in: News & Features

November 3, 2011

To HD Or Not To HD

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Last year when I attended a Met HD Broadcast at the Regal Fenway Theaters, I was disappointed that the image was projected using the OSA (On Screen Advertisements) projector rather than the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) projector. The result was a dim fuzzy image with blown highlights. That experience has prompted me to investigate alternative options for experiencing the MET in HD in the greater Boston area.

Pre-show screen shot from Showcase Revere f4.5 at 1/2 second ISO 3200 (BMInt staff photo)

I learned that that Fenway may have made the decision to use a lesser projector because the DCI (“main act” digital cinema initiative projector) projectors are subsidized by the distributors and the studios and are sometimes restricted as to the content for which they can be used.

Since an average digital projector costs over $100,000 versus $20,000 for a 35-mm projector, the theaters, which are not paying for their prints, have no incentive to make the conversion without a subsidy. The distributors and studios, on the other hand, will save  $2,500 per print, multiplied by the thousands of prints required by theaters every year because digital images are presented on inexpensive, reusable hard drives rather than on film. That gives distributors and studios a substantial incentive to encourage the equipping of theaters with digital projectors through cash subsidies. In some cases those relationships also have imposed  certain restrictions on use of the DCI projectors.

Asked whether she could say what projectors Regal will be using for future Met HD broadcasts, the spokesman from its corporate office, Michelle Portillo, wrote, “Per our conversation this morning, I inquired about your projector questions and that information cannot be released.” Because of that non-disclosure policy patrons can have no way of knowing what to expect from the Regal chain.

By contrast, the Showcase Cinema Revere’s very responsive manager, explained that every one of their theaters is equipped with Sony SRX-R320 SXRDs. With 4096×2304 pixel count, these are capable of twice the resolution sent out by the Met via satellite (1900 x 1080). The  contrast rating of the Sony projector is 2000:1. In the case of Revere, there is also no issue with 3D lenses being left on projectors at inappropriate times, a practice that can cut the brightness in half, as has been exposed by a recent Boston Globe article by Ty Burr. According to the manager, screens 5 and 10, where Met broadcasts take place, are never used for 3D, though the Revere Cinema chain claims never to leave the 3D lenses in place for 2D movies on their other screens. He went on to say:

At Revere three out of 20 screens can still handle 35 mm film, though there is no advantage to it. The images from the Sony 4K projectors are better in every way, and you don’t have the aggravation of seeing dirt and scratches. We don’t have that headache any more, thank goodness. The films are delivered to us on small hard drives, so that cost of freight is miniscule compared to film, and we don’t need to splice the reels onto large platters or employ an army of projectionists. We have only one now, for twenty screens. The Met Broadcasts come to us through satellite. Though those broadcasts are only 2K, I guarantee that we will always use our DCI projectors for them.

For creature comforts there are also soft drinks and box lunches served before the movie within the auditorium. There’s also a pleasant restaurant with a full liquor license which attracts some patrons who don’t even bother to stay for a movie. We’ll probably never offer reserved seats, since that would encourage people to arrive later and not buy food and drink.  Also we have acres of free parking.

Tony Beadle, executive director Rockport Music (BMInt staff photo)

Another favorite Met HD site for BMInt readers is the Shalin Liu center in Rockport. As most of us know, this establishment is much more visually and acoustically sumptuous than a commercial cineplex. BMInt learned the following from executive director Tony Beadle.

Generally it’s safe to simply show up for one of our Met HD broadcasts, but like so much of classical music, attendance is driven by what’s on the program. In our experience, Italian opera sells very well, Wagner sells very well. For other operas we have to do a little extra work. Overall attendance has been very good and well beyond our expectations. We don’t sell every seat in the house since some of them, though excellent for a concert, have obstructed views of the screen. We sell about 280 seats out of 350.

We sell reserved seats at three different prices. This is one of our major differentiators from the presentations at conventional cinemas. We get a lot of people coming up from Boston who like to be assured that they have seats reserved for them. They don’t have to arrive two hours early and put their coats on chairs. But they can also come early and reserve a table for lunch on our third floor. We also offer pre-opera lectures. Parking is also free in Rockport after the third week in October. And yes, we do serve wine and beer on the third floor at lunch and we have great snacks at intermission.

