Dolby Atmos: The future of cinema surround sound?

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dolby-atmos.jpgSince the jump was made from “talkies” to sound in movies, Dolby has been at the forefront of cinema sound. From their early work with noise reduction in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange onto the development of stereo, surround and digital surround systems, Dolby have lead the charge when it comes to creating more immersive cinema sound, with over 30,000 titles employing their sound technologies over the years.

The “next radical step” according to Julian Pinn, Director of Cinema Marketing at Dolby Europe, is Dolby Atmos, the latest cinema sound technology to come from the veteran audio engineers. We were treated to a demo of the new Dolby Atmos system at Dolby’s new Soho HQ in London. It’s incredible.

Rather than the standard 5.1 or 7.1 channel based systems which direct sounds to regions rather than specific speakers, Atmos can produce 128 “dynamic audio elements” over 64 separate lossless audio channels that include ceiling speakers. It encourages sound designers to think in terms of moving objects rather than directional effects, allowing them to position sounds anywhere around or above an audience as they desire.

As a simple example, Dolby played a track representing a helicopter flying overhead. Rather than moving from front to left to back to right and round again in a circular motion, the chopper could be felt to move to individual speakers and swoop overhead. The sense of movement was greatly enhanced, and the sensation of a naturally enveloping soundscape was palpable, the closest we’ve ever felt to being truly surrounded by sound rather than having it projected towards us from limiting, pre-determined angles.Dolby-Atmos-Theatre.pngAlongside two impressive Dolby demos which will run before Atmos-enhanced movies (a natural, soothing short from Pixar and an incredible metallic mix from Erik Aadahl, sound designer on the most recent Transformers movie), Dolby also showed off clips from three movies that already feature Atmos soundtracks: Pixar’s Brave, Mission Impossible 4 Ghost Protocol and The Woman in Black.

Pixar’s Brave scene saw redhead star Princess Merida encounter the menacing bear for the first time. A gentle stroll through a forest saw ambient, natural sounds dotted around the Dolby HQ cinema, punctuated by low, ominous tones from behind, growing in intensity. When the bear (the source of the brooding sounds) is finally revealed, the Atmos sound system erupted into a roar, showing off the power of Dolby’s new technology, with a stomach-rumbling bassy growl.brave-banner.jpgYou’d expect an action flick like Mission Impossible 4 to really show off the benefits of the Atmos system, and again the power and detail are plain to see – the sounds of the Dubai market that makes up the sandstorm scene are key to the sequence’s spatial awareness, as the dusty weather makes visibility low. We’re guided through the scene by the positioning of sounds, and here Atmos truly shines. Things got a little muddier when the car chase kicked in though; when things get very noisy and busy, it’s harder to track individual sounds and note the benefits of the system.

Surprisingly then, it was with the quieter horror flick The Woman in Black where Atmos proved at its strongest. Daniel Radcliffe’s paranormal fanatic attempts to conjure a supernatural spirit by setting off a load of mechanical wind up toys at once, with the one-time boy wizard placing them all around a dark, moody room. As these start to go off, it’s possible to pinpoint individual toys sounding off all around you, making for an impressive showcase of Atmos’s sound positioning potential. A key scare, a shock whispered line from a creepy young boy, is placed in a single rear speaker, its isolation intensifying the chilling effect.

Dolby’s Atmos technology is truly impressive, easily the best cinema sound experience that this serial cinema goer has ever experienced. But it’s not alone in the race to court Hollywood as the go-to next generation sound system. Rivals such as Barco with their Auro 11.1 system (expandable to 13.1) have already garnered support from key industry players, seen at work in George Lucas’s World War 2 flick Red Tails. dolby-atmos-mix.pngAtmos has one key advantage over the competition though; it’s incredibly easy for sound designers to use, requiring little new training over previous surround sound mixing systems. More crucially, it requires no extra work to develop 5.1 and 7.1 mixes with Atmos; Dolby’s technology automatically produces a channel-based 5.1 and 7.1 track alongside the Atmos one.

For cinemas looking to install Atmos, it’s a similarly painless transition; Dolby Atmos installations are scaleable, meaning the effect can be achieved with many different configurations and speaker numbers. Dolby’s HQ uses just 34 channels, while systems using upwards of 60 speakers have also been built. Each installation is a bespoke job, taking into account room shape, the possibility of balconies and the incline of chairs.

As with all new cinema technology, the roll out will be a slow one, with its success dependent on studio interest. But adoption of Dolby Atmos is already looking promising; Dolby expect Atoms to be in 100 screens by early 2013, with “dozens” of big pictures, including the upcoming Hobbit movies, mixed with Atmos by the end of the year. The Empire cinema in London’s Leicester Square already has one screen equipped with an Atmos system.

Though the roll-out of Dolby Atmos has already begun in earnest, a major sales push to cinemas will begin in early 2013. Odeons, Picturehouses and the like will do well buy into what’s surely the future of cinema sound as soon as possible.

“When Dolby Digital was launched in the early 1990s it was only to a handful of screens,” said Pinn.

“For exhibitors to be signing up for it already, before we have a product available, is fantastic. Well in excess of half the screens in the world have been converted to digital cinema. Sound is the next step that we can improve upon.”

Gerald Lynch
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