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Digital audio

From portable digital recorders and surround sound for video to DVD-audio, new mics, digital audio mixers and other audio tools, this year’s show had it all. Approximately 500 audio companies, large and small, had their new and established tools ready for all to see. NAB claimed attendance was higher than last year, but this year’s show seemed more ho-hum. Indeed, the aisles seemed barren. With the economy still in a slump and new digital technology for television coming over the hill, more than one vendor indicated they thought attendees were waiting to upgrade audio because of bigger issues (although none wanted to go on the record). That may be, but the American consumer is driving increased emphasis on audio fidelity. More of them are hooking their TVs and VCRs up to stereos and surround systems than ever before.

Broadcasters’ attitudes are peculiar. Consumer demand for better audio has never been higher -- 5.1 surround sound units are one of the most popular home additions, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Consumers are favoring 5.1 audio playback systems even more than HDTV, so making sure programming content is surround-ready is a safe bet. It is a bit perplexing, then, that at NAB both exhibitors and attendees said their purchasing plans did not include audio this year. Perhaps with the digital transition upon us, broadcasters have put audio on the back burner?

Be that as it may, there were lots of new products (and the refinement of existing technologies – such as MXF and MPEG-4) for audio at this year’s show. There were also lots of educational opportunities. For example, audio expert John Travis showed attendees how to use Digidesign’s ProTools software for advanced dialogue and ambiance sound editing, noise reduction, and 5.1/7.1 surround sound in three different seminars. There was also a new “Sound Operators Workshop” area on the show floor itself, where anyone could take dry audio sources and learn proper EQ and mixing techniques from on-hand experts.

All the educational opportunities were almost enough to make one forget that the NAB gear-fest is where broadcasters come to demo and purchase new equipment. Space doesn't allow us to cover all of the new products being shown, but here are some representative highlights. SRS showed a 6.1-channel matrix surround encoder for Digidesign’s new 6.4 ProTools software, allowing users not only to encode up to 6.1 channels of audio, but also precisely monitor what the audience will hear through a real-time decoder built right into the software.

One of the most interesting displays was put on by Dolby Laboratories. It showcased its new Dolby Digital Plus technology, which is part of the Enhanced AC-3 digital television standard. Expanding Dolby’s traditional noise reduction capability, the new standard is designed to meet the four main qualifications of a next-generation broadcast audio codec: spectrum efficiency, backward compatibility, cost savings, and compatibility with future audio and video formats. According to the company, the technology is less complex and requires fewer changes to the existing broadcasting infrastructure than other codecs, making it more economical. As usual, Dolby also offered numerous other demonstrations of new technologies. Sound Devices came to NAB2004 with a broad line of field audio production mixers, line amps, recorders and accessories. The new 722 and 744T portable audio recorders showcased file-based audio acquisition recording to two recording media -- a hard drive and/or a Compact Flash card. Meanwhile, the 302 field mixer’s light weight, extensive control and good audio performance was a hit, especially with the ENG crowd.

Wohler Technologies showed its new AMP2-S8MDA multichannel rack-mounted audio monitor and converter with dual-mode HD/SD-SDI inputs. Two SDI inputs, with standard BNC connections, can accept either an HD SDI or a standard SDI input. This unit isn't just an audio monitor; it also provides powerful demuxing capabilities with eight channels of analog, as well as AES audio out directly from the dual-mode inputs.

For audio professionals who didn’t make the show, NAB was a missed opportunity. 2004 is turning out to be a year of significant change, both for audio production and TV. Not only is the transition to digital television accelerating, but the change to digital audio acquisition is complete, and the American viewing public will no longer sit still for poor audio. From educational seminars and expert panel discussions to the latest in production and television audio products, digital audio has never sounded better!

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a journalist, entertainer and a contributing writer with Video Systems magazine.

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