|Mel Lambert Reports|
Las Vegas, Monday April 19, 2004: Despite its rocky road to market, HDTV is here, today, and winning converts in dramatically increasing numbers. For sports and major media extravaganzas HiDef is an astonishing delivery medium. Even episodic TV can benefit from the involvement that a 16:9 high-res image brings to a drama. But I wonder if we are not cheating the audience of a major element: 5.1-channel surround sound?
A major proponent of multichannel digital sound has been ABC, where the majority of scripted series - at least dramas - are mixed and broadcast in 5.1, as well as Oscar Ceremonies, Monday Night Football, Super Bowl and so on. While CBS offers sports and specials, weekly football, Grammy coverage and other specials, few if any of its scripted shows are currently broadcast with accompanying surround sound. And although NBC offered Winter Olympics coverage with a separate HD mix – and promises Summer Olympics from Athens in 5.1 – other surround-sound transmissions are rare - aside, of course, from the recent test broadcast in New York of a scripted 5.1 show, the season finale of “American Dreams.”
Fox Network offers a smorgasbord of sports coverage, plus NASCAR, with multichannel sound, a commitment that is increasing this year, adding baseball and the occasional scripted shows. (And maybe “24” in 5.1 next year?) The WB is committed to offering 5.1-channel material, but with few specific details. And cable stalwarts HBO and Showtime are offering the majority of original series with 5.1, in addition to a regular fare of movies.
The NAB recently announced that some 1,175 DTV stations are on air in 205 markets – my count puts the number of stations carrying 5.1-channel sound at maybe 10% of this number. While the Convention floor will be littered with consoles and systems capable of producing surround-sound programming, it strikes me as odd that few stations are picking up the baton. I can identify a couple of factors, the main hindrance being a lack of multichannel infrastructure and a means of carrying six - or more - channels throughout a facility. Yes, Dolby E offers a viable format for eight channels of data-compressed audio, but what of processing delays? (Dolby Labs. has a simple solution.)
But the major reluctance seems to operational. What do we broadcast in surround? I would suggest a visit to the Harrison by GLW booth , where the firm is scheduling an interesting demonstration. With the cooperation of CBS affiliate WTVF-TV, Nashville, Harrison was able to secure multiple sound elements from a recent news broadcast, including output from an array of stereo microphones mounted on each studio camera. An automated mix running on a TVD-SL Large Format Digital Broadcast Console will enable visitors to hear for themselves how ambiance sources can be routed to surround channels. And if we factor in background sounds that might have been recorded onto a spare track during ENG or EFP assignments – track #1 carrying mono on-camera dialog or commentary – we now have another source of material that can add dimensionality to a surround mix. Drama and music offerings are not the only material that can benefit from multichannel sound.
And lack of commitment to 5.1 seems all the more disturbing given that Stereo TV broadcasting began almost exactly two decades ago. I recall the evening in 1984 when Ron Estes and his crew working the “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” were alerted to a decision that, several days ahead of ABC’s planned stereo broadcast of the LA Summer Olympics’ opening ceremonies, NBC would steal their thunder. Estes had been experimenting with stereo Tonight Show recordings using sum and difference VR tracks. On Thursday, July 26, 1984, Joan Rivers guest hosted a show that was broadcast on WNBC-TV, New York, using an experimental stereo generator installed at its transmitter site. (Estes also handled multichannel sound for one of the first live HD broadcasts of The Rose Parade in January 1999 for KTLA-TV, Los Angeles.)
Las Vegas, Tuesday April 20, 2004: Digital audio workstations have transformed virtually every aspect of audio production. You can make intricate, sample-accurate edits with programmable cross fades; we can undo anything that doesn’t work; and we can return to a project for the inevitable fixes.
But are we making full use of these elegant functions? Because, in addition to surgical editing, most contemporary DAW designs offer a blindingly sophisticated array of virtual mixing and processing abilities. Gone are the days when a workstation simply developed time-stamped in/out points that would be used to render an edited file. Now, either via add-on cards or native DSP engines, they offer parametric EQ, dynamics and a whole host of multitrack mixing functions. But how to control all of this functionality?
As it turns out, such capabilities are just around the technology corner. At least two leading console makers - Fairlight and Euphonix - have developed a series of commands or instructions that allow remote control of workstation functions. This way, existing digital consoles can be used to command the myriad of editing, mixing and processing functions buried deep within the DAW, and bring to a familiar set of faders, rotary controls and switches all those useful functions that might normally be accessed via a GUI and mouse.
Currently, Euphonix’ EuCon command protocol controls its powerful System 5 DSP Engine from the S5’s (and post/broadcast variants, including Max Air) assignable control surface, and within the new MC Intelligent Application Controller. As well as fader, knob and switch commands, EuCon includes application-specific instructions for DAW plug-ins and other edit functions. The firm has been working closely with a number of DAW makers, including Steinberg, to implement high-speed control of not only EuCon-aware applications, but also any PC-based application. The MC controller includes a 5.1 monitor section, trackballs, QWERTY keyboard, programmable knobs, four moving faders and programmable switches.
Given its experience with both consoles and workstations, Fairlight knows more than a little about system connectivity; its Dream Constellation mixer now offers external control of DAWs via RAPID (Remote Application Program Interface for Dream), which was developed to allow automation, disk recording, editing, plug-in settings and the rest to be stored and controlled from a single control surface. But, unlike EuCon, RAPID isn’t really a control protocol. Instead, a dedicated microprocessor continuously monitors the data that comprises a post project and then uses the stored data to reproduce the same time-dependent environment.
And Solid State Logic has unveiled the hybrid AWS 900 Analogue Workstation System, which combines a 5.1-capable analog console and a DAW controller that provides direct access to primary workstation mixing, editing and automation parameters, plus control of plug-in settings, using the Mackie HUI MIDI-based protocol.
Steinberg also offers a dedicated control surface for its Nuendo workstation series. The USB-based ID Controller features 12 assignable faders and rotary controls, plus an edit jog wheel. And the leader of the DAW pack, Digidesign, recently unveiled the remarkable D-Control Audio Worksurface, the heart of of its new ICON Integrated Console for Pro Tools. A separate analog or digital console is redundant, since every DAW function is controlled via commands extracted from and sent to assignable faders, knobs and switches on the control surface via an Ethernet port to the Mix Engine. Pictured right: Center section of Digidesign new ICON Integrated Console.
Sadly, Digidesign’s control protocol will remain proprietary; the company is not planning to make it available to third-party developers, thereby hampering the development of additional Pro Tools-compliant control surfaces, beyond the current MIDI-based devices.
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