We’re particularly proud of our image and sound quality. When we were designing Shalin Liu we knew we were going to be doing video presentations and we wanted the best. After you finish with me you ought to talk with David Shriver, our AV expert.   And we also had a recent consultation from classical sound expert Steve Colby of Evening Audio Consultants to optimize our surround sound. The surround sound comes directly from the Met feed which arrives in 5.1. We’re not creating an artificial surround. It comes from microphones in the auditorium at the Met.

David Shriver, Rockport’s technical director told BMInt more technical details about their venue.

We have a German very high end sound installation from D & B Audio Technik. The three speaker systems above the screen were supplemented by four channels of D & B speakers on tripods in our first year. This was not entirely convincing, so we hired Steve Colby to come up with a permanent surround sound system that sounds good in virtually every seat. He encouraged us to stay with D & B for the surround, but was also sensitive to the need to install speakers that were aesthetically pleasing. We did not want to alter the look of the hall [in the manner that has just been done with speakers at Symphony Hall]. We bought 6 model E-8 speakers for orchestra left and right in the front and rear, and for the balcony left and right. We also were careful to adjust the delays digitally to make sure no one was hearing arriving sound from the surrounds before hearing the sound from the mains. Every speaker is driven by a D & B MB D-6 amp. Each amp is driven from our London Sound Web DSPs (digital sound processor) which are in turn fed from our Integra decoder.

In terms of speaker placement,  because of the famous glass wall at the back of our stage, it’s not possible to install speakers directly behind the screen as is normally the case, but I believe the above-the-screen positioning of the main speakers is actually very advantageous for film. You definitely get the feeling that the dialog comes from the screen. We’ve done some clever things with the aiming and fill speakers to make sure that the sound field is consistent through the house.

Our projector is a Panasonic Pt D10000DW  three-chip DLP which produces 10,000 lumens with a 5,000:1 contrast ratio. From the beginning, since we knew that video was going to be important, we didn’t blanch at spending $40,000 on a very good projector. It isn’t in a totally soundproof booth, but we are currently working on moving the fans out of the auditorium. At this point those seated in the back couple of rows can hear the projector in very quiet moments. This will be improved very soon.”

Screen shot from Shalin Liu Center f4.5 at 1/40 sec, ISO 1600 (BMInt staff photo)

The picture at Shalin Liu is much brighter than those in cineplexes. I measured 4 stops more brightness from the screen shots I took. It’s true that the Sony 4ks in use at Fenway are 18,000 lumens compared to Rockport’s 10,000 lumens, but the screen at Revere is 4 times the size: (40 x 25 vs 20 x 12.) So the brightness advantage of Revere’s projector is dissipated over the much larger surface area of their screen. I would also observe qualitatively that Shalin Liu’s image quality benefits from the better contrast ratio of their projector.  The black level also appears deeper than at Revere.

So what’s BMInt’s recommendation? In my opinion at the best theaters, such as Rockport, the image is as good as a BluRay of a well produced opera on a top home theater system. This is less true at the larger cinemas since the same amount of information used to create the picture on one’s 50 inch home display is spread over a 40 – 50 foot image at a large theater. So if one sits too close, the image does not appear sharp. And in favor of watching at home there is also the availability of many excellent discs. Opus Arte alone has 59 operas on BluRay. And there are also many opportunities for streaming opera. Yet most individuals do not have top home theater systems. Furthermore, watching a recorded performance at home, though certainly convenient, is not a substitute for a live broadcast in a well equipped theater full of pumped-up senior citizens. Our recommendation then, is to go to Rockport if the drive is not too onerous. Otherwise we suggest Showcase Revere as the next most satisfying venue.

16 Comments

  1. Thanks, Lee for the overview. What surprises me is that MET does not regulated all these things.  As far as I understand it is as close as possible for being something like a frenchise and MET shell in my view regulate what is the minimum acceptable requirement for video and sound presentation are. The few performances that I attended were horrible from both video and audio perspective and frankly it was one of the reasons why I gave up the MET in HD events. It however shall not be this way and certainly the attending experience must not fluctuate so great from theater to theater. Those MET broadcast people really know what they do and MET their lawyers need to enforce any participating service providers to hold some kind of minimum required common denominator of both video and audio quality.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm

  2. Gosh! I hope this doesn’t bring a flood of additional opera lovers to Revere. The place has been nearly sold out every time I’ve been there so far (and that includes last night’s “encore” of “Anna Bolena,” except for the seats in the front, which are too close to the screen).

