The audio industry has witnessed major innovative and creative changes in the past
few years. From sound post for film, television, video games or new media to the
preservation, restoration and archiving of media assets and full digital content
services, industry leaders have come up with a combination of award-winning
technology and just plain simple ideas to overcome all the challenges.
For millions of years, sound was a natural phenomenon; only existing in the
moment and time it was produced. Then came the development of technology,
allowing the recording and reproduction of those audible moments we could hear
around us and hence the development of radio, cinema and television.
There is a saying that “sound is half the picture’ or “70% of what you see’. Audio is
undoubtedly most important in television and film production but, being human we
decided to abuse the very technology we created and soon excessive and
inexpedient use of compression, limiting and maximisation caused audio to suffer
considerably. The greed of a few, whose desire it was to “pinch’ more and more of
the spectrum, led to a war in the television industry resulting in a bold effort to
bolster audience comfort, particularly during commercial breaks.
Over the past year or two, new broadcast standards have been introduced inciting
the said “loudness wars’ and after heavy battle, we are finally at peace and – with
new equipment that allows for compliance with these standards – production, post
and broadcast professionals now have a valuable and efficient set of tools in the
ongoing fight against the said loudness.
With these new standards, cross-genre programme material can finally co-exist,
and volume knobs and remote buttons can expect a longer life, while audiences will
get a far more pleasant listening experience.
The audio post-production market has changed quite dramatically over the past five
to eight years. Overall there are fewer productions and budgets have been
tightened as a result of the “world economic decline’. There has certainly been a
decline in independent post facilities; those without their own production arms rely
solely on third party product to keep their doors open. Some of the major studios
that have sound facilities have an advantage over these independent post facilities.
They support their own needs and requirements creating creative content for their
In 2014 Warner Brother Post-Production Services and Warner Brothers Game Audio
department launched the world’s first-ever virtual production stage. The new state
of-the-art facility offers a 250 square-metre space with Optitrak motion capture
facilities and audio capability to enable the actors’ voice performances to be
recorded for post live, thus eliminating the need to lay in audio tracks later. The
majority of production in the new facility is for the games market.
New console technology and increasing resources in PCs have made significant
amounts of processing power and memory available to games and other interactive
applications and thus an upsurge in audio production in the gaming industry.
Previous trends in game audio revolved around squeezing audio solutions into low
memory and designing effects with minimised processor usage.
In contrast, current trends arise due to the vast flexibility available for interactive
audio given by high processing power and more memory. While interactive audio
was dominantly the domain of games, wider availability of high-level audio
application programming interfaces (APIs) have opened up more possibilities for
research, training and educational applications. The use of HD formats and
widespread acceptance of multichannel audio has led to 5.1 and 7.1 channels
becoming a standard specification on many computer games and developers are
even looking to new possibilities including the potential application of ambisonics in
games. The full-sphere surround sound technique was developed back in the 1970’s
but it is only now that off-the-shelf hardware is close to allowing its possible use in
Emerging technology trends
Audio coding has emerged as a critical technology in numerous audio applications.
In particular, it is a key component of mobile multimedia applications in the
consumer market including wireless audio broadcast, Internet radio and streaming
music, music downloads, storage and playback, mobile audio recording and
Internet-based teleconferencing, on a variety of platforms including digital audio
broadcast radio receivers, portable music players, mobile phones and personal
The frontiers of compression have been pushed further, allowing carriage of full-
bandwidth signals at very low bit rates to the point where recent coding systems
are considered appropriate for some broadcasting applications, particularly
relatively expensive wireless communication channels such as satellite or cellular
In television and broadcast, there is considerable research activity exploring audio
presentation that is more immersive than the pervasive consumer 5.1 channel audio
systems. The industry has applied the label of “3D Audio’ to such explorations, since
the common thread is the use of many loudspeakers positioned around, above and
below the listener.
It’s a big story, so big that the European Broadcast Union (EBU) has founded a work
group for 3D audio or Immersive Audio and the MPEG Committee has begun work
on “immersive sound’ coding.
In the cinema world, Dolby Laboratories’ Atmos is the name of a surround sound
technology taking immersive audio into the silver screen theatre at a whole new
level. Atmos technology allows for an unlimited number of audio tracks in theatres
for optimal, dynamic rendering to loudspeakers based on theatre capabilities.
Atmos enables the audio engineer (using a special version of Pro Tools) to
designate a particular location in the theatre, as a three-dimensional volume, where
each dynamic sound source should seem to be coming from. During playback, each
theatre’s Atmos system mixes and renders all dynamic sounds in real-time to make
it seem each sound is coming from its designated spot, in a manner customised to
that particular theatre’s speaker configuration.
By way of contrast, traditional multichannel technology essentially burns the audio
tracks into particular channels during post-production, which means the re-
recording mixer has to make up-front assumptions that may not apply very well to
a particular theatre (to the extent its playback capabilities differ from the mixing
stage where the mixer was working).
The first generation cinema hardware, the Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor, supports
up to 128 discrete audio tracks and up to 64 unique speaker feeds. The technology
was initially geared towards commercial cinema applications only, but it was
announced late in 2014 that it is going to be adapted to home cinema as well.
And already products are being offered from well-known brands such as Denon,
Marantz, Pioneer and Yamaha.
The technology and process is well supported in the US and some European markets
and is in the planning stage in South African as well. Distributors are confident with
the technology and apart from movie releases; several Blu-ray with Dolby Atmos
releases will be available in store from the beginning in 2015, with numerous
releases of both current and catalogue titles.
Just as 3D offers added visual dimension, Dolby Atmos creates a virtual reality of
sound, which fully immerses the audience in the aural journey and a sound
experience previously only ever dreamed of…sounds good!