In the age of next generation audio (NGA), broadcasters are seeking solutions that can remain responsive to the still-evolving expectations surrounding immersive audio production. The amount of interest in immersive audio has been growing for some time. A lot of people are giving very careful thought to how they might deliver immersive audio, and for what types of content.
It is probable that many broadcasters will be taking at least some of their cues in response to the popularity of Olympic Games coverage to be held in 2021. In late 2019, it was confirmed that all audio at the Games would be produced using 16 audio channels, with broadcasters able to subscribe to channel layouts from stereo up to 5.1.4 with extra audio objects. Olympic Broadcast Services has underlined the need to be format-agnostic, so broadcasters will have the opportunity to deliver immersive services using the two dominant formats: Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H 3D Audio.
No doubt the consumer interest in experiencing the Olympics in immersive sound–either via a multi-channel speaker set-up or, more likely, a solitary soundbar–will be monitored closely. In the meantime, vendors are continuing to focus on providing NGA solutions that can, as much as possible, be integrated into existing workflows, and allow engineers to deliver immersive audio mixes without adding unduly to their workloads.
Trends driving pro audio market
A sea of additional publisher content in the audio format is emerging and driving the industry. News publications and other producers of written content are now embracing audio as a major addition to better serve their readers in our mobile society. This is not just podcasts, but a more comprehensive move to incorporate spoken word content into everyday communications. Audio offers greater opportunities for anyone to reach larger and more diverse audiences.
Digital audio will continue to grow as a major trend with a vast range of users.
Broadcasters have traditionally been slow to improve their audio. But streaming has changed that by improving streamed audio across the board. Today’s immersive audio tools and different mixing environments allow audio pros to dramatically alter how they tell stories and evoke emotions through sonic elements.
Streaming audio is not limited to feature films, but is now available on every type of programming. Atmos, higher bitrates and an increase in the number of projects produced in surround sound lead the way. The immersive theatrical audio experience has evolved to not only the living room and headphones, but to personal computers including laptops.
The technology for immersive sound production has been getting easier in 2020. Audio pros will continue to transition from pure technicians to a new realization that telling stories through sound is what is most important. Foley, an almost ancient technology, has emerged as a sophisticated new storytelling medium itself. 2020 has become about broadcast television trying to catch up with streaming media in the audio arts.
Immersive sound is exploding into new areas. It may have begun by being targeted to virtual and augmented reality, but those experimenting with it have found new applications. Immersive audio can evoke emotional reactions beyond visual communication. It is a good bet that 360-degree audio will soon become the norm on all devices and channels from headphones, stereos, and smart speakers to laptops, theaters, and cinemas.
Music is also being impacted by immersive sound. Music is now expanding the lines between musical elements and sound effects. Experimenters have learned it can be interchangeable. Audio professionals are trying to better understand the story-telling element completely and sort out the technical aspects from the creative.
On the technical side, cloud technology is continuing to develop in pro audio. This includes storage, backup, archive, and collaboration. Users still want all their files on a secure server that can be accessed anywhere. In 2020, A/V networking is continuing to grow. Eventually, everything will be connected on converged data and media networks.
Networking with an interoperable backbone is the enabling technology. A key goal is to refine an audio and video networking solution that can scale and evolve to meet future needs.
Early in January 2020, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group announced a standard called LE (Low Energy) Audio, designed for Bluetooth audio. This new standard, different from Bluetooth 5.0, includes a Broadcast Audio feature which is essentially universal audio sharing.
As 2020 began, Bluetooth audio finally came of age. Pro audio manufacturers are now touting their Bluetooth gear as meeting professional standards. This includes headphones for professional audio monitoring. The new standard offers better quality, lower battery life and multiple streams. LE Audio includes a new high-quality, but low-power audio codec called Low Complexity Communications Codec (LC3).
The Bluetooth LE Audio standard creates a universal system for audio, expanding it to a wide range of headphones and devices. And, in case one loses their hearing, LE Audio adds support for hearing aids.
In the box mixing workflows
OTT services are now adding significantly to interest in, and demand for, immersive mixing. Major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are now requiring Dolby Atmos deliverables from content creators. In general, re-recording mixing engineers have a lot more to think about and deliver when they are mixing for an immersive experience. It puts more pressure on the audio production teams to make sure the audio deliverables are mixed for a variety of mediums. To this end audio vendors are continuing to focus on the further streamlining of workflows so they can accommodate NGA productions seamlessly.
Different broadcasters, different approaches
The current position of broadcast on the trajectory of NGA adoption can be difficult to assess. It varies quite a bit with some broadcasters still evaluating how to achieve it, and others who have already declared which format to support. Over time, it has become evident that a range of productions can be accommodated with microphone configurations based around surround sound microphone products, classic spot microphones (wireless), and HRTF (head-related transfer function), or double MS (mid-side) set-ups that succeed in achieving clear speech recognition with an immersive feel.
Deeper into different platforms
As far as widespread adoption across different market sectors goes, there is little doubt that Dolby Atmos remains at the head of the pack for now. Accordingly, Dolby continues to see great opportunities to make the use of NGA easier by going deeper and deeper into different platforms. Like many other observers, the Olympics is expected to be a good way to gauge the extent of consumer adoption, and is enthusiastic about OBS’ format-agnostic approach.
