Pushing Sound Forward

Having just returned from an event at the Dolby headquarters in San Francisco, the important developments happening in sound have been put into an entirely new light for me. Surrounded, a two-day conference bringing together a large cross section of the industry, revolved around Dolby’s new 7.1 surround sound system as well as several other technological advancements in film that Dolby is working on.

Visuals in film have been evolving since the day cinema was born, and this evolution has played out right in front of the film goers’ eyes. An aspect of cinema that is arguably just as important has also evolved since the birth of film with hardly anyone taking note. Sound is inarguably one of the most important aspects of cinema, second only to the visuals. And while the progression of visuals are obvious to the average viewer, the subtle and even monumental technological developments in sound go largely unnoticed.

While Dolby has not been the only company working to push sound forward, it is certainly one of the industry leaders in this field. From simply setting standards in sound back in its early days, to surround sound, Dolby has been pushing the envelope in this field. With the recent introduction of 7.1 surround sound, Dolby has introduced a tool to filmmakers that is on par with the developments currently happening on the visual side of filmmaking.

Simply put, 7.1 surround sound adds two more speakers to the now standard 5.1 surround sound. While this may seem inconsequential, the effect is significant. These added speakers allow more creative freedom and control to the sound designer, expanding the designer’s pallet.

While the development of 5.1 surround was a fantastic breakthrough for filmmakers, an important flaw remained that 7.1 addresses. With 5.1 to experience the full effect the audience member must be in a specific place in the theatre. If too far to any extreme, the full effect is lost. 7.1 fixes this problem, with the entire theatre able to experience the intended effect.

Yet as important a development as 7.1 is, it will never become the major talking point that 3D currently is.

This lack of discussion happening over 7.1 is due to several reasons, the main reason being that theaters and studios are unable to market 7.1 like they can 3D. This new Dolby technology provides more subtle controls for filmmakers, not something as obvious as the ability to throw Thor’s hammer out of the screen in a 3D presentation.

Pixar was one of the first companies to push for this added control, and what they were able to bring to films like Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 may not be obvious on screen but it certainly created a level of depth that was previously impossible.

Because advances in sound are less about marketing than technical and creative control, technological progress keeps improving the cinematic experience without ever becoming gimmicky. Pixar’s use of 7.1 is a great example of this. If Toy Story 3 had been released without taking advantage of the new technology it would most likely have made the same profit. Pixar and Dolby’s push to move sound forward was more about creativity rather than a marketing advantage.

It is not only Pixar that is using this new technology to its full potential, many studios are taking advantage of it and not only in Hollywood. Foreign filmmakers as well as Hollywood studios are now using this technology that allows for a more immersive experience.

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9 Responses to Pushing Sound Forward

  1. Bryan Ross says:

    erm, I am a sound engineer for a large cinema chain and we are currently operating up to 9.2 dynamic sound. I currently have a 7.1 system at home. so what is the point of this article?

  2. RickDVD says:

    Most people don’t have a 7.1 sound system at home. In fact, I’m sure most people can’t find 7 working speakers! Sure, we may own a 5.1 system, but that pales in comparison from the 7.1 systems. I’m guessing this article is a precursor to telling us that just about all the DVD’s we own will be obsolete, once the studios remaster certain titles. For example, All The President’s Men doesn’t need much help. In fact, the DVD is 1.0 – which is a rarity these days. However, on some titles, it will be wonderful. Imagine Star Wars in 7.1!

  3. Pingback: Hit List: July 26, 2011 « IMDb: All the Latest

  4. Mustang55 says:

    This is far more important than 3D because 7.1 sound can be applied to any movie or any series. 3D is best for certain experiences, ones that require visual immersion (often times trying to make up for the lack of everything else.) Having said that, I do have some thoughts. Like, although the story itself is meh, the visual-scape of Avatar is breathtaking and would be fantastic with both 3D and 7.1. And I agree with RickDVD… Star Wars in 7.1 would be kick ass!

    • I agree with that, 3D is a tool that can work wonders for some films but is not something that I want to become universal. 7.1 on the other hand would do nothing but improve the experience of almost any film. I wonder if the Star Wars 3D conversions will be 7.1.

  5. People sometimes ask me about what they should do to upgrade their AV system, and I always tell them to get surround sound if they don’t have it. Besides the effects of surround, it allows you to separate (depending on content, of course), dialog from sound effects so you can understand what’s being said better without cranking everything up.

    And they often tell me they don’t care because sound isn’t that important to them or because installing more speakers is hard / messy / space-consuming. Well, I tried.

    I’ve got a big 7.1 system that’s wired to 9.1 (the main surrounds are doubled) speakers. Gets the job done. But I have a big, dedicated room (floor, actually).

    • This is a very frustrating issue, as so many people ignore sound entirely! It is such an important aspect of film, and people just dismiss it. It really takes sitting down in a properly set-up home theatre with 7.1 surround sound to realize the difference.

  6. Jay Bee says:

    A lot of “surround sound” technology that is not TRUE 5.1 or 7.1 just spreads the stereo signal and infact MUSHES the dialogue into the sound (ahem – Bose, Yamaha)! A lot of the time I end up switching back to 2.0 just so I can get hear dialogue cleanly. In fact, 2.0 isn’t too bad.

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