If Auro 3D is the best immersive audio format, why is Dolby Atmos leading the charge? Alice Gustafson travels to Belgium to speak to Wilfried Van Baelen, inventor of the Auro-3D format and CEO of Auro Technologies, who reveals that a big change is coming for the industry next year…
On a deceptively cold morning at the tail-end of 2016, CE Pro Eu finds itself being transported to Galaxy Studios (home of Auro-3D) in picturesque Belgium to meet Wilfried Van Baelen, the CEO of Auro Technologies.
A lot has already been written about Galaxy Studios, but for the uninitiated, it is a state of the art music recording, mixing, mastering and post-production facility that facilitates music recording, scoring, mastering, sound-editorial services, foley, dubbing, audio-post mixing, film grading and film mastering. Not to mention Galaxy Studios also has its own film financing department called Mollywood – a play on words based on Hollywood and its location in the city, Mol.
The scenic drive (courtesy of Wilfried’s father) takes us through the countryside and winds up in an unassuming residential area, before taking a sharp right at one house in particular: Wilfried’s parents. Galaxy Studios is literally in the family home’s back garden, albeit an incredibly large one.
“I started to play music when I was eight years old when I played the trumpet, and a few years later, the organ,” Wilfried reflects once CE Pro Eu is settled in. “I went into a music studio aged 16 as a session musician with my synthesizers and it was there that I came in contact with a record label who wanted me to make an album, but for this I needed demos and a demo room, so basically my younger brother Guy and I (with the help of our father) transformed the chicken coop in the back garden, turning it into a studio.
“It became a success and 10 years later we wanted to expand the place, so I was thinking of Antwerp or Brussels, but there I was obliged to build in industrial zones. I knew that artists did not want to create on an industrial estate. So I went to the government and they told me to take an existing factory where they have a licence to do this type of work and expand upon it. So we built this new building over the chicken coop,” he says matter-of-factly. “It became the first fully interactive studio complex with world breaking records in sound isolation and linear acoustics; an ideal place for all kind of research in audio.”
What is immediately apparent upon visiting Galaxy Studios is that the company exudes a refreshingly non-PR filtered feel. That’s not to suggest that it was unprofessional by any means, but it is undeniably a ‘special place’ to work, as so many of the employees put it. This unguarded approach resulted in some frank conversations over the three days spent there, and CE Pro Eu learnt many a thing about upcoming projects that it will be keeping firmly to itself. For now, let’s just say that Auro Technologies has some big plans for the years ahead.
After helping oneself to a slice of cake (a thank you for Galaxy staff from a very happy Singaporean client,) CE Pro Eu is welcomed into the facility’s enormous AuroTorium, a luxury 180-seat cinema room which facilitates all Auro-3D formats, including the AuroMax system. The demo in Auro 11.1 was nothing short of phenomenal; If you haven’t heard Auro-3D for yourself, you must.
In one clip in particular, the effectiveness of Auro Technologies’ immersive audio format was undeniable. The audio simulated the sound of a tractor passing by; close your eyes and you would swear you were actually in the countryside with an impossibly loud vehicle trundling by you, very distinctly travelling from the back to the front of the room on the left side.
Laid-back film studio representatives sitting in on the demo temporarily lose their cool; after a moment’s stunned silence they exclaim: “It’s perfect”.
Funded by his own prolific music career, (in his lifetime the company’s CEO has been a composer, performer, 20-time platinum album producer-engineer, movie co-producer – you name it, he’s done it) Wilfried and his brother started to build the complex some 25 years ago.
On cue, the next clip screened is an 80s-tastic short movie showing the epic construction of Galaxy Studios, snazzy jumpers and all. Wilfried must have watched this hundreds of times and has probably gone over his own story more times than he would care to recall, but he watches it as if for the first time with endearing enthusiasm, excitedly pointing his younger self out on screen, as well as his father and brother.
“I found a way to have the Auro-3D format in an existing 5.1 carrier, and that’s without any loss in the 5.1 or in the Auro-3D,” he says, gesturing around the room. “Both are played back as intended by the creators.”
Support Of The Film Industry
Wilfried is thrilled to report that Sony’s latest films, Inferno and Passengers are being distributed worldwide in one format: Auro encoded 5.1. “That means only one master goes out and that every theatre that does not have an Auro 3D system gets normal 5.1 in uncompressed audio without any loss. And if you have our Auro-3D system including the decoder (found typically in a media server), then you hear it as it was intended by the creators,” he adds.
