5.1 + 2 = Toy Story 3??

Things have been pretty light on Pixar loving of late but that ain’t gonna last too long with the release of Toy Story 3.  No doubt its going to be a masterpiece of style, technical wizardry, storytelling and everything else that they do all so well (its all guesswork until I see it but lets face it, Pixar don’t exactly do bad films…).  So ye can all drool over the visuals but what  caught my eye is that Pixar, along with Skywalker Sound and Dolby Laboratories, have developed a new 7.1 surround sound configuration for the film to be viewed in - unfortunately Dolby are essentially men-in-white-coats and lack the creative genius of Pixar so the best name they could come up with was well….Dolby Surround 7.1.

Nerds, put your specs on, things are gonna get wordy!!

As a refresh, your basic 5.1 surround setup consists of 6 discrete signals - front left, center, front right, left surround, right surround and a subwoofer.  The new Dolby Surround 7.1 standard  involves adding left back and right back  speakers right behind the audience.  By doing this you have much more control over where sounds are placed (you have 4 specific surround ‘spaces’ as opposed to your normal 2 ‘spaces’) and 360 degree panning (the way the sound moves around you from left-right-front-back) is much smoother.  Dolby have helpfully provided a utility via Google Maps to find the closest 7.1 capable cinema - for those of you in Galway, you’re in luck.  Unfortunately, from one of the press releases I saw it doesn’t look like it’s getting a 7.1 release in Ireland.

Its actually not the first time 8 discrete cinema speakers have been used, with Sony developing the Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS) in the early 90’s which deployed 5 speakers at the front (Left/Left Center/Center/Right Center/Right) and 2 rear surrounds (left/Right surround) and the .1 subwoofer channel.  Unfortunately, a bit like the whole Blu-ray vs HD-DVD situation, SDDS has lost the battle against the massively popular Dolby Digital or Dolby DTS formats.  SDDS required a whole new mix, additional hardware and (more importantly considering todays market), SDDS was never really supported by any home cinema equipment whereas all the new receivers (such as monster Onkyo models….used to sell them in a previous life so if I plug they might give me a freebie??) pride themselves on supporting DTS-HD/Dolby True HD and being THX certified.  While the format is still alive, Sony quit manufacturing any new hardware a few years ago.

Dolby on the other hand have only gone from strength to strength and its not the first time Dolby have hooked up with a major film studio to launch a new standard.  In collaboration with Lucasfilm (Mr Lucas really does have fingers in ALL the movie pies…), they launched the 6.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX system which premiered with Star Wars Episode 1 : A pile of **** Phantom Menace - although to be fair the Pod race does rock…..

Now, well done, you’ve lasted 3 paragraphs, as a reward here’s a nice article with Lee Unkrich on Toy Story 3 in general and funnily enough, he loves the panning joystick on the mixing desk.

Right, back to the science and lets not forget that it all started with well….silent movies (no speakers), mono sound (1 speaker) and stereophonic sound (2 speakers - left front/right front) with brief affairs into quadraphonic or quad (4 speakers - front L/R, back L/R)...After that the evolution of Dolby cinema sound looks a bit like this…full info is available from Dolby themselves here but i figure we’re an animation company so everyone would prefer pictures as opposed to reams of words!

/images/labs/Dolby-Analog-copy.jpg /images/labs/Dolby-Digital-copy.jpg /images/labs/Dolby-Surround-EX-copy-420x197_420_197.jpg /images/labs/Dolby-7-420x166_420_166.jpg

If you have a home cinema at home and want to get the best from them, check out these videos from Dolby and Onkyo - don’t be one of those people who hides speakers under a couch…please….

Anyway, my own personal feelings are:

7.1 will only really impact those that are in the ‘sweet spot’ seats in the cinema - if you’re stuck against the right hand wall intricate or immersive panning will be lost on you.

Yes, in the real world sound comes from all around you but I can’t help feel that with that kind of immersion, it would be hard to concentrate on the screen (its one of the  reasons that most of a films dialog is in the center channel so that it at least ‘anchors’ you to the screen)

I would love to see a push into the z-plane - speakers on the ceiling or have a high center speaker (similar to IMAX or the new Dolby Prologic llz home theatre standard).  I think this dimension would be better value to the experience for a wider amount of people.

Where the hell does this leave TV??  Stations are still broadcasting stereo (RTE…ahem…) while others in the US are looking into upmixing all content for broadcast to 5.1  in the next 2 years.  These people could make my life very complicated down the road….

As with all tech, is it here to stay?  There have already been examples of 11.2 and, at the moment, its not possible to mix to this standard outside of Skywalker Sound.  Another obstacle is that a lot of studios (us included) are based around Pro Tools and in essence, PT’s doesn’t ‘know’ how to mix 7.1 because there’s no panning laws for it (he says opening a huge can of worms….).  

If by chance I’ve piqued your interest in Pan Laws, read this, if not just accept that PT’s can’t yet do it!  Despite this, I think this one kinda has a shot since Skywalker do a LOT of the big big films so it will get plenty of screen time, most modern cinemas should be able to upgrade to the new system cheaply (for some its even as easy as a firmware download!) and Blu-ray has native support for 7.1 audio so it does at least open up the home market.

Lastly, if you’re gonna do 360 degree coverage, I think this is the way to go - I would bet it sounds spectacular on something like Cars or the benchmark for pan-tastic audio, Transformers, would be pretty damn cool with everything whizzing about too.

As a final reward for slogging on to the end, here’s a pretty cool video on the sound process for Toy Story 3 courtesy of  the excellent Soundworks Collection.

Dominic Lawrence


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