Surround-sound technology explained

Revised textbook of Tomlinson Holman, a developer of Lucas' THX Sound, provides an in-depth overview of surround sound for recording professionals and home theater enthusiasts alike.

The first time I met Tomlinson Holman was in the late 1970s, when he was in the high-end audio business. He designed electronics but went on to bigger and better things when he developed THX Sound for Lucasfilm. Later, I heard his experimental 10.2 channel sound system, and I came away with a whole new appreciation of his genius. Tom Holman is Mr. Surround Sound.

His newly revised book, Surround Sound, Up and Running provides an extensive overview on the subject. It was written for recording engineers and producers, but technically inclined home theater enthusiasts will gain new insight into how surround sound came to be.

Surround sound has been around in one form or another since 1940, the year Disney released the movie Fantasia. After that multichannel's history has been a series of false starts and doomed formats, and Holman covers them all. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind initiated the modern surround era.

The chapter on Saving Private Ryan cites specific examples of how a sound mix is designed and conceived. Director Steven Spielberg wanted to keep the battle shots close-up and claustrophobic--the sound was used to put us in the midst of the battles.

The sound crew at the Skywalker Ranch recorded a full set of World War II-era weapons. On the Omaha Beach scenes the German defenses are mixed to the right and from the surround channels; the Americans from the front and left channels. Surround was used to track the sound of artillery shells whizzing by. The storytelling aspects of the film are heightened by the surround sound.

Holman covers multichannel microphone techniques, monitoring, speaker placement guidelines, audio coding, and psychoacoustics in depth. He has less to say about Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS Master Audio; I wish that he fleshed out these newest technologies a bit more.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.


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