Numerous film directors and producers have long supported the Auro-3D format and cite it as being the best; Jeffrey Katzenberg, founder and CEO of Dreamworks Animation stated in 2012: “We actually considered a number of different new sound formats, but it became very clear to us that the Auro-3D audio format is actually the best. We believe they are going to be leaders in the market.”
“What we need is more good movie content,” Wilfried admits; and here lies one of the hurdling blocks with Auro-3D
Wilfried reveals that all major Hollywood studios have at least one or two mixing stages in Auro-3D, including Lightstorm, James Cameron’s private mixing studio.
“Leaders in the industry recognised the ‘game changing’ experience that Auro-3D brought to the cinema. When George Lucas heard it, he decided to be the first Hollywood producer and director to release a movie in Immersive Sound using the Auro -3D format,” Wilfried enthuses. “Paul Massey was here, [sound designer and mixing engineer for The Martian, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spiderman and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, to name a few]. He sent me an email after he worked in the AuroTorium for the first time saying this experience was amazing!”
“Lots of journalists ask me ‘is this like VHS vs. Betamax?’ It’s not. You can better compare it to the iOS system from Apple vs. the Windows system from Microsoft – certain things you can do better in Microsoft, and some things you do better in a Mac environment”
Sony’s recent announcement to commit to the Auro-3D format in its upcoming releases signifies a real milestone for Auro. “What we need is more good movie content,” Wilfried admits; and here lies one of the hurdling blocks with Auro-3D.
CE Pro Eu imagines that after inviting film studios to Galaxy Studios to hear for themselves, they cannot fail to be convinced; so why the industry favouritism for Dolby Atmos? As it happens, this could be largely down to the latter company’s sheer marketing power, rather than its format being superior to Auro’s.
“Skywalker Sound does a lot of Auro-3D movies,” Wilfried uses as an example. “That was a game-changer because that is when Dolby woke up to the power of ‘Immersive Sound’ (the new generic term for ‘sound in 3D’ which was introduced to the market by myself in 2010). Due to our rapid success together with our partner Barco, Dolby knew they needed to act fast, or lose their market share. There is a big competition between us, but it’s good because without Dolby it would have been hard to convince the wider world that this is the next big thing. The moment they saw what was possible with 3D audio, we started to get a lot of believers, not only in the cinema industry but cross-market.”
Auro-3D vs. The Competition
CE Pro Eu can’t help but notice that when speaking of competition, Wilfried never mentions DTS:X. “DTS were late in the game by acquiring a company that was working on MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio) but with their concept and technology, I’m not that convinced about it. DTS:X object-based technology is built on a sphere, Dolby’s a box shape. We support both ‘shapes’. The sphere approach is good when you live in the ‘sweet spot’ (e.g. headphone) and the box shape is ideal for rooms where speakers are installed on the walls and ceilings.
“It has been proven already that mixing first over headphones does not result in a convincing mix over speakers. My vision is, you better start to create 3D audio in a room and then do the translation to headphones. I’m not sure that the technology and workflow proposed by DTS is the most efficient way to approach a good cross-market solution.”
At first, Auro-3D’s priority was Hollywood, then China, India, Japan, Russia, then Europe. “I thought that when Hollywood got behind us that the whole world would follow,” he frowns. “America followed, then Asia, then India, but Europe is so slow. There were a few places where we were ahead of Dolby, and Dolby tried really hard to catch up – they invested a massive amount of money to compete with us – but that’s competition. The same happens now in the consumer market, although we were the first in the home and in the car.”
Are Ceiling Speakers Really Not Needed?
One of the many, many things that Wilfried is passionate about, is getting across exactly how Auro-3D differs to Atmos, and why it is the better choice. When making his case, it’s hard to argue with the man.
“For the public 3D Stereo Media convention in the AuroTorium at Galaxy Studios, Dolby installed the Atmos renderer and Atmos content was played back over only two layers of the Auro-3D speaker layout. And I tell you honestly; I have never heard Atmos sounding so good as it did here in the AuroTorium. The main difference in the speaker layout is the fact that we have three layers, which creates a much better spread of sound in the vertical axis which Dolby can’t achieve with two layers only, even when they use object-based technology, our vertical precision of sound localisation is much better and is the magic ingredient towards achieving a natural Immersive Sound experience.
