Tech Focus: Monitoring for Immersive Audio, Part 1 — Remote Production Gears Up

Lighter weight, smaller sizes, speaker management mark the nascent category

Monitoring audio for the immersive environment is about as niche as you can get when it comes to a category of essential products. Out of hundreds of speaker brands and types, only a relative handful can work effectively in the strict confines of a remote-production environment, and, as with other pieces of critical equipment, a combination of technical quirks and personal preferences has reduced that array even further. Now, as broadcast tentatively enters the immersive-sound era, competition is heating up around which speakers might take advantage of this next disruption in the broadcast-audio market.

JBL’s 7 Series speakers are deployed on NEP’s Denali Yukon mobile unit.

“With this many speakers in a small space and having to adhere to the Dolby [Atmos] spec of 80 dB with 20 dB of headroom, it’s not for the faint of heart,” observes Peter Chaikin, director, recording solutions, JBL brand, Harman Professional. JBL’s 7 Series speaker, now in use in NEP’s Denali Yukon mobile unit, was designed for that type of environment. The compact enclosure around a 5-in. driver in particular is well-suited to a high-SPL speaker in larger arrays, he notes, as is a waveguide that maintains imaging in a wide horizontal listening plane.

Genelec will continue to use self-powered speakers, in which the power amplifier is integrated into the same unit as the transducer, says U.S. Marketing Director Will Eggleston, adding that the brand is moving away from the heavy transformers used in amps and switching to very light amplifier circuits on PCB cards. It’s part of a larger, company-wide reengineering effort, which is not specifically driven by the requirements of immersive sound but does acknowledge the ongoing need to reduce weight aboard production trucks.

“It’s a happy accident” that lighter-weight speakers are coming around at the same time that immersive audio is moving into remote broadcast production, he says. But it also dovetails with the company’s long-range strategy to provide products for whatever monitoring configurations the industry wants: “We took a strong position with 5.1 and 7.1 [surround]. We’ll keep an eye on how the demand for overhead speakers develops, but we have the lighter-weight speakers and the lower-profile mounts that will work for that.”

A Strategic Opportunity
New approaches often produce new product categories or subcategories: the migration to 5.1 surround, for instance, made what had been the luxury of a separate subwoofer and crossover DSP a necessity. Now, with immersive audio’s overhead-speaker array imminent, managing the menagerie of transducers throughout the cramped audio compartments in trucks becomes a new concern.

JBL’s entry into this sweepstakes is its Intonato 24 monitor-management tuning system, which provides automated calibration and comprehensive control of professional monitoring systems, and can control up to 24 speakers configured as stereo, surround, or immersive audio systems.

Chaikin sees immersive sound’s arrival as not only a progressive step in broadcast audio’s evolution but also a strategic opportunity. “It’s not just about selling more speakers but rather about those speakers being a node on a networked system, along with the speakers’ amplifiers and the Intonato 24,” he says. “It’s about fitting these elements into a networked workflow for immersive [sound].”

Genelec has had an automated calibration system available — a combination of its Genelec Loudspeaker Management system (GLM) and Auto-Cal software — for several years, and Eggleston says that those solutions are easily scalable to 5.1+4.

“We don’t have to change the algorithm to accommodate [immersive],” he says. “It might require some [GUI] changes to put the overhead speakers into the plan view, but otherwise it’s ready for immersive.”

Although much of the monitoring infrastructure for immersive audio in remote-production environments will use existing products and some with certain adaptations, speaker manufacturer Blue Sky is developing a completely new product line for immersive monitoring. It’s still in the design stage, but Chris Fichera, VP, Group One Ltd., which markets Blue Sky, says the basic approach is modular, starting with a 2.1-level system using passive speakers powered by card-mounted, solid-state amplifiers; speaker arrays up to 5.1+4 (and, theoretically, beyond) are achieved with additional speaker pairs and amplifier cards. This approach, he explains, will vastly reduce the weight that four more ceiling-mounted, self-powered speakers, and their installation brackets would add to weight-sensitive production trucks. That approach’s new technology would also supersede the Analog/Digital Audio Management Controller (AMC) that Blue Sky has been using as DSP to manage its existing 5.1 monitoring arrays.

“The amplifiers are active and networked, so the speaker management would be done completely with software riding on an iPad,” he explains. “It limits the failure points: if a speaker fails, it’s passive, so just replace it inexpensively; if an amp card fails, just insert a new card. It’s a redundant and organic approach to monitoring, and it can grow as the truck needs to expand.” Fichera says Blue Sky expects to market this system in 2019.

This activity around the actual monitors that will enable immersive sound in the remote-production environment is separate from where and how those speakers are installed in field units. Few production trucks have been fitted with overhead speakers so far. But given the level of effort some broadcast networks are putting into Atmos, that may be the easiest part of the transition to immersive sound.

Click here for Tech Focus: Monitoring for Immersive Audio, Part 2 — Speaker Options for Remote Production
Click here for Tech Focus: Monitoring for Immersive Audio, Part 3 — What Will Drive It for Broadcast?

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