AES Show: Products, Technology for Broadcast Audio

There’s no doubt that the AES Show held at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center Oct. 26-29 was no CES. The show gets smaller every year, a reflection of the ongoing diffusion of audio content across a seemingly infinite number of platforms and distribution channels. Although music has been the elusive shape-shifter for most of the conventional AES constituency — the industry struggles to make downloads sound better even as the download itself has drastically undermined the economic foundations of the music business, and now streaming, though offering some relief from piracy, unfortunately offers a mere pittance in terms of revenues — some of those same exigencies are coming to the fore for broadcast audio.

The DTV Audio Group’s meeting, which took place Oct. 26, addressed some of these issues, such as how multiplatform content delivery is eclipsing traditional digital television; whether practices for loudness, dynamic-range management, and format interoperability are making the transition quickly enough to keep up; and the ongoing challenges of live 5.1 DTV production and incompatibility with legacy two-channel workflows.

“We’re making the point that the experience of television is changing really rapidly: almost overnight, the ideas of fixed ATSC, dynamic range, 5.1-to-stereo compatibility are being completely redefined,” DTV Audio Group Director Roger Charlesworth said, referring to the accelerating migration of broadcast and cable content to mobile devices. His point isn’t that standards to create consistency for audio don’t exist — they do, in the form of rules within the codecs and other algorithmically guided platforms that are creating the infrastructure for mobile television. Rather, he said, these standards are not yet being applied in organized ways that will let content creators and distributors feel some predictability about how their content will sound on the expanding array of mobile devices, from tablets to smartphones.

“The technology is actually already there” in platforms like the AAC codec: for example, dynamic-range-control bits in the stream that can keep loudness under control. The real problem, Charlesworth said, is the lack of knowledge that these standards are already part of many of the elements that currently make up the mobile-technology infrastructure, especially on the part of consumer-device manufacturers.

“A lot of the tools are there, but they have to be applied correctly,” he said, citing such situations as how the newly established broadcast-audio standard of -24 dB as the reference for on-air loudness might have to be calibrated differently, say, to -10 dB for earbuds on certain types of devices, if the audio experience is to be consistent across all types of platforms. “There’s a lot processing and encoding that is being done and can be done,” he said, “but not everyone is on the same page with it.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, noted Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology at Turner Sports, is that the mobile-device market is already well established and rapidly expanding. “What’s making this very urgent is that the train has already left the station. We don’t have the luxury of developing solutions ahead of the fact.” In fact, he added, the swift proliferation of the mobile-television market and its attendant diversity of platforms and standards are pushing it to the top of the hierarchy of attention, past such issues as SAP.

Charlesworth cited a presentation by Adam Nicely, an associate producer on Saturday Night Live, who discussed having to take the show’s content and adapt it for each of about 30 distribution partners using 18 streaming-audio codings. “The technical solutions already exist; the challenge is getting them organized into standards and having everyone on board,” he said. “It’s an awareness issue more than anything else. It’s a call to action to develop a standard mezzanine deliverable for all formats.”

If the problems that have to be addressed for the newly developing mobile-television universe are challenging, they also reveal that even network television has its own inconsistencies that still make it hard to ensure predictability for audio. Charlesworth cited live music shows, like Dancing With the Stars, which are done in stereo, then automatically upmixed at the network level to 5.1 to keep the audio-transport format compliant with current distribution standards, then automatically downmixed back to stereo by the consumers’ set-top boxes. After such a long effort to make 5.1 the broadcast-audio standard, these kinds of Lewis Carroll-like configurations seem bizarre, but they are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how challenging it is and will be to find ways to keep sound predictable as it moves into a far less orderly new landscape.

Also participating in the discussion were Jeffrey Riedmiller, director, Sound Platform Group, Dolby Laboratories; Tim Carroll, president/founder, Linear Acoustic; Steve Silva, director of training and procedures, engineering and operations, Fox Networks; Kevin Cleary, senior audio producer, ESPN; Stacey Foster, producer, Saturday Night Live; Richard Friedel, EVP, engineering and operations, Fox Networks; Sean Richardson, director of postproduction and audio operations, Starz Entertainment; Lon Neumann, consulting engineer, Neumann Technologies.

The AES Show did have plenty of broadcast-audio goodies to look at, including some new consoles from Lawo and Soundcraft, each featuring a smaller footprint. Here’s a look at some of the other new products on display at the show.

The new M81-WH wireless capsule head, designed for use with Shure-brand wireless microphone transmitters, features the same physical and sonic characteristics as the M81 Universal Dynamic, including the same minimal-proximity effect, superior feedback rejection, and articulate mid range. However, the top end is pulled back a bit, yielding a flatter overall frequency response.

NuGen Audio
ISOSTEM technology delivers a surround stem that downmixes exactly to the original stereo and, if required, automatically constrains the dialog in the center channel. The availability of the crossmix technology in a plug-in will give studios a convenient and powerful software-based mixing tool to complement the ISOSTEM real-time conversion hardware. NuGen Audio will develop three versions of the plug-in, which will allow audio professionals to produce a mix in the studio using a stereo mixing process, with the software automating the conversion to 5.1. An upmix plug-in will provide pure upmix with flexible settings, and the crossmix plug-in provides upmix as well as downmix. The third version will provide the extended functionality available in the ISOSTEM expert model.

Insight, a metering plug-in suite for postproduction and broadcast applications, allows users to visually monitor all relevant information from stereo or surround mixes in a floating window. With level meters, loudness meters, a spectrogram, spectrum analyzer, vectorscope, surround scope, and a loudness-history graph, Insight allows users to keep an eye as well as an ear on mixes at all times.

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