AVForums visits cinema sound company Datasat
Last week Phil and I visited the offices of Datasat and whilst you may not have heard of Datasat before you’ll almost certainly be familiar with DTS (Digital Theatre Systems).
The chances are that since the format’s launch with the release of Jurassic Park back in 1993, at some point you’ll have sat in a cinema listening to one of their soundtracks. George Lucas once famously said that the movie going experience was at least 50% sound and there’s no denying that DTS helped bring Jurassic Park’s rampaging dinosaurs to life just as much as the magicians at ILM. Datasats offices are based on an industrial estate in Twyford and whilst it might not look like much from the outside, within the nondescript building is a veritable treasure trove of film history. Here we met Stephen Field, Senior Vice President of Global Programs & Products, who explained the history of both DTS and Datasat, before giving us a guided tour of the facility. Stephen is a film industry veteran who has previously worked for Paramount and Disney, where he oversaw the groundbreaking digital release of Toy Story 2 back in February 2000. I was lucky enough to see that digital presentation at the Odeon Leicester Square, the first of its kind outside the US and I still remember the look of disbelief on my friend’s face as I described how DLP worked.
For those that don’t know, the original DTS was founded in the early 1990s and its initial investors included Steven Spielberg and Universal Studios. Spielberg felt that theatrical sound formats were no longer capable of delivering the fidelity required for modern movies and he felt that DTS was the solution to this problem. Spielberg wasn’t alone in his desire for better sound and Dolby were the first out of the gates with their Dolby Digital format, which was used for the release of Batman Returns in 1992. Sony debuted their own digital format called SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) in the summer of 1993, with the release of the Schwarzenegger turkey Last Action Hero. Given the involvement of Spielberg, it was hardly a surprise that Jurassic Park was chosen for the format’s debut and the installation of a DTS processor was a requirement of exhibiting the film. As Spielberg’s dinosaur juggernaut swept all before it that year, DTS went from strength to strength, eventually being supported in over 30,000 cinemas worldwide.
In 2008, the cinema division of DTS was divested to form DTS Digital Cinema whilst the rest of the company remained as DTS and concentrated on licensing DTS products in the home consumer market. In 2008, DTS Digital Cinema was bought by Datasat and became known as Datasat Digital Entertainment. Datasat is a British company founded by owner Phil Emmel, which found success installing secure satellite networks in places like the London Stock Exchange and British, Irish and New Zealand embassies all over the world.
Spielberg felt that theatrical sound formats were no longer capable of delivering the fidelity required for modern movies
At the beginning of 2011 the DTS Cinema branding was dropped in favour of the new Datasat Digital Sound branding and now all film credits, posters and trailers will include the Datasat logo. As part of the rebranding, Datasat have created a trailer called Crop Circles, which will be shown in cinemas to help promote the new name and they are keen to stress that many of the original DTS employees still work at Datasat. Whilst DTS no longer has any connection to cinema sound systems, it will continue to use the DTS name for home consumer products such as DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on Blu-rays.
What makes Datasat different from the other theatrical digital sound formats is that rather than including the soundtrack on the film itself, the format uses a time code on the film to sync the image with the audio which is stored on CD-ROMs. If you look at the photograph above, it shows a close-up section of 35mm film, with all the different audio formats optically imaged onto the film. To the left of the sprocket holes is the SDDS soundtrack, between the sprocket holes is the Dolby Digital soundtrack, to the right of the sprocket holes is the analogue optical soundtrack and to the far right is the Datasat time code. We were able to watch a film being run in one of Datasat’s screening rooms without the aperture plate on the projector, which means we could see the entire frame with the all the soundtracks and the time code running along the edges. The use of a time code and a CD-ROM, makes a Datasat soundtrack far more robust than the competition, whose soundtracks can become damaged due to wear and tear on the film itself. However, with Datasat, as long as the time code is intact, the audio can remain pristine no matter how many times the film is shown.
Since quality is so vital to the concept of a Datasat soundtrack, they take the creation of these CD-ROMs very seriously. When the soundtrack masters are received from the studio, they are initially listened to in Datasat’s quality control studio to ensure there are no obvious problems. If a possible error is found it is listened to in detail to decide whether it is part of the sound design or a mistake. Any issues that are discovered are reported back to the studio prior to being corrected. The quality control studio only has speakers setup in a 5-1 configuration, there is no display so that the engineer can concentrate on the sound without being distracted by pictures. Once this quality check is complete, the multi-channel Datasat audio is recorded in a compressed form onto a CD-ROM at a bit rate of 882 kbits/s and uses a fixed compression ratio of 4:1. The Datasat time code on the 35mm print identifies the film title which is matched to the individual Datasat CD-ROMs, guaranteeing that the film cannot be played with the wrong disc.
