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Hear That? It’s Broadcasters Using Surround Sound

After many years as a cinema staple, Surround Sound will become a broadcast staple as well. How many broadcasters are prepared for that? And what else should they prepare for?

The clock is ticking on the transition to HDTV. And while everyone is aware that the picture will change, many have not yet realized that the sound will change, too.

The Surround Broadcast Conference, taking place Wednesday, April 16th, 9:30 a.m.–5:45 p.m., will examine the multifaceted issue of Surround Sound.

After many years as a cinema staple, Surround Sound will become a broadcast staple as well. How many broadcasters are prepared for that? And what else should they prepare for?

“This is an amazing group of presenters — the best in the business on the transition to HDTV audio,” said Frank Wells, conference co-chair and editor of Pro Sound News magazine for NewBay Media. “If you are facing that transition at the station, network or as a content provider, you owe it to yourself to attend this conference.”

Experts and engineers from companies such as NBC Universal, CBS, Fox Entertainment, Time-Warner, CTV, Turner Broadcasting, Dolby Labs and Linear Acoustics populate the panels and lead the discussions. All of the sessions are less than one hour.


The morning sessions will be, by and large, devoted to things of the “loudness” variety. Loudness, what it is and how to measure it objectively, has been an overlooked debate in audio circles for a long time.

However, HDTV and the coming of Surround Sound have brought that debate to the forefront. In a Surround Sound world, audio levels, differences between diverse sources, different speakers and different programs become magnified and quickly perceived by the listener.

Jim Starzynski, principle audio architect of NBC Universal’s Advanced Engineering Group, will present “Leveling the Playing Field,” 9:35 a.m.

“Wide variation in television loudness is a topic of much discussion by consumers and the broadcasting industry alike as we transition from analog to digital TV,” Starzynski said. “This year’s NAB Surround Broadcast Conference will give attendees an opportunity to hear exactly what the industry is doing to identify, correct and improve loudness inconsistencies on DTV. … Getting this issue right is critical to a great consumer experience.”

One particular problem, often unrecognized until it is too late, is file-based programming. Traditionally programming has been played directly off of media or via a feed; either way it was always controlled along the analog path.

As digital video and automation expand they increasingly utilize programming arriving and stored as files. This practice has meant that the audio contained in the files has probably not been controlled or limited.

A session, “DTV Audio in a File-Based World,” 1:30 p.m., led by Sean Richardson of Starz-Encore, the cable movie channel distributor, looks at this phenomenon.

A bit less bookish is a quick session following with noted sound designer Frank Serafine, “5.1 On Your Shoulder: Single System EFP Miking for Surround,” 2:30 p.m.

Serafine has been using a Holophone H4 SuperMINI Surround miking system for several projects and he will discuss his lessons. Les Paul, Rupert Neve and George Martin were involved in some of the projects to be discussed.

Interestingly, true 5.1 Surround Sound might not be for everyone. Michael Nunan of CTV makes such an argument in “Centered on News.” He argues that news programming (and some other basic information delivery programming) need only occupy the left-center-right channels rather than mix for the satellites as well.


Keeping such thoughts in mind, Roger Charlesworth, a television Surround Sound consultant and cochair of the conference, looks at the problems local stations might have in joining the Surround Sound world in, “DTV Audio and the Local Station — 5.1 On a Shoestring,” 3 p.m.

Local stations, with their tight budgets, will face many unpredictable and unforeseeable problems. Dynamic range inconsistencies, metadata issues, center channel incompatibilities and in-house production problems are just the top of the list.

“The pressure on local stations to compete is tremendous,” Charlesworth said. “Network programming and national ads in HD are starting to really take advantage of the excitement of 5.1 digital sound. Affiliates need to get in the game to keep their local programs and ads from sounding small by comparison.”

Charlesworth also leads a succeeding panel, “Bringing It Home — Realizing HDTV Audio’s Potential in Real Time,” 3:35 p.m. Joined by John McKenna of the Yes Network, Mark Metzler of KTVU, David Hough of Austin City Limits and Steve Stahl of CNN, Charlesworth will discuss polished practices of 5.1 Surround Sound seen in network sports programming and professionally produced Hollywood programming. He will offer advice on how to bring those practices down to the network level and improve locally produced 5.1 Surround Sound.

“Broadcasters are catching onto what Hollywood has known for decades — compelling audio adds emotion and excitement to what you are watching,” Charlesworth said. “Surround audio in HD is a powerful competitive tool and is just as important to the local news as it is to a big network special.”

The final session, “Golden Audio: Live Music Broadcasting Lessons from the Grammys,” will examine the recent Grammy Award broadcast, a live show broadcast in 5.1 Surround Sound.

Maureen Droney of the Recording Academy, the Producers and Engineers Wing, will lead a panel looking at where the Grammy broadcast has been and where it is going.

In between sessions there will be Technology Presentations from such companies as Dolby Labs, Linear Acoustics, Holophone, Mackie, Solid State Logic and the Harman companies (e.g. JBL, Studer).