    While we’re talking about the Met in HD, I’ll also add that last nights show was not too loud, and the close-ups did not reach the level of wretched excess of “Nixon in China.” In fact, there was a good measure of ensemble shots.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 4, 2011 at 12:02 am

  3. In normal use, the DCI projection equipment in a movie theatre receives 24-frame-per-second (film standard) video from a hard disk. The Met HD-casts are 30-frames-per-second (video standard) and come into the theatre via satellite. The theatre is normally set up to feed that sort of video-style content–like ads for local businesses–through their OSA gear, and so it’s easiest to display the Met shows the same way. Someone at the theatre has to care enough to change the settings to allow the Met (and other HD-cast events like LA Phil Live) to be shown on the higher-quality equipment; the non-response you got from the Regal Fenway folks suggests that they don’t care.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of contractual restrictions on the DCI equipment, but merely convenience in setup that has put Met HD-casts on-screen with inferior equipment in inferior quality. One theatre that has changed in this regard is AMC Framingham, which used to have terrible projection quality for the Met and is now admirable. Another advantage of AMC Framingham is a good sound system, and since opera is a musical as well as visual medium, I pay attention to sound as well. The Revere cinema has had good picture and decent sound in its main Met room, but I was once shunted into an overflow theatre there with painfully bad sound for a popular Met event.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — November 4, 2011 at 11:56 am

  4. I’m glad Steve added his testimonial about Framingham. I excluded it only because it’s outside Rt 128.

    I have multiple confirmations about the sometimes contractual restrictions on the use of the DCI projectors.

    In some cases now the advertising is also run on the DCI projectors, This is especially the case when the distribution is through the NCN Fathom satellite service which can also provide the Met broadcasts. Some theaters get their Met feeds from BY Experience.

    The point is, though, patrons should be able to know in advance what they are going to see,

     

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm

  5. On the basis of this article, I went to the Shalin Liu performance center for Saturday’s Met in HD “Siegfried”.  The opening of the first act was a mess…what patrons heard was the surround sound only.  It appeared to be fixed a few minutes in.  The rest of the first act was too loud, and the second act was only ok.  Then the third act came on and the sound was glorious.  I checked the BCCLS opra listserv and nobody from elsewhere reported any such problems at the source. I’d appreciate any info on what actually happened.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — November 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

  6. Laurence- I will ask Rockport’s Tony Beadle to respond.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 6, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  7. The Met broadcasts come to us on a satellite system that includes a HD video signal and a 5.1 surround sound audio mix. The 5.1 is broken down as follows:

    Left front
    Center
    right front
    left surround
    right surround
    subwoofer (for very low notes)

    Typically, the Met broadcasts the orchestra from the left and right front channels, the singers mostly come from the center channel and the surround channels are fed by mikes placed in the hall at the Met.

    On Saturday, it was apparent that we were not hearing the center channel. Our challenge was to try to find out where the breakdown was, either from the Met or our own equipment while not interrupting the opera. We discovered that the center channel was coming through our subwoofer, and that the subwoofer signal was coming through the center. In other words they were switched. We have no idea how this could have happened on our end and we are not sure that the Met is responsible, or that it might be the satellite signal company or some other entity. We were able to rectify it on our end so that the two switched channels were again being heard in their correct configuration.

    The Met is broadcast by different companies across the USA and abroad. The movie theaters that run the Met use a different satellite and system from a company that is different than the one that provides is for performing arts centers like the Shalin Liu Performance Center. That may explain why there was no other complaints. Of course, it may ultimately prove to be our own equipment, but it did not appear that way and once we found the switch of the channels it was easy to temporarily fix it.

    As to volume, there are variables in the sound transmission level from opera to opera and so we must adjust the level at the beginning of each performance. There is no preset. Alas, that is very subjective and we will never satisfy all patrons.

    But we try.

    Comment by Tony Beadle — November 6, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  8. Opera lovers in the Worcester area will be glad to know that the Blackstone Valley 12 cineplex in Millbury does an excellent job with their Met HD presentations. They even offer wine and cheese from a min-bar off to the side!
     

