Lucasfilm THX and Dolby Unveil Dolby Digital Surround EX

Last week, Lucasfilm THX and Dolby Laboratories Inc. introduced a new co-developed and jointly owned 6.1-channel theatrical surround sound format: Dolby Digital Surround EX. Dolby claims that the new format "redefines the performance parameters of conventional surround-sound technology."

The new format adds a center surround channel for better localization of surround effects. The Surround EX format makes its debut with the May 21, 1999 release of George Lucas's new feature film, Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace. Other upcoming film soundtracks will also be mixed in the new format, including DreamWorks' The Haunting of Hill House and Sony's Memoirs of a Geisha.

According to Dolby, the new format was born out of the frustration that Academy Award-winning sound designer and Director of Creative Operations for Skywalker Sound Gary Rydstrom felt with the current technology. "I wanted audiences to be completely encircled by surround and hear sounds played directly behind them," Rydstrom says. "I wanted to develop a format that would open up new possibilities and place sounds exactly where you would hear them in the real world."

With current surround technology, the sound field in the back of the theater is often perceived as blurred and coming from a general area to the left or right of the auditorium. With Dolby Digital Surround EX, center surround information is reproduced by speakers at the rear of the theater, while left and right surround information is reproduced by speakers on the sides.

Dolby feels that the addition of a new surround channel allows sound designers to create true "fly-over" and "fly-around" effects that are smoother and much more accurately placed. "This new surround technology provides filmmakers with a powerful new creative tool for producing realistic soundtracks," says director George Lucas. "I'm proud that THX and Dolby joined forces to develop this new technology and bring it to the industry."

Dolby says that the Surround EX format is fully compatible with all existing 5.1 digital systems. It only requires the addition of a Dolby SA-10 surround adapter and another channel of amplification along with wiring the rear speakers into left, right, and center groups. There are currently 17,000 Dolby Digital screens and 1500 Dolby Digital titles.