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Last year when TIDAL and Amazon Music announced that they were streaming music in Dolby Atmos, music fans and the music business reacted with a high level of curiosity to see if this new format was here to stay. I believe, though, once Apple Music announced, in May of 2021, that support for Spatial Audio would be included into their existing subscription plans, many consumers, artists, engineers, and producers acted on this curiosity, which led to more than 40 million Apple Music users trying it out. In thinking about this situation more, some of the early hesitance to produce Atmos Music stemmed from a long history of audio innovations that never quite delivered on their promises. Attempts at creating a surround music experience often involved complicated setups, elite-level hardware configurations, and specialized mixes, meaning that the barrier to entry was high for both a consumer and for a production.
Dolby Atmos Music is a format that is different from the previous attempts to expand music beyond a stereo experience. This isn’t Surround Sound 2.0; it’s a whole new world. Atmos works in ways that really don’t have any barriers to entry for a listener (besides subscribing to a Dolby Atmos-supported streaming service) and without any need for understanding or tinkering with the technology to enjoy. It is already inspiring new creativity in the studio, from the mic selection and placement during the recording process to the final mixing and delivery.
From Limited Speakers to Ubiquitous Headphones
One of the limitations of previous incarnations of surround sound for music was how you could listen to it. You had to purchase and understand how to set up a series of speakers just so, and then position yourself in the sweet spot to really experience the full effect. Along with this, there wasn’t a lot of 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound music available in a vast array of genres for the consumer to get hooked to it. So, this 5.1 and 7.1 surround setup really ended up catering more to home theaters for watching television programs and movies.
Dolby Atmos and other immersive formats are actually able to be consumed differently compared to 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound music mixes. As an example, Dolby Atmos productions for both music and streaming movies/programs are able to play back the correct mix tailored to your playback system. That means you can listen to music mixed in Dolby Atmos on headphones, which is the most common way people listen to music by far, or on a compatible soundbar; the appropriate mix will automatically be played without any listener interaction. In other words, the Dolby Atmos format fits into existing habits and services seamlessly, no complex speaker set up required.
Giving and Capturing Space
Consumer adoption is one thing, but another important piece of the staying power lies in what artists, producers and engineers make of Dolby Atmos, and what will keep these 40 million listeners engaged and wanting more. Writing, recording and producing music in Dolby Atmos has some serious creative advantages over traditional stereo. They can not only move sounds around, but they can also position any sound or instrument in a 360 soundscape to allow for the best sonic separation and clarity of a mix.
Because of this, engineers don’t have to try and fit all sonic information into just a stereo (two channel) mix. They can take advantage of a much more flexible and creative environment where each instrument or sound can occupy its own space, as well as intriguing options to utilize dynamics for different expressions. Think, for example, about a chorus with a four-part harmony. Atmos gives an engineer far more options for placing each voice in space so that listeners can really savor each vocal line and its nuances. This helps the track feel more “live” and adds richness and depth.
This increased spatial range is already inspiring new discoveries among engineers, akin to giving them an incredibly expanded palette to play with. Imagine a painter who had only used flat shades of grey and who now has a paintbox full of three-dimensional colors. With Dolby Atmos productions, engineers and producers are now considering during the recording process, how to capture the acoustic space, not just the sound source itself. They are changing the way they place mics while recording, adding special mics just to record the sound of a room and other atmospheric elements, to give them more to work with during the mix. They’re capturing the full color of a place, not just a performance.
When Artists Dream in Atmos
Artists are just discovering the possibilities of Atmos, and those who do are often blown away. But over time, it will become second nature to think about how their music can be experienced immersively. Just like a generation adopted smartphones and now do everything on them, younger artists and fans will begin to feel like they can’t live without immersive audio experiences. They are going to think about the space they want their music to sound like or to sound in. The room or environment will become another key sound source or instrument in the mix. Though they may start composing on a guitar or a piano or a laptop, they will immediately start thinking about the production in terms of Atmos instead of stereo.
And more and more artists will get a chance to experience and experiment with Dolby Atmos on their own, thanks to the format’s accessibility. Dolby Atmos is accessible to those with home project studios. Serious music creators and independent professionals can produce Dolby Atmos Music using Pro Tools | Ultimate and the Dolby Atmos Production Suite at an affordable price. You don’t need to have a studio with a halo of speakers to mix in Atmos, especially if their intended audience is going to consume it binaurally. It all will run on the same computer, and you can monitor as you’re mixing binaurally with a pair of decent-quality headphones.
Dolby Atmos’ accessibility for creators and music fans, as well as its qualities and possibilities, mean that the format is here to stay. The same way immersive music is moving into other contexts and virtual experiences like fitness, gaming, and health care, Dolby Atmos will unlock new opportunities for music professionals and independent creators alike, letting them find new sonic means of expression ready for the world to experience.
Rob D’Amico is senior director of product management, audio services, at Avid Technology.