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Tomlinson Holman
(The History and Future of Surround Sound)

Tom Holman, the "TH" of THX, founder of TMH Labs, founding editor of Surround Professional magazine and general patron of surround sound, expounded upon one of his favorite subjects in his two-part talk, "The History and Future of Surround Sound". Based loosely on a theme of death and resurrection, Tom Holman laid out the history of surround and explained how surround sound rose and died three times, before, perhaps finally, finding its place in the world today. Tom then went on to predict the future of surround...

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Of the three deaths suffered by surround, perhaps the most tragic was the sinking (literally) of Walt Disney's Fantasound equipment used for 'Fantasia' en route to the Soviet Union, which resulted in the loss of the only surround technology existing in the world at the time. The other two deaths were far more banal: large studios, in an effort to stave off the popularity of televisions in the 50s, had gone to very wide screens and large scale surround, which failed due to the lack of material and bad distribution, making it economically unfeasible to continue such grand presentations. When surround sound rose again in the 70s, with Quad as the pinnacle of consumer surround, it failed due to poorly thought-out psychoacoustics and consequently, poor performance.

Surround would rise again when the 5.1 format as we know it today was codified in 1987 using what was thought to be the minimum number of channels for surround. The LFE 0.1 channel was invented not as the boom or effects channel, but to give a surround system more bass headroom. 5.1 gave good frontal anchoring with its 3 front speakers - as had been known since April of 1933 when Bell Labs first demonstrated its sound transmission system. The center channel also gave back proper timbre to centered sounds, since the phantom center created by a stereo pair has a 2kHz dip due to interaural crosstalk.

But where 5.1 lacks is in the surrounds, which are a compromise between envelopment, which is optimal at 90 degrees, and rear localization, which works best at 135 degrees. In a 5.1 system, side phantom imaging works well only for limited-bandwidth material, because different frequencies image differently on the sides, leading in turn to the break up of sounds panned from front to rear. The 5.1 model does not take into consideration early first reflections, nor does it simulate a sense of height, for both those aspects of reproduction more channels are required.

The faults of a 5.1 system point to the future of surround and Tom Holman's proposed 10.2 system. Wide fronts are added to simulate early first reflections and by spreading out the sound in the front, clarity is also improved and more possibilities for envelopment are added. Separate side and rear speakers are also added to eliminate the compromise between envelopment and rear imaging along with a rear center channel so that hard rear pans are possible 6.1 was originally invented because film mixers found that they could not do a complete pan to the rear with only two surrounds. Finally, 2 low-frequency channels are added for bass envelopment and improved spatial reproduction.

However, Tom made it very clear that 10.2 is not spatially transparent (anywhere from a dozen to a million channels are necessary, depending on who you talk to), nor is it an end in itself. What Tom, and TMH Labs, are interested in is opening up the pipe between the listener and the content provider. Tom proposes what he calls a Rosetta Data Block, whose purpose is to standardize the playback chain, so that any system, be it 2.0, 5.1, 10.2 or something yet to be invented, could play back the same material as optimally as possible. Tom emphasized that this is not a complete end-to-end recording/playback system that dictates certain recording techniques coupled to particular playback techniques, like, for example, Ambisonics. What he wants to create is a reliable aural canvas for audio producers and artists, so that they can ensure that listeners can hear what they want them to hear at home, no matter what technique was used in producing the recording or soundtrack. Tom believes that future DSP power in consumer processors will be used for scaling audio up or down to suit the playback system.

Meanwhile, TMH has been installing its 10.2 systems for consumer demonstrations. Bjorn's Audio Video in San Antonio, Texas, a high-end audio dealer, has been demonstrating a 10.2 system in a simulated living environment since March of 2001. TMH is experimenting with Internet delivery of both recorded and live 10.2 material and been busy publishing papers and AES preprints of its work, building up a library of techniques for use in the processing and delivery of surround sound. []

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Show report last updated: 7th September 2003.


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