Next Steps in Surround

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There are many facets to broadcasting surround content. Besides choosing a technology, the station's technical staff has to become appropriately educated, suitable monitoring is needed to listen to the content, and the related infrastructure has to be suitably in place. Although many areas of the broadcasting chain can be discussed, I will cover two key areas on either end of the surround-sound broadcasting spectrum. At one end, I'll look at several important aspects of capturing/creating surround content that may not be well known. On the other end, I will touch on several important elements to ensure that surround content can be broadcast successfully (while most certainly improving the stereo and mono content).

Let's start at the tail end of the broadcast/audio chain. A critical step in enabling broadcast surround is ensuring that the facility infrastructure can support it. Do not assume that just because it is seemingly working in stereo that it is ready for surround. It is imperative that the entire broadcast facility (including digital storage systems, analog and digital audio distribution, studio-to-transmitter links (STLs), etc.) can ensure the delivery of audio content with minimal degradation.

Unfortunately, with various digital audio systems integrated with various analog components alongside prosumer equipment, this is an area frequently becoming overlooked. With storage systems, STLs and other systems that may utilize a digital audio codec of one type or another, maintaining audio integrity in a facility has become more complex. Without proper care of the integration of all these systems, audible errors in surround can and will be heard and increased troubleshooting may result.

Don't assume that the facility is surround ready without careful scrutiny over the entire audio path that the content will travel. This becomes critical with surround content as the amount of auditory masking is far less than that used for stereo content. Masking is a property of the human auditory system, where some sounds (or certain aspects of sound) can simply disappear in the presence of other sound(s) with certain characteristics.

With surround content, the sound field is expanded beyond two speakers to five speakers or more placed around the listening position. It becomes much easier for the listener to distinguish auditory information about each sound source in a surround playback system. Sounds that would be previously masked in stereo become easier to discern. Likewise distortion, codec artifacts, poorly implemented and/or aggressive audio processing and other shortfalls in a broadcast audio chain become more apparent in surround than they would with stereo content.

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