Who’s to Blame for the Dolby Ripoff?

April 13, 2010 at 12:47 am | Posted in Audio, Digital, Dolby, Movies, science, TV | Leave a comment
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Dolby Digital. You know that term don’t you? You see it at the theatres, on your DVD boxes and DVD labels, on the Home-Theater-In-A-Box that you bought for some holiday or just before the “Big Football Thing”.

Oh yes, the thrill of surround sound. Helicopters flying all around, spraying bullets. Explosions that wake the neighbors because you haven’t figured out how to turn on the late-night-mode yet…hooking up all the wires…but that’s a different rant.

This rant is about that damned Dolby logo on all of your components. For those of you that have cable or satellite Set Top Boxes (STBs) and Audio Video Receivers (AVRs) you know the logo. Its probably blazing at you every time you power on the receiver or its buried in some menu on the STB. Yes – that Dolby logo. Maybe it says Dolby Digital, maybe it says Dolby Pro Logic, or PLII or some other similar thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a Dolby fan. Long-time fan. Of a lot of their stuff. Not all of it, but a lot of it. This is aimed at whoever might be in charge of thinking we are all idiots and don’t know the difference between Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Digital. Maybe the people in charge of broadcasting assume we won’t notice that they are sending us only 2 channels of Dolby Digital instead of the 5.1 mix. Maybe they don’t realize that we have fancy LED/LCD/VFD screens on our gear that tell us all kinds of amazing things and that some of us actually can read them in addition to being able to hear out of both ears and spatially locate audio sources using them.

Zip – Pow – Bang. “Wow – did you see that?” The thing whizzed from right to left and crashed in two places behind me at once. How weird is that? Not too weird if you are taking a stereo broadcast and converting it to surround sound using the magic of Dolby Pro Logic. Thats what it is supposed to sound like. Mono rear channels. Ok…I’ll accept that for a 25 year old VHS tape. But wait, I’m not watching a VHS tape. I’m watching TV. Prime time television in 2010. WTF?

Let’s look to see if we can find out what our ears are telling us. This is a network show, maybe even a movie channel. It is a recent movie that will surely have the DD and probably DTS logo at the end of the credits…so what gives? Look at your receiver. Is the Dolby Digital indicator on? Yes? What about Dolby Pro Logic? Yes? WTF? Change the channel and then change right back. Did your receiver flash some cryptic thing like Dolby Digital 2/0? Have you noticed when you watch a good DVD that it flashes some other cryptic thing like Dolby Digital 3/2? That’s your clue, America.

Someone, somewhere in the broadcast chain is screwing us a lot of the time. Is it the network, a local affiliate? Cable company? Satellite broadcaster? A repeater on a mountain top somewhere? I don’t know. I want to know, though.

Back to that cryptic message – 2/0 is the key there. That means you are receiving 2 channels of front audio and no channels of anything else. No Center, No rears, No LFE (subwoofer or Low Frequency Effects). Stereo. So three decades ago. Really? Oh it gets better. It is “Dolby Digital Stereo”. That means it is probably not even as good as regular old analog stereo because it is compressed to some degree. A decent Beta tape from back in the day had audio this good.

But wait – it said 2/0, which I said was only stereo, but you still had surround sound. How can that be? Your equipment “fell back” to Dolby Pro-Logic and simulated the extra channels. It was smart enough to realize something crashed somewhere – it made it happen behind you – equally on the left and right regardless of whether it happened on the left OR the right. Had you been watching a DVD in Dolby Digital 3/2 (three fronts and 2 surrounds) then that crash would have probably only happened on one side, if that’s what the movie’s visuals indicated.

There’s a lot to this – and I’m not going to get into it all…but I wanted everyone to know that just because they spend a bunch of time setting everything in their system up correctly – doesn’t mean you are really hearing it as well as you could be. It’s not always your fault if surround sound isn’t always all it is cracked up to be. Sometimes, someone, somewhere is taking a perfectly good show that was recorded in High-Def, mixed and mastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, and jacking up the signal so that somehow you are only getting a “stereo” mix of that. Why? I don’t know. Who? Dunno. Where? Dunno.

If I was an audio engineer on a show being produced in 5.1, or a broadcaster, or a Dolby consultant, or a network exec…I’d be asking these questions to everyone in the broadcast chain. I would want some answers and accountability. Watching TV is getting expensive, the economy sucks, technology gets better every day and people are getting more educated about things like Dolby and its technologies – so why, in 2010 are we getting downmixed “stereo” broadcasts? If it was recorded in 5.1, and someone took the time to encode into a Dolby bitstream, why are they dropping 3 channels?

If I am going to get 2 channels from the source and use Dolby Pro to simulate the surrounds and the center – then I’m going to turn off the Dolby bitstream and use PCM stereo. At least that won’t be compressed, so theoretically I should get better sound into the DSP. Right?

Ok, That’s all for now. If you have comments, suggestions or just found this thru a search – leave a comment and say something!

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