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DTS Headphone:X – An 11.1 Experience That Brings the Consumer Into the Mix Room

It’s one of the most impressive demos you will hear. Stellar, dynamic, full-range music. Familiar-yet-somehow-all-new technology. And a Wow! factor that keeps professionals and passers-by alike talking long after they walk away.

Fred Maher of DTS, with Peter Asher, Nathaniel Kunkel and Hans Zimmer, the creative-technical team behind the Headphone:X release of music from Man of Steel and Rush.

It’s one of the most impressive demos you will hear. Stellar, dynamic, full-range music. Familiar-yet-somehow-all-new technology. And a Wow! factor that keeps professionals and passers-by alike talking long after they walk away.

It was almost a year ago that DTS debuted Headphone:X by ringing a demo space at CES with 11 Focal speakers and setting up seats with Sennheiser 239 headphones. First, listen to the speaker callout: top left, top right, left, left-center, center, right-center, right, left-surround, right-surround, top-rear-left, top-rear-right. Then put on the headphones and repeat. The effect is astounding. The discrete signals live in “a room,” externally, outside the head. Nothing feels direct to the ear. Most listeners at some point pull one cup off, to see if they are being duped. Then the music plays and it becomes true immersion. It’s much, much more impressive than can be described in print.

There will be skeptics, there always are, especially when the conversation involves music and surround. Over the years there have been many attempts to reach the consumer, from Quad in the ’70s on through Holophonics, Q Sound, SRS, multiple Dolby formats, DTS themselves and many others. There have also been many attempts to market “surround headphones,” some much better than others, all relying on some variation of processing, spatialization or upmixing. The real difference this time around, aside from more powerful processing and app-based delivery/decoding, is that Headphone:X was developed with the entire R&D focus and energy on mobile delivery—gaming, music, film, and streaming broadcast for smartphones, tablets, computers and…much more to come.

“We have been thinking about portability for nearly 15 years,” says DTS chairman and CEO Jon Kirchner. “The challenge has been that you couldn’t really deliver the experience we had in mind due to processing power issues and other factors. It has only been in the last few years that all the necessary pieces have come together to allow us to deliver a Headphone:X experience. We started discussing consumer consumption in our strategic planning process nearly a decade ago, and we can now deliver a truly compelling experience across all different devices and consumer-use cases—whether in the home, in the car or on mobile devices.

“We have always focused on innovative R&D, with a specific emphasis on high-quality experiences,” he continues. “In the case of Headphone:X, quality also involved lots of iteration, and candid feedback from the professional community and from within our own organization.”

But, perhaps the biggest difference this time around? “You don’t have to go out and buy speakers, set up your living room and run pink noise,” says composer Hans Zimmer, whose soundtrack to Man of Steel last spring was the first commercial release in 11.1 Headphone:X, followed by the fall release of his score for Rush. “It was really important to me that anyone can use it. I believe in the democratization of surround, that surround should be made easy.”

Zimmer, pictured with a few of his colleagues on this month’s cover, has proven a key figure in the launch; currently, the one way to really hear an 11.1 Headphone:X mix on headphones is by downloading his Z-Plus app and the Man of Steel or Rush soundtrack.

Which brings up the ongoing paradox holding back consumer acceptance of music in surround: Which comes first, the Technology or the Content?

The Technology

The technology behind Headphone:X is part and parcel of what DTS has been developing over the past 20 years, involving Head-Related Transfer Function, room modeling and encoding for discrete playback, among many other contributors. For Zimmer’s release, both his 11.1 mix room and his unique head/ears at the mix position were fitted with mics, then modeled and incorporated into the metadata for playback. The possibilities, as can be imagined, seem endless. This is not a Concert Hall preset on a Pioneer receiver.

“How do you want to model the acoustic playback environment the consumer is going to experience?” asks Geir Skaaden, DTS senior vice president of products and platforms and former CEO of Neural Audio, which DTS acquired in 2009. “It can be a lot of things, but choosing the room gives you a foundation that you can then model the rendering for playback on the correct number of channels. Without that, you are sort of blindly placing sound images without a reference. Of course the room can be changed, either by the creative side or the consumer. But the key is to have a predictable result, to know that every user will have a similar experience.

“If you are distributing content that is mixed in Headphone:X and want predictable results, then the information is embedded in the DTS HD bitstream,” he continues. “The bitstream then gives an indication so that the device, whether in an app or on a phone with embedded technology, would know exactly what to do and render it correctly. So the metadata has a couple of functions. It tells the end device what to do, and it can also connect to various room models—the profiles.”

For the gaming community, which is a huge part of the mobile market, things are slightly different. The audio engine sits in the game console and provides a real-time mix, so in a sense, no bitstream is being sent. That’s one of the reasons Turtle Beach partnered with DTS last spring to release the first headphone with the metadata and processing built into the cans. For all other uses, any headphone should suffice, with optimization per type and model on the way.

Standing: Elliot Scheiner, Rory Kaplan and Matt Marrin, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The creative team behind the upcoming Jam and Lewis project, mixed by Scheiner in 11.1 for Headphone:X.

Fred Maher has toured with Lou Reed, played drums with Scritti Politti, and produced Matthew Sweet, among countless others. Over the past 10 years at DTS, as consultant and then employee, he has become one of the audio industry’s leading proponents of surround music and a de facto liaison between creatives and technologists. Most days you will find him in one of the company’s three multichannel mix studios, working with visiting engineers/producers or on his own material. Part of his job is to put quality, yet easy-to-master tools into the hands of producers and engineers.

“Mixing for Headphone:X means quite literally that the mixer listens to confidence monitoring through the algorithm,” he explains. “Whatever your DAW is—and this is not the commercialized version but what we’re doing right now—you take, say, an AES output from Pro Tools and send it to a second computer where our algorithm is running. Then listen in real time.

