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Now and Next for the BBC

BBC R&D audio head Frank Melchior talks to Kevin Hilton about the broadcaster's sound showcase

What is heard and seen on television and radio is the direct result of hours of research and development (R&D) by specialist engineers and researchers in the rarefied confines of laboratories and research centres. Traditionally there has been a divide between these institutions and the people who actually use what they produce, but the speed of progress and implementation is pulling down some of the barriers. “We need to get a feel for the real world and a sense of where things might go,” observes Frank Melchior, head of the audio research team and the Audio Research Partnership at BBC R&D.

He was speaking on the first day of the ‘Sound: Now and Next’ event held at New Broadcasting House in London on 19 and 20 May. The aim was to highlight “innovation in sound production and broadcasting”, allowing delegates – including sound engineers in TV, radio, music and games production from across Europe – to see current technologies and discuss where they might go in the future.

The event included sessions on live broadcast sound, immersive audio, responsive and interactive content and a well-received presentation by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson, who shared recordings of his work in the Antarctic. There was also a mini-trade fair featuring Fairlight, Fraunhofer and the University of Southampton, among other academic centres. (A full report will appear in the July edition of PSNEurope.) Melchior (pictured right) says the aim was to get input and reaction from those attending as much as show the fruits of research.

“We have to get over to technologists and researchers things like where to put microphones for some of these new technologies because there is no reference point and they need to know about the constraints of the real world,” he explains. “Research engineers can make a product perfect [in technological terms] but it also needs to be small enough to take to the Antarctic.”

A recurring subject during the two-day event was immersive audio, which BBC R&D, the other participants in the BBC Audio Research Partnership and institutions such as Fraunhofer have been working on for several years. This research has seen the re-emergence of older technologies like binaural and Ambisonics to satisfy a growing requirement for a more realistic sound experience to go with gaming, virtual reality systems and ultra-HD TV. “There is no standard for immersive as yet,” says Melchior, “so we are working with universities on that as well as pushing binaural through tests with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, where listeners can be in front of the brass section.”

Melchior adds that consumer trends are creating an almost ready-made audience for immsersive sound: “People using earbuds and headphones is one of the biggest opportunities for this technology. That’s why we’re putting so much into binaural. It’s not new but it is groundbreaking, especially now that headphone wearing is almost a cool thing rather than weird, as it was 30 years ago.”

Being at a predominantly sound oriented event understandably gave a sense that this was a medium in the ascendant but Melchior agreed that there was now more awareness and understanding of audio. “There is still the attitude that sound comes at the end of a production,” he says, “but there is so much power that comes from audio. There are now object-based and immsersive technologies. I remember when 5.1 was new, but now there is so much more that can be done.”

Melchior does not see old formats being left behind. BBC R&D is working on stereo to address the needs of the established audience, with new technologies like object-based adding more in the way of foreground and background to improve intelligibility and speech levels.

While Melchior says the Now and Next event would give a sense of what was coming from the BBC, he wouldn’t be drawn into any speculation on future sound. “I don’t get into projection,” he concluded. “There might be a surprise coming round the corner.”