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TV biz plugs in to digital audio

With the impending arrival of digital TV standards (also known as Advanced Television Systems, or ATV), the two-channel stereo television infrastructure is about to come tumbling down. Though it will change everything, change, in this case, is good. Tomlinson Holman, the guru of TV and Film sound, says so.

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” he says, “If you want to put it into computer terms, we’re rebooting the industry.”

And he ought to know. Holman literally wrote the book on sound (“Sound for Film and Television,” Focal Press, 1997). His initials are prominently displayed in theaters and homes every day of the year since he is the TH of THX sound (Tomlinson Holman eXperiment). He is also the president of TMH Corporation and a professor of cinema and television at USC.

Solving the riddle

What’s so good about the new standards, according to Holman, is that the fundamental conundrum of television has finally been resolved. That is, everything on TV was compressed to play on the lowest common denominator, the single-speaker TV set, no matter how robust the sound dynamics of the production were.

What’s more, analog TV sound is so tightly condensed that the volume level is the same between programs and commercials and station to station.

“That means everything’s horribly compressed. And, while that might not bug [the audience for] a news broadcast, it’s really terrible when it comes to really wide dynamic range material.”

Holman recalls seeing a local TV station broadcast “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” while the next station on the dial was running the news. “And you changed the channels, and here’s Indy with the waves breaking over him as the ship’s going down, an incredibly loud scene,” he notes. “Then you switch to the news on Channel 4, and it’s the same loudness.”

“It makes no sense,” he states with a bemused laugh. “But, it’s what has to be done because people want that channel change capability, and they don’t want the commercials to be extremely loud. People don’t want to sit there and diddle their volume control up and down all the time.”

Opposing the viewer’s desire is the producer’s desire to deliver some dynamic range. The new digital television system permits both at the same time. Now, the consumer will have the option of accepting the compressed sound or, if they want to receive the full effect on their big home theater system, they can turn the compression off and enjoy the full dynamic range of a movie.

“It’s the first time ever that a television medium will be transparent to the film medium. It will pass through what’s done on a dubbing stage and allow it to be played back at home without manipulation. That’s probably the single-biggest change of all.”

“[Resolving] the dynamic range business alone means that TV sound won’t be just lowest common denominator audio anymore, which it has been.”

While there are implications for TV engineers, the real impact will be felt at the production level, Holman predicts, because the television station is going to become more transparent than ever before in the process of delivering the producers’ products. Therefore, he concludes, the real emphasis of the new standards is in the post-production community in terms of what to do.

“So the thing ripples back out of the stations and into post-production very quickly.”

In order to keep the anxiety level low, Holman and his colleagues at TMH Corp. are offering a practical course in audio for ATV that’s become extremely popular with original and post-production mixers, facility engineers and developers, network engineers and others with a technical interest in sound.

A good deal of the course discusses how to set up the AC3 encoder to pass along the producer’s intentions for things such as dialogue level so that the downstream TV set can adjust the volume up and down.

Key instructions

Holman calls this coding the “Rosetta Stone” features. “They’re ways to put your fingerprint down. How loud is this supposed to be? What is its octave-to-octave balance in playback? It’s basically the producer saying, ‘Here is what we intended.’ ”

He likens the approach to lighting a display in a museum. “The question is: what color light (do you) put on the paintings? Because you put different light on a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt.

“So the new standards are a way [for the artist] to say, ‘I used Northern European skylight,’ or, ‘I used warm Mediterranean sunlight to do my painting.’ ”

So far, two seminars have been presented in L.A. and there are plans to add more in New York and L.A. Other cities will be added later as the demand grows. For more information, call TMH at (213) 742-0030.

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