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Beyond 5.1


Mike Hedges and his crew created the soundtrack for Universal’s King Kong attraction at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand–based re-recording mixer Mike Hedges has plenty of experience crafting superb multichannel film mixes. He’s earned Oscars for his work on two of director Peter Jackson’s most complex films, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and King Kong (2005). Each of those films clocked in at more than three hours and required many months of audio post work. Yet one of the most intriguing jobs Hedges has worked on recently is a film that lasts just 90 seconds—but required an entirely new approach to mixing. That’s because that minute-and-a-half is not for a conventional theatrical film, but is the audio component of the new 3-D King Kong portion of the famous “backlot” tram ride at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. It’s a job that required Hedges to mix 22 discrete channels for twin 120×40-foot curved screens that sit on either side of a tram during the Kong episode, in which our gorilla hero saves the helpless tourists from a T-Rex attack!

This is part of a trend that’s been growing for some time: upping the audio ante—more channels, more speakers—to make sound appear more dimensional. Certainly, the new generation of 3-D films has fueled the urge to fill auditorium spaces with more realistic and enveloping sound. But it’s also affecting the sound design in other spaces—from videogames to thrill rides to museum exhibits. What if, instead of a film soundtrack being delivered in a theater in six channels through 12 to 20 speakers, it came at the audience through 32 discrete channels and more than 60 speakers? What if sound reproduction environments started dealing with the height dimension? All of these things are happening and at an ever-accelerating pace. Mixers have a wild new world awaiting them and cinema loudspeaker manufacturers must be salivating at the prospects for increased business.

Right away, we should acknowledge that where the mainstream movie theater is heading right now is probably toward Dolby Surround 7.1. With the greater penetration of 5.1 in homes, it’s important that commercial exhibitors stay ahead of the curve by providing an experience less accessible to consumers; though a form of 7.1 is also available to consumers through some Blu-ray discs, it is in its infancy as a home format. Dolby’s 7.1 was developed with Disney/Pixar and was debuted in select theaters this summer on a pair of 3-D releases—Toy Story 3 and the live-action dance film Step Up 3-D. The 7.1 format features eight discrete channels: front left, center and right, a sub (low-frequency effects), left surround, right surround, and left and right back surround (the last two marking the difference between 5.1 and 7.1). “It’s another color, another thing in the palette,” Toy Story 3 mixer Tom Myers told Mix shortly before the film opened. “You can localize things more and put them directly by your side and something else behind you. Still, in this film we’re trying to do it so it feels natural and draws the audience into the action. We’re not throwing [sounds] around just because we can do it and it’s cool. Though it is cool.”

Not surprisingly, Tomlinson Holman—sound reproduction innovator and developer of the THX system back in the early ’80s—is also promoting, through his TMH Corporation, a playback format that increases dimensionality: 10.2, which uses 12 speakers, including two “height” channels (actually, upper-front, 45 degrees above the audience); in front there are left wide, left height, left, center, right, right height, right wide; three surround channels (left, back and right); and two LFE/sub channels (hence, the “.2”). So far, 10.2, which was developed by Holman and USC’s Chris Kyriakakis, has been demo’d only and does not exist in any commercial facilities, but the early word-of-mouth has been encouraging, and certainly Holman’s track record speaks for itself.

And we would be remiss not to mention that IMAX, which has become the “premium” format of choice (i.e., people will gladly pay extra to view films on the giant screens), employs dozens of speakers throughout its theaters—especially behind the mammoth screens—though the audio is still a 6-channel surround mix.

But let’s go back to Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, and see how the requirements of Universal’s King Kong attraction affected Hedges’ approach to the mix. On the visual side, this was completely new Kong footage created at Weta Digital (New Zealand) to Jackson’s exacting specifications, though the sound team did employ some of the original Kong and T-Rex roars from Jackson’s film, created by David Farmer, Brent Burge and others. “We had to rebuild the ambiences from scratch again,” Hedges offers. “You’ve only got 90 seconds, so you don’t have time to be massively inventive in terms of creating new groundbreaking audio, but it has to work. You have to engage the audience in a scenario and take them on a journey and get them out of there quickly.”

