My first contact with Dolby Atmos sound took place in 2012, in room 9 of the Cinesa Diagonal Mar complex, in Barcelona. However, the moment I found out in some detail how does this technology work encoding and reproduction of surround sound came three years later, in May 2015. On this last date I had the opportunity to visit the Best Digital sound and dubbing studio, which is located in Boadilla del Monte, a quiet town on the outskirts of from Madrid.
There I discovered the two main hallmarks of Dolby Atmos. The first of these is that it operates with objects, a strategy that puts enormous creative capacities in the hands of artists who work with sound. To understand what an object is, we can simply imagine it as a sound emitting source. In a movie sequence we can see several tens of objects simultaneously on the screen, and all of them can be emitting sound at the same time.
Atmos is capable of managing this, but it does not do so in the same way that other audio encoding technologies, such as Dolby Digital or DTS, resolve it. Instead of worrying about determining which channel each sound should be output through, filmmakers and engineers work with a three-dimensional virtual space that represents the physical room in which the film is going to be projected, and with which they interact through a computer.
What they see are objects, or point sources of sound emission, and they can move them around the entire exhibition room with absolute freedom, in a truly three-dimensional space and without being forced to think about audio channels at any time. However, and this is the second hallmark of Atmos, to accurately recreate the immersive soundstage that has been previously encoded using this technology requires multiple speakers to be placed on the ceiling of the room. In domestic installations it is possible to circumvent the installation of these speakers, but, as we will see later, doing without them entails some compromises.
The road from stereo sound to music in Dolby Atmos is full of curves
Over the past decade, Atmos sound has found its way into many movie theaters, so any fan looking to try it out won’t be hard-pressed to find a commercial theater that offers it. What allows this technology to stand out from surround sound encoding systems that use channels is that it manages to recreate a wider soundstage in which each sound-emitting point source moves through it with great precision even in the vertical dimension. In practice, this strategy gives us a deeper immersion capacity in audiovisual content than that proposed by Dolby Digital or DTS.
However, Dolby Atmos is not comfortable only in movie theaters. In recent years, this technology has also reached music, and it has done so with the dual purpose of renewing the way we enjoy it and accentuating its emotional capacity. Although it has been around for a long time, stereophonic sound began to catch on in the mid-1950s and soon proved that it could more accurately recreate the soundstage than the monophonic audio that had reigned up to that point. In a way, Dolby Atmos aspires to have a similar impact on our music listening experience as stereophonic sound did decades ago.
This is the Abbey Road studio room where the sound engineers carry out the mixing process after recording is complete in one of the main rooms.
Before going any further, it seems honest to me that I am not a fan of multi-channel music. And I’m not because almost every recording I’ve heard over the last few decades, and this is a very personal opinion that it’s perfectly legal not to share, I find them too artificial. I’m not convinced that some instruments come from the space to the flanks and behind the listening position, so I’ve only enjoyed those multi-channel music recordings that keep the instruments in the front scene and use the side and rear soundstage solely for reproduction of environmental information.
The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, ABBA, Roxy Music or The Rolling Stones are some of the bands that have recorded iconic albums at Abbey Road
This is the reason why until now I had hardly paid attention to music in Dolby Atmos. The stereo met my expectations. However, my opinion has changed. A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit the legendary Abbey Road recording studio in London, the same one where The Beatles, Pink Floyd and other legendary bands recorded some of their iconic albums, and I have rediscovered the potential that Atmos has when it coexists with music content. Honestly, I didn’t expect this experience to completely upend my perspective on music encoded with this technology, but it has.
This is one of the rooms in the Abbey Road studio where sound engineers master music in Dolby Atmos. The active loudspeakers that you can see in this photograph are from the British brand ATC.
In the mastering room that you can see just above these lines I was able to listen to, among other songs, the cut ‘Rocket Man’ by Elton John, and my hair stood on end. This English musician recorded this song in 1972, long before Dolby Atmos was available, but mastering him with this technology has managed to catapult his emotional capacity. In my opinion, it has achieved this because Atmos is capable of collecting and later rendering with great precision the harmonics of each instrument and the human voice, as well as of capture the interaction that takes place between the music and the room in which the recording is made. In practice this matters because it helps us to experience the musical event more fully.
However, this technology has something against it that users cannot ignore. It is possible to virtualize both the soundtrack of a movie and the music encoded in Dolby Atmos using a sound bar, headphones or a television, among other devices, but the best experience will be obtained when we restore it using a complete multichannel equipment that does not do without of the loudspeakers housed in the ceiling.
Some teams use wall reflections on the ceiling and walls to reduce the number of speakers users have to install, but our experience is not the same in my opinion as the soundstage loses precision and the emotionality of the soundstage. music suffers. yes in my opinion Atmos is so disruptive as was the arrival of stereophonic music in its day, but the complexity of the hardware it requires is an obstacle that music lovers have no choice but to deal with.
Images: Dolby Europe Ltd
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