Surround Observations

One of the factors that spurred the crossfade from black and white to color television was the combined ownership of a network and a set manufacturer in NBC and RCA, thus solving the chicken-and-egg problem. Color programming went on the air even if only 0.1 percent of the audience was watching that way. A second was exposure to color. Stores could mount a window display and show off how neat-looking it was, because the portrayal only needed a glimpse through a window to catch the idea. Another was leadership in program production and commercials.
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One of the factors that spurred the crossfade from black and white to color television was the combined ownership of a network and a set manufacturer in NBC and RCA, thus solving the chicken-and-egg problem. Color programming went on the air even if only 0.1 percent of the audience was watching that way. A second was exposure to color. Stores could mount a window display and show off how neat-looking it was, because the portrayal only needed a glimpse through a window to catch the idea. Another was leadership in program production and commercials.

This time around there are parallels. While there's no single big conglomerate driving the change, TV set and professional equipment manufacturers are sponsoring HDTV production to get things off the ground. While it's a little harder to demonstrate surround sound properly than just sticking a set in the window, at least it reaches the public consciousness through movie theaters, and proper presentation there drives the desire to have it at home.

By the end of 2001, Dolby Labs estimates that ten million U.S. households will have a set-top box capable of playing 5.1-channel sound, and that nine million will be equipped with receivers1 having 5.1-channel decoders. That's of a total 105 million households. So penetration of discrete multichannel sound is approaching 10 percent, and of course that demographic represents a financially well-off group, making them a premium target for advertisers. Joining this exclusive club are a huge multiple of that number that have a 2- channel stereo output from a set or set-top box connected to a receiver having a Pro Logic decoder. If you haven't been in a retail store lately, you'd find there is almost no such thing left as a stereo receiver—they're all surround receivers. Using amplitude-phase matrix decoding extracts L, C, R, and S channels from L and R, and once turned on, is rarely turned off since the surround experience is compelling.

If you spent a night listening to a high-quality, calibrated surround system, as I have, you'd hear some interesting things:

1. Commercials are often far better than the programs. Of course, the old way to draw attention was to make it louder than the programs before and after the commercial. Another way to do it though, is to produce the commercial in good surround sound— "opening up" the space. While the mono listener loses the content that comes from the surrounds, that's actually a good thing as it "tames" the mix down to the lowered expectations and capability of mono sets. Just be sure the mix is tailored for mono-stereo- surround compatibility by monitoring it upon production. Commercials produced in surround inserted into television news, for instance, lead to an anomaly. The commercials sound infinitely better than the mono newscasters and field stories. There's actually no simple fix for this, because when will you start producing news in surround? No time soon. Yet it does give one pause, and the commercials an advantage. Perhaps they need it in a world that has hard disc time-shift recorders with "skip 30s" buttons.

2. Synthesized stereo seems antiquated. While at its best it can give some spatialization, there are no discrete events that work, and some that arise out of errors. For instance, the ticking clock on 60 Minutes sounds screwy, as it starts in the left channel, then sweeps to center as the voice comes in, having dragged the first syllable of the voice over to the left.

Is this so everywhere in the country, or only where stereo synths are in use? I don't know, but it is the most audible signature artifact on the air that you can check out every Sunday to see what your local affiliate is doing. It has sounded that way in LA for many years.

3. Some sitcoms "open up" the surrounds far more than others. Those that do open up play the audience reaction mics or constructed laugh track in the surrounds, and I think it sounds really good that way, while others take a much more conservative approach, apparently seeking better mono compatibility.

4. "Magic surrounds," the program content that comes from the surround despite not being specifically placed there, and arising out of phase differences in a stereo mix, occur especially on music, but it is a rather pleasant effect.

A related observation is that the digitization of recorders and distribution plants has helped surround sound because now the two channels of stereo used to carry 4-channel content match each other supremely well, which leads to many fewer surround "errors." Since an additive and subtractive matrix is involved, a stereo pair is actually more sensitive to differences when used to carry LtRt coded four-channel content than just stereo.

In the sense of a combined pre-amplifier and power amplifier, and usually including an AM/FM tuner, but not including a television tuner.