The CD-ROMs can then be played back with the 35mm film in the screening room to ensure that there are no issues with the recording, the compression or the time code. At this point any other features like subtitles or descriptive audio for the visually impaired can be added. After a film’s theatrical release, a copy of its soundtrack CD-ROM is stored in the archive room at Datasat’s facility. It was quite a thrill to walk into the archive room and be surrounded by the soundtrack to every major film made in the last 20 years. There was so much history at our finger tips, from the groundbreaking Jurassic Park to the sonic assault of Saving Private Ryan, right up to more recent soundtracks like John Carter.
The RS20i, was redesigned from the ground up to bring uncompromised cinema sound into the home
The AP20 is the latest Datasat cinema processor and it represents the state-of-the-art in terms of digital signal processing, utilising six Analog Devices 400MHz DSPs. The AP20 offers 16 channels of digital and 8 channels of analogue inputs, coupled with 16 digital and 16 analogue channels of output. If that isn’t enough, the AP20 also has active loudspeaker crossovers and each of the 16 channels has 31 bands of 3rd octave equalisation and 3 bands of parametric equalisation. The AP20 also includes the Dirac Live room optimisation technology which uses digital room correction technology to improve the audience’s experience by correcting for room nodes and anomalies using high resolution filter technology. Datasat have a full 30-seat cinema in their Twyford facility which includes both 35mm and digital projectors, along with the AP20 and all their legacy processors. Phil and I were treated to a demo reel, including Datasat’s new Crop Circles trailer and the audio was very impressive, with precise imaging of sounds and some staggeringly deep bass.
Although the AP20 is obviously aimed at the commercial cinema market, Datasat were constantly receiving inquiries from individuals looking to buy it for their home cinemas. So, using the AP20 as their starting point, Datasat decided to create the RS20i, which was redesigned from the ground up to really bring cinema sound into the home. First of all the RS20i has had a make over, moving the display to the centre and incorporating a more consumer friendly design. Unlike the AP20, the RS20i also includes four 1.4a HDMI inputs and one 1.4a HDMIoutput, which allows it to handle 3D video content, although the RS20i does no video processing, passing the video untouched. The RS20i includes all the consumer audio codecs including DTS-HD Master Audio and in August it will add Dolby TrueHD, which is missing from the AP20 for obvious reasons. There are also memory profile settings and extensive automation controls, so once configured it is easy to manage through your smartphone, iPad or laptop.
Despite the changes, the RS20i still retains all the technical elements that make the AP20 such a powerful tool and the result is one of the most adaptable and flexible processors currently available. Stephen Field took Phil and myself through the training presentation for the RS20i but even then we were only able to scratch the surface of the RS20i configurations but I think it’s safe to say that the RS20i will be a tweaker’s dream. However the touchpad screen is very informative, making the RS20i quite intuitive to use, despite its complexity and Datasat’s use of easy to follow graphics makes setup straightforward even for a novice. Since all the processing is done via software, upgrading and customising the RS20i is relatively easy and because Datasat is quite a small company, they can respond quickly to customer requests. The RS20i even has expansion ports at the back which means it can be upgraded to any future hardware changes, making it reasonably future proof.
Along with a 30-seat professional cinema, screening room and quality control studio, Datasat also have a home cinema demo room at their facility. This room is designed to replicate a high end home cinema installation and is used to demonstrate the RS20i processor and any other consumer products that Datasat develop. It was in here that Phil and I got another chance to hear the RS20i processor in action. We’d actually heard the RS20i before at Genesis Technologies but we were equally as impressed the second time around. The processor's cinema heritage shone through with a sound that had both clarity and fidelity. The tonality of the speakers was well matched, so the precise localisation of sounds and well integrated bass resulted in an immersive experience, without the sound ever becoming overbearing.
And what of the future? Well, there is currently a great deal of development in what is sometimes referred to as3D Sound. Datasat’s new 3D sound technology is a joint venture with Barco, who have branched out from their projector origins to become a global technology company. Barco holds an exclusive license to the Auro 11.1technology developed by Galaxy Studios to deliver the next-generation sound format for the cinema industry. The idea is to use additional height speakers that turn conventional cinema audio into a full 3D sound experience, with sounds coming from all around and above the listener.
Barco partnered with Datasat to create the audio processor that sits at the heart of the Auro3D System. Working closely with Barco and other organisations involved in the Auro3D project, Datasat developed the AP243D, a 24 channel audio processor that is designed along three spatial axes (width, depth and height) rather than the two axes found in traditional surround sound. This is achieved by adding additional height speakers for left, centre, right and the two surrounds, as well as a 'Director's Voice' speaker above the seating position to create an 11.1-channel setup for a more immersive listening experience. Ever at the cutting edge when it comes to new technology, Lucasfilm were the first to create an 11.1 mix for a theatrical film, with the release of Red Tails earlier this year. Today, over 100 screens have been equipped with Auro3D 11.1 system making it the leading premium cinema sound format worldwide.
This certainly sounds like an interesting development for the professional market but whether it will be accepted in the consumer market, where most men have enough trouble convincing their wives to tolerate six or eight speakers, remains to be seen. What we can say is that thanks to Datasat, the legacy of DTS certainly has a bright future, both in the cinema and at home.
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