    Comment by Brian Moriarty — November 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm

  9. It is kind of surprise to me that MET does not enforce or perform any quality control and does not entrench any rudimental quality standards into their re-broadcast license. Lucasfilm did it years back with their pre-THX and for a few first years it was very effective.  I primary stopped going to MET HD events because of the horrible sound and barbaric video (Framingham theater) . Let agree that this shall not be the reasons why MET HD loose customers. If they do not exist then it is long due for MET to set sound and video specifications with which all theater must comply.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 6, 2011 at 10:19 pm

  10. I attend the HD performances at The Strand Theatre in Rockland, Maine.  I find the quality very good, but the sound very loud, louder than at the Real thing. It’s loud like that at the three theatres I have attended until now. I asked the manager why the sound so so much louder than at the MET itself, and she gave me a long answer, explaining how the sound came in and was set at that level by the MET.  No, I don’t remember all she said, or even understand, in the end why it has to be that loud. She did say that even when they tried to turn it down on their equipment, it did not good and sounded the same.  I do know, that when the overture began tonight at the MET in NYC,  the sound was less than in the movies, and it took a while to get used to the live sound again. 

    Wonderful being at The Real Thing.

    Comment by Leslie Miller — November 8, 2011 at 3:09 am

  11. Leslie, the answer that the manager gave to you was of most likely bogus, nevertheless the whole subject of volume setting might be exceedingly complicated and in most cases above the comprehending of a theatre manager. From another prospective to sit in there for 2 hours being harassed by overly-loud and in most cases overly distorted sound must be painful. So, if the Strand Theatre is your place then you might fix all of it by reporting your feedback to MET. MET broadcast division is truly dedicated and very knowledgeable group of people. They will listen you, they will appoint their technician specialist to deal with your critique and they will assist your local theatre to rectify the problem.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

  12. What makes the Shalin Liu Sound system different from or better than the commercial theaters which are doing the Met HD broadcasts?

    The typical venue for these broadcasts is more acoustically dead than the Shalin Liu. The intent of the producers is to convey a sense of the acoustic space of the Met itself and this is perhaps easier to do in a space that is more neutral than not in terms of reverberation. The challenge of presenting surround sound in the Shalin Liu theater was to create the sonic canvas intended by the Met production team in a space that already has it’s own distinct and satisfying acoustic signature. By carefully choosing surround speakers and placement that concentrated on delivering sound to the audience and minimizing “exciting” the room’s natural reverberation, we think we’ve had some good success.

    There are additional challenges regarding speaker placement, as the facility is a performance center rather than a movie theater where the placement of the speakers can be optimized to compliment the screen position without restriction. However, I think  the strong focus of the Shalin Liu management on great audio quality offsets the impact of these issues. There is a much greater emphasis in maintaining a high benchmark in fidelity than most cinema houses have the ability to provide.

    Does it matter where on sits at Shalin Liu?

    As in any concert hall, with any type of performance live or amplified, the experience will be different in throughout the seating area. The surround experience will the most dramatic if one is seated in the “sweet spot”  where the listener is more or less equidistant from the LCR and a pair of surround speakers. A lot of time has been invested to create the largest sweet spot possible and this would include most of the centrally located seating on the floor and balcony, (where we have created a secondary surround environment).

    This does not mean that other seats are cheated from delivering a satisfying performance, but the balance between direct sound and the surround effect will vary. There is a subjective component of this as well, and I would encourage patrons to try various areas of the theater to discover the balance that is most pleasing to them

    Tell me a bit about you and your company.

    I’m an independent sound designer, mixer and production manager based on the North Shore of Boston. My company, Evening Audio Consultants, specializes in sound mixing for recording, broadcast and live concert sound reinforcement, as well as providing system design, project management and practical solutions for audio issues in control facilities and concert halls.