The changing face of audio monitoring
In today’s IT-dominated world, with its increasing reliance on virtualization, it would be easy to assume that the physical audio monitoring unit (AMU) is becoming as archaic as the cathode ray tube. But while there is greater reliance on software, hardware is not completely out of the picture.
Although over the longer term, a gradual change from hardware to software solutions is envisaged, currently the two go hand-in-hand and remain totally complementary to each other. A general mix of the two is still preferable. These are significantly more software reliant than the older products with representational state transfer [REST] infrastructure technology and APIs facilitating remote access and control.
The whole industry has been undergoing a gradual shift from purely hardware solutions toward hardware and software and most recently to software only. Using software presents opportunities for us to measure audio levels and visualize them in a variety of new ways. Sound engineers can now freely select different audio scales and set the appropriate audio reference level with ease.
The main draw is that there is not really a practical way to measure loudness faster than real time using hardware.
Loudness is measured over time and small changes to a mix result in a full re-measure, which can take an hour.
Software-based solutions have time-saving features like real-time loudness measurement and the history function.
Work to improve loudness measurement is constantly ongoing. This is shown by loudness featuring heavily in the ATSC Recommended Practice document Conversion of ATSC 3.0 Services for Redistribution and the revised version of the EBU R128 standard. Loudness standards are being updated so they can be more effective for high definition and streaming services. New software-oriented AMUs can be easily upgraded to accommodate new algorithms.
Audio over IP
It would be fair to say that another example of this approach is how AMU companies have handled the increasing use of audio over IP (AoIP) in broadcasting for networking and connectivity. It is the latest standard within audio and video over IP and the industry expects it to replace SDI solutions over time.
Compared to ST 2022-6 and ST 2110, AoIP technologies are well established, giving the opportunity of being able to create an audio network rather than relying on point-to-point system architectures. But until AoIP becomes dominant for transporting audio, AES3, and MADI will continue to have a future.
AoIP now accounts for a significant proportion of AMU sales but points out that only a very small percentage of orders do not feature other signal formats. Analog is in heavy decline but most of the products continue to be ordered with a mix of AES3, MADI, or SDI.
New reality for production
Another aspect of AoIP that is adding a new dimension to audio monitoring is the ability to network and interconnect over distances. This allows for remote working, which has become a necessity during the coronavirus crisis.
With COVID-19, a great many customers have been forced to adopt different workflows, especially those involved in the live production of sporting events. While remote production is nothing new for many broadcasters, many of them have now accelerated their plans to adopt remote production as their new normal going forward.
As for the future of audio monitoring in a broadcast world of ever more channels and platforms, the main manufacturers are keeping an eye on new or emerging standards and technologies. There may not be any demand yet for ATSC 3.0 as a transmission standard but there are products in the market to monitor MPEG-2/4 and Dolby Atmos. ATSC 3.0 is enabling more consumers to experience object-based audio formats like Dolby Atmos over the air.
From its humble roots as a moving coil meter, audio monitoring looks certain to carry on evolving and play a major role in ensuring that new broadcast formats work properly.
Across the media industry, audio companies are leaders in innovation. Revisiting time-tested strategies for improving performance and increase collaboration and education of brands and agency partners is now be the need of the hour.
Increased support for next generation audio and making complex remote working scenarios more practical during lockdown are among the headline trends. As audio post headed into lockdown in March, it was certainly no bad thing that the previous 12-18 months had been fairly strong throughout the business. More diverse workloads and rising levels of production fueled by the streaming revolution have contributed to a post sector that is both robust and responsive to change.
As an emerging platform with strong growth, the audio industry may be better positioned to weather the current condition than other legacy media. As the audience for podcasting and online audio grows, and new devices like smart speakers make it easier to access content, advertisers have been increasing their investment in audio. However, in this devastating economic downturn, no one is immune and audio companies are bracing for losses.
Inevitably, the extent to which activity levels have been affected by Coronavirus varies–sometimes considerably–from company to company. But the often solitary nature of core audio post tasks like mixing and dubbing has meant the sector appears to have been less heavily impacted than some others. Moreover, where operators have had more downtime, there has been a not entirely unwelcome opportunity to review infrastructure and priorities in a rapidly changing market.
Rather than changes to workflows, the lockdown period has prompted a review of business strategies–which is fairly universal in the post-world. But if there has been one particular area in which all vendors have taken action over the last few months it is in terms of supporting increased remote working.
Looking forward, more platforms are being supported as well as extra tools are becoming available that make it easier to produce audio in Dolby Atmos. More generally in terms of NGA production, further developments are anticipated that allow broadcasters to maintain loudness control across the new formats.
Loudness continues to be a notable topic and there will be developments that seek to make loudness compliance as easy in the new formats as it now is in 5.1. Of course, that took a while to get right in stereo, never mind the higher quality formats, but it will come over the coming years and could be another important step in taking NGA to the next level of awareness.