“The lowest speakers in Dolby Atmos cinema theatres are installed much higher compared to the 5.1 standard recommendations. As such, it feels like the whole sound energy is coming from above, which is less natural compared to Auro-3D. Most natural sounds do originate around ear-level and the most important 3D reflections – which are key to our brain for better by analysing the sound field around us – are originating between ear-level and Auro-3D’s height layer. That ‘vertical stereo field’ in front and all around us is unique to Auro-3D and is the magic ingredient to our natural sound.
“Human beings are less sensitive to sounds coming from above; additionally in nature, there is less sound energy coming from directly above us. So the moment that sounds from our height layer are played back in Dolby’s ceiling layer, it doesn’t work, it sounds completely unnatural.
“In a small room at home you don’t even need a ceiling channel,” he states. “Auro-3D’s height layer will create in a small room that same natural immersive sound experience with only two layers (e.g. Auro 9.1). Even if the original sound was using our three-layered system (used for bigger rooms), it’s perfectly compatible and translates exactly the creative intent.
“Human beings are less sensitive to sounds coming from above; it doesn’t work, it sounds completely unnatural. In a small room at home you don’t even need a ceiling channel.”
“Another issue of object based technology is that those ‘objects’ are typically mono or stereo sources which can’t contain the original reflections in 3D. That’s the big difference with Auro-3D, because we can capture and reproduce these objects including the 3D reflections, which is not possible with object-based technology. Although we also use object based technology (AuroMax), our approach is different: we first create a 3D space with channel-based technology up to three layers to create a natural sounding ‘bed,’ then add objects if certain effects are required.
“Note that no one will ever be able to fully reproduce natural sound – it’s just not possible. But that illusion can be created as closely as it can be – and that’s what Auro-3D does in the most efficient way.
“Another important difference is that Dolby Atmos also can’t do the mastering process in music production, although it is a key aspect in the workflow of pop music,” he points out. “The renderer at playback can physically not reproduce the mastering process. And what about High Resolution? Did you know that Dolby Atmos doesn’t support High Resolution audio 96kHz? Although that recently became the new standard in music production.”
One thing that can’t be controlled these days, is people giving opinions on social media, which has not escaped Wilfried’s attention. In particular, home cinema enthusiasts are particularly vocal about their preferred 3D audio format.
“The general feedback we read from them is: ‘If you play back Auro-3D content over an Atmos speaker layout, it does not work. But if you play back Atmos over an Auro-3D speaker layout, people say it sounds very acceptable and often even better than over the Atmos speaker layout. That’s just social media; I don’t even know those people!”
Three Formats Unite, And Soon…
There’s no getting around it, consumers are confused with the choice of 3D Immersive Sound formats. Pick one, and risk having little content, pick another and a competing format might be superior, or cheaper. Despite the confusion, Wilfried is not rattled, as he states confidently: “One day they will all come together,” – and much sooner than you might think.
“Lots of journalists ask me ‘is this like VHS vs. Betamax?’ It’s not. That was a physical carrier format where typically one format wins the game – this competition now is not about such a physical format, you’re talking about different experiences, there are different ways of working with it. You can better compare it to the IOS system from Apple vs. the Windows system from Microsoft – certain things you can do better in Microsoft, and some things you do better in a Mac environment.
“Although we all tried to find the holy grail with a technical solution that works for everyone, due to my experience as a content maker in music and movies, it doesn’t make me a believer in there being one format that works for everything” he stresses.
“The hardware manufacturers don’t want to make choices because they feel that their devices should be able to play back everything, so that’s typically what you will see more and more. You will see all three formats in most devices soon,” he reveals.
It seems that the biggest problem is the incompatibility with the speaker layout, but here Wilfried is confident too. “I am very proud to say that I think we absolutely have the best solution because our format plays back all formats very well, which you can’t say about the competitors because if they play Auro-3D content over their speaker layout, (which means that sounds of the Auro-3D height layer will be played back from the ceiling speakers directly above the listener) it is really too far away from the artistic intent and sounds very often not natural at all.
“Where we shine is in the natural quality of the sound, the efficiency, plus it’s the easiest to install. You have a better overall sound experience, even in high resolution audio, and at the same time it costs less; usually it’s the other way around! We do not need any kind of change in format or change in bandwidth in the delivery format, and you can deliver two master files in one file – we have a one-file delivery format without the need for extra bandwidth – and that’s something the competitors can’t say.”
The CEO sees that once AVRs start to support all three formats, this will create a domino effect with the film studios when it comes to creating more content in Auro 3D.