“What’s interesting for me, and for Nathaniel Kunkel, Eddie Kramer and others who have worked with us, is that the mental model is to start on your speakers and check in on the headphones,” he continues. “But what happens is that you find that mixing in the headphones gives you more control in terms of point source stability and recognition. It’s the inverse of what you would think.”

The Content

DTS has always known that without content, they have no business. The company was launched with the release of Jurassic Park in theaters, and through the 1990s and the initial push for surround music, they partnered with both manufacturers like AMD and Steinberg, and with creatives like Rory Kaplan, Elliot Scheiner, Chuck Ainlay and many others. For the release of Headphone:X, the two primary links have been through Hans Zimmer and the production powerhouse of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Zimmer, the first out of the gate with Headphone:X content, was, ironically, the last to the starting line. He was introduced to the technology by producer Peter Asher, who was helping on the score for Man of Steel at the time. Asher, in turn, was introduced to it by engineer Nathaniel Kunkel, at the P&E Wing Grammy party at The Village Studios last February, a few weeks after the launch.

“I was heading for some food and drink,” Asher recalls, “when Nathaniel pulled me into the DTS room and told me I had to hear this. I thought it was amazing, and I saw the creative possibilities in my head right there. Hans was in the middle of Superman (Man of Steel), and I told him I had heard this brilliant invention. We could be the first. At that time, we were recording 12 drummers on a soundstage—Junkie XL arrangements. It was the perfect all-around-your-head material. We got the team at DTS to come down to the soundstage, and it all happened pretty quickly.”

“When Peter brought the idea to me, I found it attractive because it was at a stage where we could still have input,” Zimmer adds. “DTS was very much for it, and encouraged us to push for what we wanted. You want to work with people who are obsessive and quirky and nerdy. You can see that they have a commitment. But for me it really began on some sonic experiments we did with Christopher Nolan on Inception a few years ago. We built a cool interactive app, a free download that provided an interesting way of playing with the sound. So the subject matter of Superman—the height, the flying, the power—the timing just worked out brilliantly. I saw it as an opportunity to break down the wall between the performer and the audience, where everyone can sit in with the band.”

Zimmer, being Zimmer, took it one step further and developed the Z-Plus app for playback. “I like the idea of an app,” he says, “because it’s ever-evolving. You can append and change it, and it will mature over the years as technologies change and processing improves.”

From the music-only side, the DTS association with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis came about through an 11.1 CES demo—but pre-Headphone:X. The duo had signed and was working with The RoneyBoys, and DTS, in conjunction with Panasonic on the picture side, was looking for material to showcase in 11.1 for a 3D video demo. An a cappella 11.1 Boys II Men track was thrown in for good measure.

“We were introduced originally by Rory Kaplan, a great connector,” Jimmy Jam recalls. “Then we stayed in touch over the next year, and they came back and asked, ‘What do you think of this? Early Headphone:X?’ At the time they had a number of demos, but the one that blew me away was James Brown. We had only ever heard it in mono, of course, and this made me want to listen to the song! I went in thinking this was blasphemy, then my reaction was completely the opposite. I wanted to hear all of James Brown in surround!”

It so happened that Jam and Lewis were in the early stages of their dream project, their own record, celebrating 30 years of making amazing music, with selections from artists they’ve worked with and important musical moments in their career. Artists like Morris Day and The Time, SOS Band, Alexander O’Neal and Chirelle, Sounds of Blackness, Mint Condition, Heather Hidley, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and, of course, Janet Jackson. Some unreleased tracks from way back, some all-new, a majority of it analog. Why not go 11.1? Have some fun?

“Having the room as part of the surround changes the way you think, how you produce, and it may change how people write,” Jimmy Jam says. “We have always tried to re-create the way we heard it in our studios, or in the rooms we know and love. But we never thought we would be able to share that experience with the consumer. Now we even have the ability to change it up for any song. You can have the Jimmy Jam room, the Terry Lewis room, the Elliot Scheiner room. We’re still experimenting and DTS is still tweaking. I can’t wait until this gets in the hands of all creative people. People will find new ways to do things. Turn it on and go for it.”

Elliot Scheiner, who is currently finishing up the mix on the Jam & Lewis Project, Volume 1, is no stranger to surround or to DTS, having first hooked up with the company in 1997 for a 5.1 release for the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over. A few years later, Acura was selling cars with his signature on the side panel, the mark of a quality surround audio system inside. On the day of the cover shoot, he was working on some rough 11.1 mixes for Jam and Lewis, at the Yamaha/Steinberg Nuage in the DTS Studio, listening on A-T 35 headphones.

“Listening to this material on headphones in 11.1 is startling,” Scheiner says. “This is not spatializaton. This is not upmixed stereo. These are discrete signals, mixed in 11.1. I’ve been mixing in headphones first, then checking on the speakers, and it’s as close to discrete surround as possible, where you can feel it all around you and feel the height. DTS has always made a commitment to presenting surround properly, and with younger people listening primarily on headphones, they are on the right path.”

More to Come

The technology behind Headphone:X is out and available—but not entirely, not quite yet. It still requires a DTS visit and hardware encoding, but that will change very soon with software-based tools for room modeling and plug-ins for producers. For playback, there will soon be EQ curves to optimize for specific headphone types and models, a universal app that isn’t tied to a specific release, and licenses for devices and material that we haven’t even heard of yet.

For now, consumers can listen to Zimmer’s scores, a handful of demos, and await this month’s release of a Dave Stewart video shot in 4k, with an 11.1 Headphone:X mix, with the promise of Jam and Lewis in the spring of 2014. Content is king. Consumers know it. DTS knows it. It’s coming.