Sound future arrives aboard a dinosaur

Steven Spielberg is bringing more than “Jurassic Park” to theaters next month.

The filmmaker is also delivering Digital Theater Systems’ sound experience to moviegoers. Spielberg is both a champion of the digital sound system and an investor in the Westlake enterprise.

From a chance meeting at Todd-AO two years ago between DTS president Terry Beard and the director, who was mixing “Hook,” to this summer, the DTS system is now a leading contender to become a sound system industry standard.

Universal, distributor of “Jurassic Park,” announced Monday it has signed up 1,000 theaters for DTS, ready for the June 11 premiere of the film. That puts the system up against Dolby’s SR-D digital system, which after a year is in 250 theaters worldwide, and Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, which has a limited official debut this summer with Sony Picture’s “Last Action Hero.”

At stake here is defining the movie experience for the next decade in the nation’s 25,000 theaters. Film technology has been slow to adopt the benefits of digital music — the same pristine sound one enjoys at home with a compact disc player.

Digital sound is far superior to the current analog format. In digital form, sound waves are converted to the ones and zeros of computer language through multiple sampling of signal. Those samplings are then encoded onto the disc. The final sounds boast a wider range than what’s captured on an optical track, have no distortion and have the promise of being perfect every time.

On board for DTS are all the major theater chains, including Cineplex Odeon, which is partly owned by Universal/MCA’s parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

“It’s nothing more than supply and demand,” boasted Dan Slusser, general manager and senior VP at Universal Studios, which is also an investor in DTS. “We can’t build them fast enough.”

One major boost for the system is its price. At an introductory price of $ 3, 500 per theater for a six-channel system, the DTS relies on a compact disc for delivering the soundtrack.

By compressing the sound 4-to-1, DTS’ Beard puts 3 1/2 hours of music and dialogue on the disc. Rival systems cram the soundtrack either on the film or between the sprockets, requiring a much higher compression ratio. That can result in diminished sound quality.

DTS reads a time code on each film frame and corresponds it to the appropriate point on the CD. The system tracks the film 1 1/2 seconds ahead of the sound, so if a reel is missing, or a cut’s been made, it finds the right spot on the disc without missing a beat.

Beard’s meeting with Spielberg was just the spark he needed. As head of New Optics Inc., the sole manufacturer of cameras for recording optical sound tracks to film, Beard had been perfecting a digital version of his gear.

The system intrigued Todd-AO president Buzz Knudsen enough to let Beard bring it in tothe sound studio.

Knudsen’s history as a mixer for Spielberg made the meeting inevitable. After listening to a reel of his own 70mm print of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with DTS, Spielberg “was blown away,” according to Beard.”He wanted it for his next picture.”

DTS, a wholly separate company from New Optics, is flush with 1,000 orders, worth an estimated $ 3 million. Even at its current price, which is designed to entice cash-strapped exhibitors, “DTS will make a profit,” Beard said.

But competitors aren’t going to go quietly. Dolby, which puts its digital soundtrack between the film sprockets, sees DTS as flawed, since it requires the film to constantly communicate with the CD.

“Their system is an interlock, vs. our being on the film,” said Bill Jasper, president of Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, who argued that “interlock doesn’t work in the long run. You have to ship the film and the CD. What happens if the other media breaks, or doesn’t get there? You’re back to analog.”

Another problem, Jasper said, is that DTS is so aligned with one studio. The same could be said, however, of Sony’s system. Dolby is offering its system for around $ 20,000, which includes a reader on the film projector as well as a player. Sony’s will be slightly lower in cost. It places an eight-channel soundtrack on the film as well.

DTS’ main selling point, the cost, “is a throw-away price point,” said Jim Fielder, president of SDDS. “People will pay that much for the first one and throw it away after the picture” finishes its theatrical run.

Technically, though, DTS appears to be winning support among exhibitors because of both price and simplicity.

“That’s a better medium than on the film, because on film you have to compress it so much,” said Sam Giordano, head of physical services at AMC Theaters in the West.

Until the soundtrack wars are resolved, sighed one exhibitor, every theater may have a smattering of each competing system.