Why Defining The Bitstream Will Change Everything
“When the bitstream for immersive audio is defined, this will change everything,” he states. “PCM is an open source format – a bitstream for an object-based format should not be proprietary. Next year, the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers) will have defined this. There was a huge battle going on for a few years about which technology to use. So when this interoperable bitstream is defined, every movie released in Immersive Sound can be played back over each system. So having installed the Auro-3D speaker layout does not only allow to playback movies in 5.1 standard (Auro-3D is based on the existing 5.1 speaker install which is not the case with Dolby Atmos) but also having the most natural sound when playing back a movie with Immersive Sound.”
“Next year, the SMPTE will have defined the interoperable bitstream for immersive audio: every movie released in Immersive Sound can be played back over each system”
This reminds Wilfried; “A lot of people think that the mix that you hear at home is the same mix – that’s not the case. In the cinema it’s a different system – first of all the system is not linear, so that means the speakers are not going flat all the way from the low to high frequencies. There is an acoustical curve over it (not flat) – the high and low frequencies are rolled off, so typically if you play back content like music and play it in a cinema system, it doesn’t sound good at all. Additionally even the reference sound pressure level of the screen speakers and surround speakers are 3dB different which is not the case at home, where all speakers have the same reference level. So that means that you have to remix it the movie in order to have a release that can be used for home cinema.
“That translation from theatre to consumer environments is very important, and this is another place where Auro has an advantage over the competitors because our ‘vertical stereo field all around the listener’ in which more than 95% of the sound is present, is the basis of each Auro-3D system and is exactly the same immersive sound experience in the professional format as it is in the home format. Our competitors’ systems have to go to much fewer channels in the home, reducing the precision drastically.
“So as soon as that SMPTE interoperable bitstream standard is out, I expect that this will be again a milestone because it allows each movie mixed in Immersive Sound (whatever format it will be) to be played back perfectly over the Auro-3D system,” he smiles knowingly.
What if someone has Dolby Atmos at home, hears Auro 3D, and wants that instead?
What indeed. Thousands of people have already invested in Atmos systems at home, large and small.
“What we have seen if people already have four speakers with Atmos is that they just re-hang them to enable Auro-3D content playback,” he responds. “Again, I see this a lot on social media with people trying this out and they all come to the same conclusion. People that hear Auro 3D that have already bought an Atmos and DTS:X-ready Onkyo receiver often just sell the system and buy a Denon & Marantz one.
“People that hear Auro 3D that have already bought an Atmos and DTS:X-ready Onkyo receiver often just sell the system and buy a Denon & Marantz one”
“What we have seen is that if they only have two ceiling speakers with Atmos (5.1.2 or 7.1.2), you can just add two more speakers to make up the Auro 3D height layer. With Auro you need at least four height speakers and you have to put them above the corner speakers on the walls. It’s much easier as you don’t have to install them in the ceiling,” he adds. Although it is the same amount of speakers, a Dolby 7.1.2 system is typically much more difficult to install compared to Auro 9.1, which is based on a 5.1 surround system and can reproduce a true 3D space, which is not the case with systems having only two overhead channels.
It remains to be seen if 2017 will be the year to give Auro-3D the momentum it deserves, but Wilfried is already looking past that.
“I have still so many innovative ideas you can’t believe!” he grins (CE Pro Eu can, actually). “I will not get old enough to release all of them. We are working very hard and our mission is clear: we are bringing 3D audio everywhere to everyone as intended by the creators with a cross-market solution to all the industries. Don’t forget that Immersive Sound started just five years ago, so look at what has been established during that time with the amount of movies available. Auro has achieved 200+ international movies, Dolby over 500, and together with Dolby we have more than 2,500 installs worldwide and more than 400 music albums recorded in Auro-3D. Even 5.1 surround did not pick up that fast; immersive sound has happened much quicker.”
“You will see all three formats in most devices soon”
The rest depends on if there are enough installs worldwide to bring this format to the masses.
“The moment that hurdle is passed, we will see how much content is coming out in the formats,” he considers. “I think it’s hard to say now what the market share will be because there is 3D audio installed in less than 2% of the world’s commercial theatres; there’s another 98% to go. And cinema is just the beginning, other markets like games, broadcast, car and home markets are much bigger.
“It’s all still in its infancy really, but I see that the more people understand about sound (our hearing, the creation, workflow etc.) the more they will understand the unique power of the Auro-3D format. I’m proud about the wave that I started after 140 years of sound evolution; this is the final and missing dimension with an end-to-end solution for all markets. Just the fact that people all over the planet from now on can enjoy all kinds of content in a heightened emotional experience, means a lot to me”.