    Comment by Steve Colby — November 8, 2011 at 9:43 am

  13. I’m the manager/chief projectionist of the Strand Theatre in Rockland, Maine, referenced in a comment above, and would like to respond. I have thirty years’ experience in the operation of theatrical sound equipment, and have also worked extensively in broadcasting,  and am quite familiar with this type of technology. I am personally in the booth for each Met presentation, and am very proud of our quality control. As I explained to Ms. Miller at the performance last week, there are major differences in the way one experiences sound at a live performance and any sort of electricallly-reproduced sound. Electronic sound is always compressed and limited before being transmitted or recorded — run thru processing devices to even out levels and simplify volume control. If compression were not done, peaks in the sound, such as music crescendoes, would be severely distored, because electronic devices are simply not as efficient as the human ear.
    There are also acoustical differences between performance venues — a hall such as the Met, designed for live performance is always going to have different sound characteristics than a venue designed for film/electronic/mechanical sound reproduction. In other words, it’s impossible to exactly reproduce the experience of a live performance under such variables, and I don’t think that’s what the Met is trying to do. What they’re creating is a hybrid, combining the best of both worlds — if you go *expecting* a live experience you’re bound to be disappointed, but if you can understand that what you’re getting is something entirely different, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy it.
    Peter Gelb himself, by the way, is quite familiar with the Strand. He visited us last year for an season-kickoff interview on our stage — and was quite impressed with our sound quality.
    I know this is a highly simplified explanation of a very complicated issue, but be aware that we do listen to our audience’s concerns, and do everything possible to make the experience an enjoyable one.

    Comment by Liz McLeod — November 13, 2011 at 8:41 am

  14. Liz, your spreading fear about “peaks in the sound… would be severely distorted” is very far from reality. If you do spend thirty years in broadcasting then you if not supposed to know better but at least you might propose more lucid explanation. No one argues against compression but there is compression that facilitates delivery of musical message and there is compression that vandalizes it. It is all upon discretion of specific use, and you during your thirty years, I am sure, was able to see that compression used by your ignorant colleges with the same effectiveness as to going hunting and to use a nuclear bomb instead of a hunting raffle.  I found it is a bit peculiar (and highly predictable) that you turn to think about compression and limiting where the conversation was just about volume. I am pretty sure that what you get from MET is compressed, limited and does not need any further processing beside decoding and amplification. MET shall not allow the judgment of local theatre manager to reformat sound of video.

    Anyhow, it is not my objective to argue with what you said. I would like to point out that your qualifications and even your thinking is not the subject of attention. The result of you sitting in that projectionist both is hundreds of Leslie Millers watching and listening the event. If Ms. Millers reports that it was too loud then it is not because she has some kind of agenda or desire to explain anything (as I would have). She reports what she experienced and you can perfectly use her feedback to navigate your judgment.  No one expect going in your theatre and to expect live event experience.  It is about a visitor desire do not experience an elemental human discomfort provoked by your sound. If she reported discomfort than it is an objective fact with which you need to deal.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

  15. I’m leaving a comment here because this was where Google most relevantly led me after a query about Met HD sound distortion.  I watched “The Enchanted Island” yesterday in a theater (near Denver) where I’ve seen many previous Met HD presentations with no reason to complain about the quality of the sound.  But then yesterday there was this band of rather severe distortion around 600 Hz which irritated not only me.  It was present in the live parts of the transmission, but not in the canned parts (such as a tidbit from Siegfried).  The distortion made both Deborah Voigt’s speaking voice and much of the music seem overly loud.
    I did complain to the local theater manager, and there may have been a reduction of volume, but at any rate the distortion did not go away. Did other people around the country notice similar problems yesterday? Is it true as reported stated by the theater manager in Maine that the theater volume is set by the MET and not locally?  And there is mention that the MET’s broadcast division is receptive to inquiries. How do I get in touch with them?

    Comment by Bill Keister — January 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm

  16. Bill, I did not listen last week and I do not have the MET broadcast division phone handy but when I dealt with them 3 years back it was very simple to get in touch with them. Just all to call MET administrative office and tell them they you have problems with your local MET transmission and ask the Broadcast Division manger to talk with. I forgot her name but the lady who runs show in Broadcast Division was very cooperative, despite of my annoying neediness and she was very effective. In my case she put me in touch with one of her engineers who requested make a fragment of off-air recording to send to him. In two weeks as they got the files the problem we had at that time with WHRB was in progress of being fixed. It was after 6 month of me humiliate myself to dealing with WHRB directly and begging them to fix the problem.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 23, 2012 at 7:56 pm

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