Atmos vs. Auro – New sound dimensions for cinema

28 Jul
Dolby Infografik: Wie der Ton zum Film kommt
Dolby Infografik: Wie der Ton zum Film kommt

Now that the digitalisation is in the final throes of completion, the focus is shifting to innovations in sound. Dolby and Barco have new revolutionary systems at the ready that are courting exhibition and audiences as well.

At the moment Barco Auro is installed in only one cinema in Germany – in the CineStar Original in Berlin, which has Dolby Atmos installed in one of its other screens.

The first installation of Atmos in the German speaking space was done at the Cineplexx Donau Plex in Vienna; the Cinecitta in Nuremberg and the Traumpalast in Backnang followed suit. Both systems have in common that you are able to position the sound absolutely exactly. What’s required is an appropriate sound mix plus drastically more speakers than what is used in conventional surround systems. That way you are able to place the sound design of the film in a room just the way you want to. You can let certain sounds travel through the room almost three dimensionally. Which produces an effect akin to an almost natural, spatial sound and gives the audience a sensation as if it was placed right in the middle of the proceedings on the screen. Atmos is being mixed in a way that you can hear the sound from certain quadrants as opposed to predetermined channels. It supports up to 128 parallel and lossless audiostreams and up to 64 separate speakersignals. Theoretically Atmos even allows for an infinite number of audio tracks. The actual “soundmix” is done individually on the Atmos Cinema processor CP850 and matched to the respective number of speakers in the auditorium. The metadata is stored in the DCP which guarantees that the sound image experience in every single theatre is exactly as intended by the filmmaker.

That way Atmos can also be used in smaller installations. Depending on the size of the auditorium up to 64 speakers, each with its own power amplifier, are being installed. Each can be accessed individually. But even that number could be expanded in the future. So far close to 100 screens world wide have been equipped with Dolby Atmos, 20 of these in Europe. Dolby aims for roughly 1000 screens world wide until the end of the year. Current movies mixed in Atmos include “Oblivion”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Man of Steel” and “Gravity”. The first sizable German production to be mixed in Atmos will be Reinhard Klooss’ 3D CGI animation adventure film “Tarzan” that will be released in German cinemas on October 10th. What’s critical for filmmakers is the fact that Atmos is downward compatible to older systems like 5.1 or 7.1 – which means that one Atmos mix suffices, it can be calculated downward. Atmos doesn’t come cheap, though: The price for one installation will be around 100,000 euros.

Barco has a slightly different philosophy when it comes to positioning the speakers in the auditorium and what constitutes as “natural” sound. While Atmos installs only one row of speakers on the side walls and the back walls respectively, Barco employs two for Auro.  Barco’s philosophy is grounded in the belief that natural sound evolves from reflection. To simulate this effect Barco’s sound technicians have joined forces with their Belgian partners from Galaxy Studios. Together they have identified three layers from which sound emanates. Other than Atmos, Auro is being mixed on 11 channels. For the upgrade to the Barco Auro 11.1 audio format the com-pany promises a comparably low hardware and installation investment.

If you have a Barco system installed the available audio processor doesn’t need to be changed. As of now there are 60 Auro installations world wide, 10 of those in Europe. Barco hopes for 10 to up 30 auditoriums more until the end of the year. Barco has come to an agreement with DreamWorks Animation that the studio will mix its next 15 films in Auro. “The Croods” has already been mixed in Auro as well as “Oz: The Great and Powerful”. Barco Auro 11.1 is completely compatible  with the available audio equipment and current workflows, which means there are no new tools necessary for generating content.

Recently Barco, Auro Technologies and DTS have announced that they are working on an open standard for a universal immersive cinema sound. It’s their goal to guarantee that every film will be able to be shown in each and every cinema, independent of the respective surround sound system. The exact cost for a conversion to Atmos or Auro is hard to pin down, especially since there can be further costs because of remodeling or renovation.

There’s also a considerable downside because in the moment it can’t be guaranteed that all the announced titles will be having an Atmos or Auro mix fort he German dubbed version. At least for the CineStar on Potsdamer Platz that doesn’t constitute a problem: They show films in their original versions.

This article is a translation of a previously published article written in German. Both version first appeared in the trade magazine Blickpunkt:Film in the summer of 2013.

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