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Following on from our Dolby competition DVDActive decided to put the questions you want answered to Dolby Labs. The man in the hot seat is Dolby Marketing Manager, David Fraser.

I have been with Dolby since 1988, when I started as a film engineer, before moving into the Licensing Division a couple of years later.   My early years focused on introducing surround sound and "home cinema" to the video industry, broadcast industry, consumer electronics, press - you name it.  It was an incredibly exciting time and being part of a very small team meant that no two days were the same.   Cracker, Prime Suspect and Taggart in Dolby Surround were milestones in broadcast, and I remember saying that the pinnacle would be to get Coronation St - and I could then gracefully retire.  Lo-and-behold, a couple of years ago the one-hour Christmas Corrie Special was broadcast with a big fat Dolby Surround logo at the head.  I almost redistributed Delia's cranberry sauce across the room, but I'm still here and still finding it as exciting now as it was all those years ago.   One of the most rewarding projects today is introducing surround sound in all its various shapes and forms to the car industry - maybe I'll gracefully retire when Pro Logic II is standard in the Smart Car

1. How has the rise in home theatre technology penetration changed the way Dolby looks at the surround sound industry?

Having pioneered the home theatre experience back in 1984 with the introduction of Dolby Surround, and a few years later with the now ubiquitous Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Laboratories' aims remain much the same.  We strive to improve all aspects of audio, in order to improve the experience, bringing enjoyment to a wider audience via a range of platforms.  Dolby Surround and home theatre kicked off with the video cassette when stereo tracks contained the original encoded movie soundtrack.  Since then we have both encouraged and responded to the growing demand for surround sound, resulting in a great variety of media adopting our technologies.  We are in the business of creating long-term and lasting standards which provide benefits to the industry and consumers alike.

2. How long does it take from start to finish, to complete a soundtrack for a DVD?

A difficult question to answer!   A short, budget release could take a matter of days, but for major film titles, the original soundtrack can take several months of recording and mixing.  All the sound elements - from a simple door shutting, to an intergalactic battle and a full orchestral score - are balanced and synchronised with the movie action to create an emotive, enveloping and entertaining sound field.

This finished audio master, (used for the cinema release), is then used for the domestic release.  So at this point, probably 95% of the work is done.  A couple of days or so formatting for the DVD release may then be required before the final authoring process.

3. Do you think that technology growth in the industry is dictated by hardware manufacturers and surround sound companies like Dolby, dts, etc or by software applications? What practices do Dolby use to encourage growth in all markets (ie. theatre, home theatre, PC sound, headphones, etc)?

You can't have one without the other, so it's a balancing act.  Much of our work is marriage broking, i.e., letting the hardware industry know what the software industry is doing, and vice-versa.  To help encourage growth in all markets, we try to stimulate relations between the different industry sectors, keeping them regularly informed about our technologies and how they are performing in the different markets.  

4. Where do you see the future of Dolby in the home theatre environment?

Home Theatre has only really become an established format in the past few years.  We aim to build on this in years to come with evolving and complementary technologies which continue to provide even more benefits.  We aim to bring surround sound to new markets - it's already happening, as the broadcasting and video gaming industry tap into the world of home theatre, and the music industry starts experimenting with multi-channel audio. If it moves, surround it!

5. The other major player in the industry, dts, uses less compression and higher bitrates for it's surround soundtracks. Have Dolby got any plans to produce an audio codec that uses less compression or a higher bitrate? Some people prefer dts soundtracks to Dolby. What do you say to that?

Dolby's well-documented history and highly respected expertise in perceptual coding and audio compression has allowed us to develop a system - Dolby Digital - which does not require excessive bit-rates to achieve an impressive sonic fidelity.   Other systems require three times the bandwidth to achieve comparable quality.  As they say, it ain't the size that matters...   As far as preference goes, Dolby Digital has become the DVD standard worldwide - some 10,000 DVD titles can't be wrong; it was selected for the USA digital television broadcast standard; it was implemented within the European DVB specification; and it is growing in demand within the video-gaming industry.  No system attains such industry standards, worldwide penetration and commendations without delivering the goods.  It's worth noting that subjective differences can be caused by post-processing manipulation of the soundtrack, re-mastering, re-equalising or level changing, etc, prior to authoring.  The critical studio listening tests we've attended have assured us that Dolby Digital provides the closest match to the source material and effectively, what the director intended. Further entertainment (!) here

On a final note about less compression and higher bit rates, don't forget that the DVD-Audio format uses MLP, (Meridian Lossless Packing), from Dolby Laboratories, providing bit for bit accurate digital audio.  This lossless format can store up to six channels of 96kHz/24-bit audio for surround sound fans and two channels of 192kHz/24-bit audio for stereo buffs.

