Sound gets 3D upgrade

Mixers and theaters alike moving ahead with upgrades

It’s long been a rule of thumb that as moving images improve, sound has to improve with them. And love it or hate it, there’s no denying that 3D adds visual information to a projected image.

Stereoscopic 3D gives the audience a second view of the action and more depth information than a 2D movie. That’s upped the ante for sound engineers, who have to make sure the audio experience is as immersive as the visual one.

Although 5.1 surround has long been a widely adapted sound format, some 3D releases are moving toward 7.1, which adds two more surround channels to the mix.

Tom Myers, nominated for a sound editing Oscar for last year’s 3D Disney/Pixar hit “Up,” has recently been toiling on 7.1 remixes of “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” which were re-released in 3D, and sound design and mixing for the 3D “Toy Story 3.”

“On 3D mixes for the ‘Toy Story’ films, we did a fair amount of experimenting, pulling dialog and music out into the room to make the experience broader and augment the space,” Myers says. “It’s another color, another thing in the palette — you can localize things more and put them directly by your side and something else behind you.”

Myers’ work on mixing “Up” was hampered by having to view 3D on one stage, then move to a stage with only 2D viewing for the mix.

Beginning with the “Toy Story” 3D remixes, however, he had access to a QuVIS Acuity, which let him view 3D at will.

“You can’t really mix with the glasses on,” he says, “But you’d like to be able to easily convert the image back and forth.”

Even multispeaker 5.1 and 7.1 systems do not, technically speaking, deliver real 3D audio. Brian Slack, senior VP of studio technologies for sound system vendor Iosono, says, “5.1 is actually a one-dimensional sound system — you end up with six points in a room, and the occasional illusion of 3D.”

A spinoff from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, Iosono is offering completely reconceived theater sound systems designed with 3D in mind.

Iosono systems aim to heighten the localization and dimension of film sound playback by placing dozens of additional speakers in theaters and increasing the number of channels that are fed to those speakers.

Iosono systems are already in two screens at the Mann’s Chinese complex in Hollywood, and 50 more are skedded for installation in premium theaters by year’s end.

For a new setup at Mann’s Chinese, for example, Slack says, “We’re going to end up with 10 channels behind the screen and roughly 50 surround speakers, so more than twice as many as they have now.”

Further, he says, films will be remixed so theaters get a 32-channel print master. “That allows us to get more precise placement, and it inherently gives us a lot more headroom as well.”

The international design/engineering firm Arup also is working on producing 3D sound environments — for the entertainment industry as well as for schools and research facilities.

For 3D soundtracks, Arup prefers a multichannel/surround Ambisonic microphone and custom theaters that put speakers above the audience (as well as at the sides and rear) to give the oft-ignored vertical dimension to sound placement.

“If you can make sound appear to come from all directions,” says Raj Patel, leader of Arup Acoustics, “the perceptual impact of listening to audio accompanying video increases severalfold — especially if you can get sounds coming from the upper rear.

“What we’re doing involves a mindset change with what goes on in the recording process and then the delivery process. The concentration so far has been, ‘Let’s wow people with video and CGI and 3D video,’ but the sound continues to be a slightly secondary component. We want to change that.”