If you’re a movie fan, you’ve probably heard of Dolby Atmos. But what about Dolby Atmos for music?
I’ve experimented with Atmos as a listener, music writer, and mixer for months. Bottom line: It’s the new high bar for music reproduction.
Brief History of Dolby Atmos
While the first affordable systems for your home became available during 2021, surprisingly, it’s been around for a decade. Its initial purpose was to solve the theater sound scaling issue that Dolby Digital failed to achieve.
Dolby Digital became primarily known as a 5.1 system. The first number means how many discrete full-range audio channels were available, and the number after the decimal indicated the number of low-frequency channels.
For example, 5.1 means five full-range channels and one low-frequency channel. The layout of a 5.1 system usually includes three front speakers, two rear surround speakers, plus one subwoofer. Often, this was a good system for a home-based approach. But for a large theater, having even nine channels produced audio artifacts for the audience (e.g., dead listening locations, also known as null listening points or comb filtering, where soundwaves from the various speakers canceled each other out at specific frequencies).
Dolby Digital was also very inflexible for mix engineers. With this type of system, we literally have to decide which speaker would produce a specific sound or combination of sounds. This was regardless of the relationship between the size of our mixing studio and the place where the soundtrack was being heard.
Dolby Atmos solves both of these issues by being hardware independent. Today, a mixing engineer simply decides the location in 3-D space where a sound should emanate from, and then the Atmos system encodes that information into the digital file. Upon playback at home or in a theater, once a user sets up how many speakers they have, the Atmos system decodes the sound location information in the file and, in realtime, determines where the sound should emanate from depending on the specifications of a particular system.
Nomenclature for Dolby Atmos
If your mixing studio comprises five speakers in the front, two on the sides, two in the rear, four overhead, and two for low frequencies, this would be a Dolby Atmos 9.4.2 system. On the other hand, if your home has a more cost-effective 5.2.1 system, the speaker arrangement could be three front speakers, two rear speakers, two overhead, and one low-frequency speaker.
The naming convention is x.y.z, where x is the number of main speakers (full range), y is the number of overhead speakers (full range or limited range), and z is the number of low-frequency speakers.
Your home’s Atmos decoder will remix the audio in realtime so that it comes as close as possible to the original mix.
What Does this Mean for Music Lovers?
More realistic sound movement for movies. If a mixing engineer wants a jet fighter to sound like it’s flying from above/behind you to in front of you, Atmos does a more realistic job of creating that movement. And because the system is scalable to 128 channels, even large movie theaters will be able to reproduce the movement of sound realistically without dead listening locations.
If the mix is done well for music, it can honestly sound like you’re in the space where the recording was made. As you can imagine, this is great for classical music and really any recording where the room ambiance is essential. But it’s also fantastic for experimentation with the placement of instruments within an overall soundscape.
Here’s a video of mixing engineers Brad Wood and Warren Huart talking about Brad’s Dolby Atmos mixes of Liz Phair.
If it sounds daunting to add so many speakers to your home, there’s excellent news for you! Dolby Atmos also supports headphones, smartphones, and vehicle audio. There are also some clever implementations using just a few speakers. The key is that the Dolby Atmos CPU does a noticeably better job decoding multi-channel audio and remixing it to accommodate almost any type of playback system.
For me, it all started after I had watched a video of Warren Huart touring the Dolby Atmos studio at PMC Studios. Warren has been a big proponent of all engineers learning to mix in Atmos. Then, using the Atmos mix to create stereo mixes for traditional streaming markets (Apple, Spotify, Pandora, etc.).
After listening to the current benchmark recording (Greg Penny’s mix of Elton John’s Rocket Man), I couldn’t wait to get started.
As a tech geek, making additional acoustic adjustments to my mixing room along with purchasing and installing my Atmos 7.4.1 system was a lot of fun.
But the real fun started when I began to mix in 7.4.1. Based on mixing tips from Brad Wood, instrument placement has become much more enjoyable without becoming distracting. Yes–there are some bad Atmos mixes out there. But for the most part, experimentation in the placement of instruments has helped me create a sound that is less “stuffed,” for lack of a better word, and has more clarity.
Music Writing and Recording
Because of the additional clarity, the importance of writing a good song and recording it well became even more critical. It motivated me to re-look at all the music I’ve written and demo tracked in the last 12 months and really focus on what makes a great song, knowing that an Atmos system leaves no place to hide. The results ranged from minor instrumentation adjustments to the rewriting of entire songs.
How Atmos Can Help Your Writing
Is your song a “page-turner?” Does each chapter inspire the “reader” to turn the page and read what happens next?
The music and lyrics within a song are the same things.
Start with a musical verse that has a strong hook. At the end of the verse is there something interesting going on that makes a listener want to hear the bridge, break, or chorus that comes next?
Same thing for lyrics.
With Atmos, by simply piling on a bunch of instruments, it becomes clear that the easy way was taken. I’ve done this and the results always end up being the same: a lot of stuff going on but no real musical or lyrical story–no depth.
With the limited soundscape of stereo, particularly low-fi stereo, sometimes a skilled mixer or producer can make it work. There’s no such hiding with Atmos.
Sure it takes me more time to find the exact right musical part, instrument, and lyric to help a song become as close to great as I can get it. But it’s worthwhile.
I look forward to sharing new music with you in Atmos and hearing yours!
Photography credits |
Possessed Photography (White)
Oleg Laptev (Orange)