Trends Beyond 5.1. We Take it One Track at a Time.

Trends Beyond 5.1. We Take it One Track at a Time.

RBC Headshot_BIGFor those of you who are trying to balance all the latest audio trends and having a hard time adjusting the EQ in your head, we take it one track at a time in this discussion with Roger Charlesworth, the Executive Director of DTV Audio Group.

WS: Where to start? There are so many trends that television broadcasters should be paying attention to.

RC: That’s the thing. This is a period of rapid change. We started the DTV Audio Group about six years ago, as a vehicle for network operations and engineering management to share insights on the practical application of emerging television audio technology. At the time DTV loudness was a big issue. Since then, the rate at which the technological landscape is evolving has accelerated. Stuff that we thought would take decades is happening in a matter of years. For example, it’s been fairly recent that we have had these experiences with our smart phones and tablets. You can be watching a movie in your living room and get up to go to your bedroom, and you can bring that movie with you. It’s a seamless transition. Manufacturers are working hard on all this and they got some good technology. The transition to mobile is huge, but …

WS: But?

RC: But… what’s behind that is this universal transition to streaming. Whether it is streamed to a fixed device or mobile device, it all starts to look the same. And what we’ve learned is that even the cable companies are transitioning to the stream model inside the cable plant. So linear channels are going away, and they’re able to use more efficient video codecs like MPEG-4 and they’re able to roll out new services like 4K more efficiently when they’re streamed. Everything is being streamed. That means things can move faster, change can happen faster; it’s not hardware bound.

And all of this leverages core IT technology, which is the biggest trend. That is what’s accommodated things like mobile, whether it’s streamed in your living room or to your phone.

WS: We’ve heard that this NAB could be the year of IP video switchers. What do you know?

RC: Could be, because when we look at 4K and the economics of packet switching as opposed to a traditional video switcher, it just becomes so compelling. When you get up to these higher data rates the IP switches are an order of magnitude more cost efficient than traditional SDI. I think people that play in that space are going in this direction; those companies see the value. Our member networks tell us they have already started this transition and within five years pure IP video infrastructure will be the norm for the broadcast plant.

On the audio side, IP transport is pretty easy. Radio has utilized IP audio for a long time. It’s comparable to IP telephony. That seemed exotic ten years ago and now it’s ubiquitous and leverages the same sort of standards, protocols and methodologies required for IP audio.

WS: So, where are we with regard to audio over IP in the television operation?

RC: Audio IP is happening fairly fast, as you know, but I think it’s not understood how widely important it is. If you look at the Olympics and the World Cup, we’re seeing it on the contribution side. We’re seeing large scale IP networking there and I think we’ll see it in the plant.

But the thing about IP audio that gets missed is that it’s not just a transport. It’s really about control, and that it’s an easy way to automate processes. So if you want to talk to someone in IFB across the cloud, you can do that using well-established telecommunications protocols and other proven protocols. People are just beginning to pick up on this. If you have an IP routing cloud, then communications, IFB and audio signals can all be in the same routing cloud. Instead of feeding them from one system to another, they can exist in the same environment with the audio itself.

In radio that’s pretty common, as you know. The telephone interfaces are digitally delivered and controlled around the plant digitally. But for us in television, it’s really the metadata, the management and control of processes that we should be thinking about, and then the audio routing that comes along with that.

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WS: We’re probably just scratching the surface of what this will mean for live production, right?

RC: Absolutely. In sports especially, we’re seeing this trend of insourcing of production. This is where some of the production is done at the venue, but there’s also the mixing and other production done back at the central studio. So instead of having your best director in the field, he or she can just drive into work and do the Detroit game from a control room in Bristol or Stamford. The economics of that is so compelling and IP is what makes that work because you can bring a whole bunch of different kinds of signals in and mix them virtually. Because the metadata can travel in the same network, you can organically create labels and markers that this is a particular microphone, this is a camera; that metadata helps us automatically create a mix. We’re seeing a little of this in college sports, and it’s probably something you’ll see more of in the universities that have a high degree of connectivity or where the production budgets are lower.

WS: Let’s switch tracks for a minute. We’ve been hearing a lot about immersive or object audio. What’s happening with that?

RC: I think object audio is coming. It’s funny. It seemed so far off, and now we already have consumer (Dolby) Atmos available and we can buy these receivers from Best Buy and Amazon. There is a certain amount of theatrical content becoming available to consumers now and I suspect folks like Amazon, HBO, Netflix, Starz and others will start streaming a wide range of Atmos material in the near future. Still, in all, I don’t know whether immersive will drive the transition to objects as much as personalization. A big part of that personalization is accessibility and to a certain extent, there’s really a crying need for better video description and multiple language support and I think that’s where objects used in a modular approach are very useful.

WS: Where are we at with object audio?

RC: Simple, static objects are useful now. For instance, we have to have a better solution for video descriptive and an object approach is very helpful. If we can have a stream of objects in the main program and we want to have video descriptive on top of it, we can still have surround sound in the program, and have the descriptive come on top of the program and that’s really great for people that are visually impaired. Same thing for people who are hearing impaired, to be able to turn up the dialog or turn down the effects, that’s where objects have enormous value. Obviously in immersive audio, being able to fly things around and being able to render in different ways, rather than having linear channels, that’s great. But I think the real value now is in more mundane things like alternate language.

WS: Let’s talk about headphones and immersive audio.

RC: Rendering headphones and virtualized surround headphones, that’s definitely something that makes immersive audio more relevant. I don’t remember what the exact stats are, but it’s something like 70 percent of content people are listening to on mobile devices, they’re listening through headphones.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

The gamers have had headphone surround for a while. In film post-production and sound effects editing they often employ a very sophisticated surround simulating headphone system from Smyth Research called the Realiser. They cost a fortune, but these systems are incredibly accurate and track head movement, etc. So the technology to simulate surround in headphones is pretty mature. I think we’ll see these creeping into the consumer products, and that’s what will make immersive audio more relevant. It’s not just for high-end home theaters. There’s this idea that we can probably do it in headphones, too, and we can do it in virtualized soundbars -- these surround soundbars are just starting to come out, actually, and they are mind-blowing

WS: In practical terms, what does that mean to television?

RC: For regular day-to-day television, we’re still struggling with 5.1. So the answer is we will see maybe at first just height channels added, and we’ll see that on premium sports content, for example. Even having just the height helps a little bit. It lets you take some effects off the front so you can get a little more audience or crowd reaction in or say the sound of the PA in a hockey game…and maybe in the rendering for stereo you take a little of that out. I think it’s relevant. We’ll see it ultimately because program distributors and big MVPDs like Comcast always want to offer premium content, and they’re starting to push the envelope. From a production standpoint, it’s hard to take on much more though, which is why, initially, object audio will be based on the linear, 5.1 format with some enhanced personalization or immersive elements added in.

WS: Thanks, Roger, you’ve given us a lot to think about.

Roger is the Executive Director for DTV Audio Group, but don’t let his lofty title fool you. He’s a former recording engineer and he’s done more than his share of live music production for entertainment television, including work for the David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon shows. He shares a passion for digital audio along with other network operators and technology managers who belong to DTV Audio Group, a trade association that spans news, sports and entertainment genres and is primarily focused on practical production issues surrounding real-time programming.

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