6. In the last few years, we have seen a steep rise in the amount of multi-channel formats with Dolby Pro-Logic 2, EX 6.1 & dts ES 6.1 (and matrixed 7.1 and even 8.1 channel hardware support). How many speakers is enough in surround sound? Also, how has the Lucas-driven EX format been received/supported in the market?

Hey, there are more opinions on this than you can shake a stick at - some say 200!  And in my street there's a car that sounds like it's got a 1.5 set-up...  But a reality check!  Since the introduction of Dolby Pro Logic back in 1987, the basic speaker set-up has remained the same, three at the front and two at the back.  An optional sub-woofer can enhance the bass, but the basic set-up today remains just that, 3/2.  New technologies like Dolby Digital and Pro Logic II simply get much more channel separation and fidelity out of that set-up.   THX EX introduced a centre-back channel to take advantage of new Dolby Digital Surround EX encoded soundtracks which began appearing on DVD a year or so ago.  The Dolby Digital EX implementation became available last year, enabling a broad spectrum of manufacturers to now offer the option.  Kenwood, Sony and Yamaha were very quick to introduce new products.  Yamaha reported that their switchboard became inundated with EX enquiries and attribute the success of their latest receiver to Dolby Digital EX.  High commendation indeed.  So, how many speakers then?  IMHO, five is the minimum and a sub - five good quality speakers, correctly positioned, and driven with quality amps will sound fantastic.  If you want awesome, the bigger the room and the further away your neighbours, the more you can add.  And judging by the success of Dolby Digital EX, many home theatre enthusiasts must have very understanding neighbours.    

7. In producing the Dolby demo trailers, what factors determine the soundscape used? Do you have any new or upcoming trailers of which you are particularly proud?

The Dolby trailers are used to "alert" the audience, both aurally and visually.   The soundscape is therefore quite enveloping, using all channels to create an all-round ambience as well as pinpointing brief  "events" around the system. My own favourite?  The Train - it says it all, a collector's item!

8. Which film(s)/DVD(s) do Dolby consider the best use of their technology? What do you think is the best Dolby presentation? What do you think makes an excellent DVD soundtrack?

It would be impossible to name any one title - there are so many.  It's really the clever marriage of sound and picture, whether a subtle drama or a guns-blazing action movie.  And what makes an excellent DVD soundtrack? The same!

9.  There is a lot of discussion between audiophiles about re-mastering of soundtracks and particularly the use of non-Dolby certification processes on soundtracks.  Do you feel that at any point in the past a Dolby soundtrack may not have faired as well as expected having gone through this sort of process? How much sovereignty does Dolby hold over certification of soundtracks using Dolby standards and/or the Dolby name?

I've not heard of "non-Dolby certification processes on soundtracks".  Just as a brief background, when a movie is made, Dolby service the production company to ensure the soundtrack meets the highest of technical standards, throughout the whole audio chain, from the initial dubbing, through to the mixing and print mastering.   Re-mastering of soundtracks is not uncommon for the domestic release, particularly where modern studio technologies can help "clean up" back-catalogue titles for re-issue.   Such re-masters then become encoded as usual in Dolby Surround and/or Dolby Digital in a suitably equipped studio.  In bearing these logos, the soundtrack complies with our technical standards.

10. Have you any updates on the recent problem with some AV Receivers having audio drop outs on some new discs?

The drop-outs only occur with a handful of receiver models and are triggered only by the first Dolby Digital EX "flagged" DVDs.  These discs can still be enjoyed in Dolby Pro Logic or Pro Logic II.  Fortunately, the problem has been isolated and we and our industry partners are working together to provide a solution for those affected customers.  Latest details can be found here

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