Kong mixer Mike Hedges (right) with Brent Burge

Because of the ride’s unusual format—with two huge parallel screens being filled by 16 projectors, sandwiching the tram—Hedges and his team devised a way to mix to that configuration: In Theater One at Park Road, “We constructed a third-scale model of what the Universal soundstage was going to be, so we had screens on both sides of the room as opposed to where the screen normally is at the front.” Working from animatics and armed with knowledge acquired from visiting the cavernous space the tram would pass through, the team took the mix as far as they could, working in New Zealand and eventually heading to L.A. to refine the mix within the space. “The biggest thing we had to adapt to was the spatial aspect of the sound,” Hedges says. “The room reverb time is like 12 seconds—how do you deal with that? It was horrendous! Obviously, we wanted to add size to Kong’s roar and the most common way to do that would be by adding reverb, but the natural ’verb meant we didn’t have to, though we did add some slight delays that were timed to reinforce Kong’s roar in the distant speakers. What we found when we got to L.A. is that we had to shorten specific elements of the roar, and the sub was overpowering, so to make it more immediate we halved the length of our sub signal.”

In terms of the speaker configuration for Hedges’ 22-channel mix, to each side (left and right) of the three-car tram, “We have two ground stacks of five speakers, which is a left, inner left, center, inner right and outer right. You have an image in the middle of the screen so the complexity of it was, we had to take the speakers that were below us and add a left-center-right above for each side, so then we had to balance how much of Kong was in the uppers and the lowers to generate the effect of him being in the middle of the screen. Our main challenge was, how do we make Kong sound like he’s right in your face? The proximity of the speakers is too far from the tram so we had to build speakers into this effects wall that runs down either side of the tram, so when Kong roars, you’ve got sub sets that rock your intestines and your core being, and then you’ve got these reinforcement speakers that bring him to life. Those are stereo pairs—two stereo pairs for each of the three trams—12 sets of speakers, individually fed, so when we wanted sound to come at you, we were feeding into those speakers. Finally, we have two sub channels of two speakers on the ground, front and back.” The speakers are a combination of L-Acoustics and Meyer Sound models. Over the course of about five days, Hedges and his team—which included Brent Burge and Universal veteran Peter Lehman (The Simpsons Ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride)—did most of the final mixing “in the box” on a Pro Tools rig inside Tram 2.

Iosono studio technologies VP Brian Slack at a Digidesign ICON

Dealing with left and right screens was difficult enough, but the ride has another wrinkle that posed an interesting sonic challenge, Hedges reveals: “At one point, Kong throws the T-Rex from one side to the other and it bounces off the top of the tram. With the movement of the tram, you’re getting quite a lot of dynamic in that movement, and what we tried to do with the sound was re-create it by panning, say, on the left-hand side from the ground stack to the high stack to the right-high stack and down again, all in a split second. We were writing that pan, and we found that the best way to make it feel like the sound’s right above you is to mono up those stereo pairs in the walls and fire that at the tram, and you get this amazing effect of scraping and rattling as the tram does this movement and you really feel like he’s going over the top. We wanted to try some speakers above, but the tram has a roof on it so the sound has to get to you from the side. Mono’ing up the center and top speakers from either side did the trick.”

(We also wanted to write about the well-reviewed multi-environment Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but were informed that the powers-that-be did not want the “secrets” of the ride revealed.)

A hop, skip and jump from Hollywood’s Universal theme park, a company called Iosono, a division of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, is looking to revolutionize film sound through experimental installations at Mann’s Chinese Theater (also in Hollywood). According to Brian Slack, Iosono’s senior VP of studio technologies, the company’s latest installation at Mann’s involves around 60 speakers placed strategically in a 450-seat theater. “For that particular sound system, we’re going to end up with 10 channels behind the screen—they have five now—and roughly 50 surround speakers, so literally twice as many as they have now,” he says.

