Welcome to the latest edition of Tech Talks, where we discuss the latest AVL technology trends with industry experts. Today, we’re speaking with Ted White, Business Developer, Studio Solutions at HARMAN Professional Solutions. During most of his career, Ted has been a recording engineer, producer and composer. Then, before joining HARMAN last summer, he spent four years working at the British company, Focusrite.
Since joining HARMAN, Ted’s primary task has been to develop solutions for mixing and recording immersive audio. I was interested in learning about the technical challenges content creators encounter with these rapidly advancing formats.
[MM] How is the popularity of immersive formats impacting post-production facilities?
[TW] There is tremendous demand in the audio post-production world for film and television content that goes beyond traditional 5.1 and 7.1 audio mixes. For several years now, the industry has been transitioning to immersive audio formats, like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. When you think about the change in workflow, the biggest issue is how to deal with the large number of speakers required by immersive formats and how to efficiently monitor them in spaces of varying sizes.
Monitor management has become increasingly more complex since the days of recording and mixing in stereo. Whether you’re working with six channels in 5.1, eight channels in 7.1 or a minimum of 14 channels with immersive audio, you need to find ways to control the speakers in a manner that treats them as one complete system.
The problem is that while mixing formats have grown more sophisticated, studio monitor controllers are still limited to working with speakers configured as stereo pairs or in 5.1 and 7.1 formats. Until recently, there hasn’t been anything available that could, in any practical fashion, handle larger multichannel systems.
[MM] Aren’t consoles generally used for mixing larger multichannel formats or even 5.1 and 7.1?
[TW] Very few consoles, even the new digital ones, go beyond 7.1 monitoring. The ones that do are designed mainly for dubbing stages and are cost prohibitive for many facilities. In most mixing situations, the digital audio workstation (DAW) has become the norm, and DAWs don’t include built-in monitor controllers. Instead, they need external solutions.
Most large post production facilities that have a film or TV dubbing stage with a large console to mix in Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and other immersive formats also need the ability to premix and duplicate those mixes in smaller rooms that rely on DAWs. Mixing immersive formats in smaller rooms is a very important trend, because post houses want to make use of those rooms whenever possible.
If they only have one big stage on which clients can do a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix, it may be constantly busy, while smaller rooms, capable of mixing 5.1 or less, remain empty much of the time. What they need is a cost-effective way to use the smaller rooms, even though they can be acoustically problematic for mixing in immersive formats.
To accommodate large speaker setups, some engineers have managed to cobble together software and hardware to create a workable monitoring solution, but it’s a cumbersome process. We work with dubbing stages and post houses all the time and, in recent years, have often heard engineers discuss the need for a new generation of monitor controllers that can accommodate more channels.
[MM] You mentioned that smaller spaces are often acoustically problematic; what is the issue with them?
[TW] Many of the smaller studio rooms are acoustically unsuitable for mixing stereo, let alone immersive audio, with a dozen or more speakers. Good speakers, in a difficult acoustic environment, rarely perform in a way that best serves a project. Generally, the smaller the room, the less likely it is to be treated properly and, in many cases, it will have problems with lower frequencies. Also, they often have reflective surfaces that need to be managed.
If a space is less than adequate for mixing, the engineer really has to struggle to achieve the desired results. For years, engineers used DSP to optimize rooms, but with the number of speakers used for immersive audio, the measurements and tuning need to be extremely precise to match what is heard on the dubbing stage.
This was one of HARMAN’s driving considerations in developing the JBL Intonato 24 as a next-generation monitor controller. Besides an increased I/O capacity that can accommodate formats ranging from stereo toimmersive, it includes a built-in DSP auto-calibration feature that can identify problem areas in a room and provide the optimum EQ, level and delay settings for each speaker. We knew that using the Intonato 24 with a DAW would enable post facilities to mix immersive audio in rooms that would otherwise be impractical.
[MM] Are there other situations in which monitor management for immersive audio can benefit from auto-calibration?
[TW] Definitely. These days, broadcasting also depends on small spaces. Producers often work remotely in cramped broadcast trucks and are required to deliver multichannel mixes for TV. For example, a number of major sports broadcasts, like the Olympics, the English Premier League and others, have been experimenting with immersive audio formats. Working on a DAW with an advanced monitor management system with built-in DSP allows them to deliver top-quality mixes.
Similarly, some episodic television series, such as Game of Thrones, are being mixed in Dolby Atmos. On the consumer side, there is a trend toward installing Atmos, DTS:X and other immersive formats in home theaters, and TV broadcast producers are responding to that. There’s no doubt about it, the need for efficient monitor management with large multichannel immersive systems in a variety of spaces is growing all the time.
Many thanks to Ted for his insights into monitor management in immersive environments. Are you a studio engineer or producer who works in large multichannel formats? Share your insights about getting the best out of your system in the comments.