movie channels, sports channels, networks, satellite, and cable, things get a little more complicated. Television outlets are generating their revenue streams with current analog NTSC technology. Digital, multichannel, high definition programming is an add-on technology heir to the current platform, but one that requires big bucks. Two plants, two transmitters, additional transponders on the satellites�you get the idea. Things are going to move slowly at first. Especially when dollars are tight. Accept that.
Where sound is concerned, moving 5.1 audio from point to point was never in the plan for an existing stereo TV facility. Also consider that audio can be an intimidating and misunderstood technology to managers and video engineers, especially when it’s digital and six times as tough when it’s 5.1.
So what can we do?
As professionals in the business we need to be creative with solutions while working with minimal budgets. Establishing and maintaining a well running digital TV plant capable of 5.1 is a tremendous investment in itself � even if it exists in only one rack connected to a transmitter. With this, we have the groundwork and can work effectively in a minimal configuration that’s not unusual for today’s DTV start-up in any market.
For the new digital TV transmission engineer, education and awareness are probably the most important needs. When working with compressed multichannel audio, understanding what you’re dealing with is critical. Learn about bit rate, channel configuration, and latency/synchronization. Trust me, you don�t want to be embarrassed by poor lip-sync, and you’ll need to know where to go to correct it when it happens. Learn why things connect, not just how things connect. Learn about compatibility between gear. Spend the time. Read the book and seek out the articles. It’s important. You’ll be adjusting �dialog normalization. You’ll be using digital audio reference signals. You need to be the expert. The information is out there.
For the mixing engineer working in stereo, consider the move to matrix surround. This technology is a perfect interim step during the DTV transition. With an encoder and a five-speaker monitoring system you can mix a digitally compatible surround sound program and move it around your existing stereo plant and out to the DTV transmitter. Without much cost, you�ve enhanced the program for your audience and taken a step closer to preparing for DTV’s ultimate and next step; 5.1. For station management, support your staff. Engineers will be working on new equipment and practices that will require your help with securing the gear and the time to understand it. The move to digital is a complicated process and might not happen perfectly at every step once the new transmitter is turned on. This is especially true for the audio portion of the signal. Get involved and influence your staff to get the best out of the tools they have to work with. Be prepared to experiment and, again, be patient with the process but challenge it as well.
For the network and Hollywood decision-makers, be creative. During an expensive DTV transition, methods to help the process along are important. Collaborating with consumer manufacturers helps support the cost of production and transmission. It doesn�t stop there. Broadcasters and show suppliers need to come together and share resources for the good of the whole industry. This can help create more 5.1 programming. It will make your audiences want to buy more home theater equipment, ultimately driving down its cost and, most importantly, giving advertisers the reason they need to move to digital as well. Outsmart the chicken and the egg.
For cable and satellite suppliers, carry the HDTV programming.
As you read this during and after NAB, I hope these observations will stimulate some thought and help explain what’s going on in the industry. I also hope you’ll do your part to build momentum to help make HDTV with crystal-clear surround sound an every day event. Most of all, let’s all enjoy the show and have fun!
About Jim Starzynski:
This issue marks the debut of our Guest Editor Series, which takes prominent surround and high-res audio professionals from throughout our industry and gives them a chance to say what needs to be said. Our first guest editor � just in time for NAB � is NBC’s Jim Starzynski. Learn about Jim below, and then read what he’s got to say in this issue’s editorial by refering to the article above.
Jim Starzynski is principal engineer for NBC Technical Planning and Engineering, overseeing audio technologies and practices for all NBC broadcast and cable properties. He is responsible for establishing NBC’s audio strategy for DTV, and he works with leading manufacturers to develop next-generation audio systems. Formerly, Starzynski served 14 years as network project engineer. He’s worked on audio facilities at NBC, including Today’s sidewalk studio, Saturday Night Live and Conan’s music mix rooms, and the all-digital network broadcast operations center. His most recent accomplishment is contributing to the HDTV presentation of the 2002 Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City in 5.1 surround sound. Starzynski won an Emmy Award for his work during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.