Arup Acoustics’ Raj Patel

A major difference between Iosono and other companies, however, is “We want to literally remix the film,” Slack says. “We’ve done mixes with a lot of mixers in studios in Hollywood. Overture Pictures gave us clips of The Crazies, which was a very good demo because the film was not in 3-D. When people hear about our system, they intuitively think it will be perfect for 3-D, but in the case of The Crazies, it added a whole other aspect to a 2-D film. However, we also did a demo of a reel from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which was in 3-D. On that one, we worked with Geoff Rubay, who was the sound supervisor, and he brought in all of his sound effects predubs, which is one step earlier than the stems, but we had all the stems accessible to us, too.

“What we’re delivering to movie theaters is kind of unique in that Dolby, DTS, SDDS were delivery formats; they were a new way of delivering a 5.1 or 7.1 to a theater, but essentially the sound system was exactly the same. What separates us is we are a completely new sound system, so the delivery format is its own thing. We have two separate products—one is a 3-D sound system and one is a universal delivery format—and literally what we’re delivering to a movie theater is a 32-channel print master. So in addition to the added number of speakers, we’re also adding to the number of channels we’re sending to movie theaters, which allows us to get more precise placement on where we can put things in the theater and it inherently gives us a lot more headroom. By the nature of the way we’re delivering the soundtrack, we also have a lot lower noise floor, we have lower distortion because we’re not building up so many tracks on the same six channels—we’re distributing it over a larger number of channels.”

Slack prefers the term “multidimensional” to “3-D”: “It’s not, strictly speaking, 3-D because we’re not actually dealing with height at the moment.” He says that “we definitely think of ourselves going into more premium theaters. It’s going to be a premium experience because by the nature of the sound system, it’s going to be expensive. We’re financing the first 50 screens, so by the end of the year we hope to have 50 theaters across the U.S., and before that we’re doing a limited release of a film we haven’t announced yet, but it will be for industry advertising to get people to understand what the format is.”

Sound and acoustics are just one small aspect of what the international design, planning, engineering and consulting firm Arup is involved in. Calling Arup “a world leader in 3-D spatialization,” Raj Patel, leader of Arup Acoustics, says his company is trying to develop true 3-D sound environments by using an Ambisonic system, “which allows you to reproduce aural environments in complete 3-D so you have complete control over the angle from which a sound comes.

“We’ve gone from a world of recording that started mono and went to stereo and then to what people generally mean when they say surround—5.1 or 7.1; whatever it might be. But the big drawback of all of those systems is that they mainly have loudspeakers at the front and at the side, and you can really only make sounds move from front to back by panning them to the left and right. An Ambisonic arrangement can make sound appear to come from all directions, so the perceptual impact of listening to audio accompanying video increases several-fold, especially if you can get sounds coming from the upper rear.

“If you record surround in the field in the first place, which requires a relatively complex mic, you can make field recordings in 3-D and then you can potentially apply that in a Foley studio or a mastering studio to create a true 3-D effect, which you can’t do with a 5.1 scenario because 5.1 is only taking mono recordings and placing the sound in particular locations and panning them from one place to another.”

If a world where surround mics are commonly used to create film soundtracks doesn’t seem to be right around the corner, Arup knows that this practice will be part of the acoustics business for a long time to come. His firm is also exploring many applications that are not based around conventional theaters.

“The computer gaming industry is interesting because they really are trying to figure out how to heighten the individual experience,” Patel says. “Having audio in 3-D connects you much more viscerally to what’s going on in the game environment and is really becoming quite popular. In fact, there’s a company that’s about to come out with the first game that is 3-D audio only; it has no video.

“Music and education clients have been looking at 3-D, too. For example, the New World Symphony has been wanting to create a quality master-class series for their students where they can experience it and feel it in 3-D and hear it in 3-D and be able to play along with it in 3-D. And the scientific community wants to understand the interaction between light and sound, or the psychology of behavior as it relates to sound, and you can really only do that if you work in 3-D. So in places like Queens University in Belfast, they have what they term their Sonic Arts Center, which is a multilevel space with three floors where you can have sound coming from above, below you, the sides. Working with social scientists and psychologists, people have been building these sorts of spaces that are for much more than just entertainment.”

Blair Jackson is


’s senior editor.