Live production with NGA has been dominated by sports. But could live music be the next opportunity for immersive sound? David Davies investigates.
There is no argument about sports having so far dominated live production involving next generation audio (NGA) technologies such as object-oriented and immersive audio.
But with Sky delivering the Isle of Wight festival in Dolby Atmos for two successive years, and murmurings around multiple broadcasters about more immersive productions of major concerts and festivals in 2020, could it be that live music is about to enjoy its NGA moment?
As in sports, the debate around NGA for music has revolved around two primary approaches – the MPEG-H-based technologies originated by Fraunhofer IIS and various vendor partners, and the Dolby Atmos solutions initially introduced by Dolby into the cinema world.
From a broadcast perspective, the incorporation of NGA into unifying standards efforts such as SMPTE ST 2110 has helped to raise awareness – but to date, actual implementation has been rather fragmentary.
As well as understandable trepidation about the cost and complexity of implementing immersive audio, it’s arguable that what some regard as the relative absence of unified mixing practices for NGA is also holding back adoption – more of which anon. But as 2019 draws to a close, where are we in terms of the overall trajectory of NGA in live music?
Henry Goodman, head of sales and marketing at Calrec, comments: “While it is true to say that most broadcasters are feeling more confident in the workflows to produce immersive mixes, there is still a good deal of work to do to understand how individual broadcasters will take advantage of this technology. How broadcasters will engage with NGA will vary depending on programming and content – especially when it comes to the utilisation of objects within a mix, and how much control of the mix is presented to the audience at home.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that Calrec consoles are being used increasingly to “facilitate immersive mixes in the USA and Europe, and a number of broadcasters will be producing immersive mixes for certain parts of their Olympic coverage in Japan.” Goodman is certainly not alone in identifying the 2020 Games as a probable catalyst for increased NGA adoption worldwide.
With related trials and implementations taking place – albeit sporadically – for the last half-decade, one might have expected more standard approaches to immersive production and mixing to have emerged by now. In fact, says Goodman, he is actually witnessing “a divergence in NGA workflows.
If you take sports, for example, there are as many different approaches as there are sports, and most production teams are still learning what they can achieve with an immersive mix and the best ways to acquire the sound image. In time I think we will find the most efficient ways to capture sound for specific sports and events, but at the moment we are still in a learning phase.”
Although observing that the amount of immersive mixing for music taking place is currently limited, Goodman predicts more growth down the line. “There is certainly a great deal of potential for immersive music mixes for post-produced content, while the very nature of live music performances will necessitate different workflows,” he says.
‘Closer to the real experience’
The notion of immersive audio as a conduit to delivering a sound experience that is closer to that enjoyed inside the venue is highlighted by Christian Struck, senior product manager audio production at Lawo. “Most live productions involving immersive that I am aware of are close to the real experience and try to reproduce the event as compellingly as possible,” he says. “If a viewer at home feels like they are part of the audience and the venue, then they experience one of the key aspects of immersive audio.”
“If a viewer at home feels like they are part of the audience and the venue, then they experience one of the key aspects of immersive audio.” Christian Struck, Lawo
This is to some extent a happy byproduct of a mixing methodology that necessitates a deeper consideration of the overall sound world of an event. Hence, the standard practices for immersive audio – which Struck agrees are still taking shape – have “to take the live situation into account with its natural ambience, cross-talking and other elements.”
The rise of 5.1 mixes on formats like SACD in the early Noughties means that music production has long been a natural home for immersive audio. Struck echoes the view that this remains one of the strongholds for NGA at the present time.
Reflecting on NGA in music production, he observes that “9.1 recording started about 13 years ago, whilst [NGA has also become a component] of pure audio Blu-ray discs. Independently from object-based audio technologies such as Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H, the music recording industry has discussed mixing in immersive formats since then and has amassed a great deal of experience. [With this industry] now picking up on NGA, the entertainment and music broadcast sectors can build on this.”
Struck does not disagree with the suggestion that it will be a few years yet before NGA-oriented live music broadcasts become more routine. Nonetheless, Lawo is poised and ready to support NGA services, having initiated its immersive audio agenda in 2012 with the delivery of a platform for live audio production in the 22.2 format.
“Since then, multiple major sports events have been produced and live transmitted in 22.2,” notes Struck. “Lawo consoles have been immersive-ready for many years, with elevation control (Z-axis) offered as standard. Looking ahead, we can expect further developments that will offer our customers even better workflows in immersive productions.”
Dialogue and debate
It’s a fair claim that Dolby has led the way to date in terms of broadcast implementation of NGA. Via broadcasters including BT Sport and Sky Sports, the company’s Dolby Atmos technology has been applied to sports ranging from Premier League football to Formula 1, as well as music events like aforementioned Isle of Wight Festival.
More than the other contributors to this article, Dolby head of content engineering Rob France believes that more standard immersive audio mixing practices are solidifying – and points to the difference between the Isle of Wight Festival’s NGA production in two consecutive years. The improvements observed in the second year can obviously be attributed in part to “people becoming more familiar and comfortable with the technology, but there was also more collaboration [between the various stakeholders about the best way to implement it]. Putting Dolby Atmos into the live music environment requires an involved discussion.”
For Sky, an extended timescale and more creative collaboration resulted in “a greater consistency and better use of the crowd and other atmospheric sounds”, with additional microphone positions also helping to yield more balanced mixes. Looking ahead, France expects that increased discussion with artists and their production and management teams – “so that they can really see the benefits” of immersive – will be critical to the growth of NGA for live music broadcasting in general.
A 5.1.4 configuration is currently the most popular for Dolby Atmos mixing, and France says that mixers are increasingly regarding the four height speakers “as supplementary to the mix and able to add impact and atmosphere.
Consequently, if you do have to drop the four height speakers the mix will still stand up as well as the original 5.1.” With consumers expected to listen on widely varying set-ups – from soundbars to multi-speaker configurations – for the foreseeable future, this avoids “important information” being lost, as could be the case if the height speakers were simply “folded and rendered down into 5.1”.
Although sports will remain the primary driver of NGA in broadcasting, France expects levels of immersive audio music production to pick up over the next few years – not least because “there is no industry that is more passionate about sound than the music industry. Whether it’s classical, rock or EDM, there is a desire to make the sound as good as it possibly can be, and they will make the effort to do that.” The more artists and their advisory teams can see how all-encompassing NGA can be, “the more they will want to explore it”.
In the meantime, Dolby’s domestic profile certainly won’t be hindered by the September announcement that Amazon’s Echo Studio – released this month – is the first voice-enabled smart speaker that allows users to listen in Dolby Atmos and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio formats.
The news emerged at the same time that it was revealed that the lavish 2019 remix and remaster of The Beatles’ Abbey Road would be made available in Dolby Atmos – the ultimate confirmation, it might be argued, that NGA is now on the radar of the world’s biggest and best-loved music acts.