MUSIC’S COMING OF AGE

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An exploration of Dolby Atmos Music, a transformative tech revolutionising music-listening experiences.


 

In a move that has the potential to change music-listening as we know it forever, Dolby Atmos Music is a spatial audio technology that allows listeners a surround sound experience. A unique piece of advanced tech that had been used only in multiplexes and home theatres until now, Dolby has managed to sneak its way into an average music-lover’s ears over the last few years.

Adding a whole new dimension to music listening, Dolby Atmos Music’s immersive audio technology is making waves in the musical realm. In a span of about three years, Dolby music has started to become available on streaming services such as Tidal and Apple Music. Consequently, a number of ‘Atmos-capable’ devices – phones, televisions, sound bars and wireless speakers are able to play them. A Dolby live venue in Las Vegas that engineers concerts and plays them for audiences in real time, enjoys huge popularity.

While the change has been appreciated and adopted by companies such as Apple and Amazon, other organisations such as Radiohead are not too enamoured by it. Calling it “rubbish”, producer Nigel Godrich feels that the early adopters are being lured in by technology while music takes a backseat. As strong opinions come from all sides, one must ask the question to trump all questions: is it any good?

For those of us who grew up listening to stereo, the change is inconceivable, and the jury is still out on whether there is a future for this sort of sound. For now, the object-based surround-sound tech is being used to remix songs. Where traditional set-ups follow 5.1 and 7.1 channels, Dolby differs as it not only allows engineers to create a more enveloped sound but also enriches it using extra overhead channels. The new set-up creates a canopy of engrossing sound, with the listeners at the centre.

 

The technology is also more accurate than conventional surround sound. Considering that it allows for calibration, sounds can now be precisely placed at various points on the stage, instead of just using one channel to pump them. The versatile technology is also available for use on peoples’ phones. Producers are now opting to create Dolby Atmos in studio, or converting it in the post-production process.

Should one wish to sample Dolby Atmos music, there are a number of different outlets to choose from. In 2020, the first tranche of 50 Dolby Atmos songs hit streaming services. Popular among these were Kraftwerk’s 3-D The Catalogue, Hans Zimmer’s Live in Prague and R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Edition). Nowadays, there are Dolby music versions for almost all tastes of music, remixes and new releases alike.

Music studios are also being outfitted with Dolby Atmos mixing technology. Bigger studios such as Capitol Records Studios in Hollywood boast such tech, as do streaming services such as Apple Music, Tidal and Amazon Music Unlimited.

Songs recorded in this new format run without hitches on almost every device. Speaking highly of its popularity is the fact that over a short period of its existence, the format has been supported by a billion devices, including Apple and Amazon. A notable example is the Era 300, a device by Sonos, that claims to create the best standalone spatial audio experience of any single speaker. The device has a five-star rating for the most convincing listening experience for its listeners. Avid listeners feel that the sound quality for this format is best when it is set up as a home cinema using a smartphone. This opinion, however, cannot discount the fact that those on the go feel a world of difference on an Atmos-capable phone. Newer mobile devices that are consistent with Dolby Atmos tech are the Samsung Galaxy S23 and the Galaxy Fold.

Diving a little bit deeper into tech speak, if one wishes to experience the Dolby Atmos surround sound for their home cinema, they can choose from a variety of newly released AV receivers which are capable of supporting the format, even for those who have a limited budget for it. Those equipped with AV amps and speaker packages need not even drill holes in their ceilings to mount the speakers. Upward firing drivers on the front speakers give out a relatively similar sound. Speaker modules, when placed on top of one’s regular speakers can easily deliver Atmos sound from a compatible receiver.

Alternatively, those who do not wish for a full surround sound system can opt for Dolby Atmos soundbars or an Atmos-compatible TV. Some of these TVs have outfitted themselves better than others, but a television’s relatively thin speakers may not offer sounds that are anywhere close to the immersive system touted by the tech. Blu-ray speakers, especially those that conform to the latest specifications and can output a bitstream audio signal for the AV receiver to decode, should easily be able to play Atmos Music.

And now, for the million-dollar question – is Dolby Atmos music worth it? According to one expert, there is no way it isn’t. Some go as far as to say that it will surpass the good ol’ stereo by a mile. Coming from Dean St Studios’ Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert, the engineer responsible for installing the Dean St. Studios facility and one who’s worked with Paul Weller and Oasis, this is high praise. Having spent years in a studio where music icons like David Bowie, Adele, John Legend, Lady Gaga and Ed Sheeran have recorded, Stan feels that Dolby Atmos is not like preceding surround sound formats that had threatened to replace stereo. According to this industry expert, the wait for something better than stereo had started way before Dolby Atmos was in the picture.

“We’ve been waiting for a replacement for stereo for decades,” says Stan. “It’s an ancient technology. With music, you want to feel something, like with a Saturday night or Sunday morning record. They make me feel ‘Saturday night’ or ‘Sunday morning’. That feeling has been lost with stereo now, and it’s not stereo’s fault, but with Dolby Atmos, that feeling is there. It’s bigger, more exciting and wants to make you move, be more intimate, more relaxed or whatever. Everything it does, it does it on a richer level.”


FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF A MIXER, IT IS EASY TO SEE WHY DOLBY ATMOS MUSIC HAS BECOME SO POPULAR. WITH ITS 34 CHANNELS, IT STRAIGHT UP TAKES THE STRAIN OUT OF MIXING FOR DIFFERENT PLAYBACK SYSTEMS.


Stan further talks about the limitations a mixer may face in the two-channel stereo format of music, making allowances for one sort of instrument while restricting the sound of another. “You don’t need to do that in Atmos, as there is enough space for everybody.” He also talks about having to use ‘wideners’ to make the music sound more dynamic. “With Atmos, it can be as wide as you ever need it and as tall as you ever want it.” A clear fan of Dolby Atmos, Stan calls the music quality dynamic and “a joy to experience.”

From the point of view of a mixer, it is easy to see why Dolby Atmos Music has become so popular. With its 34 channels, it straight up takes the strain out of mixing for different playback systems. In the current stereo format, it is difficult to get one good mix that would sound great over headphones, in a club, on someone’s radio or on a very good pair of hi-fi speakers. The Dolby Atmos format, however, is much more adaptable to the device it plays on. Whether it is over several channels or just two, the software used by Dolby is smart enough to scale down to fit its gear, while still staying true to its surround sound effect. With the kind of dexterity and unprecedented control it gives to the producers, the possibilities for mixing can skyrocket, and even bring the live music experience into living rooms.

With its three-dimensional sound field, there isn’t a lot that Dolby Atmos Music cannot do. One of the fastest-growing music options, the format has already reached massive levels of popularity. Of course, it has only been around for a few years and the stereo has enjoyed its limelight for several glorious decades, so it remains to be seen whether the deeper and wider-than-traditional technology holds its hype or fizzles out like its predecessors.

For now, Dolby is making stereo sound downright lacklustre, and being hailed as a breakthrough in the field of music mixing and listening. To fully appreciate the sheer width and beauty of this new kid on the block, it is important to try it once, leaving aside the nostalgia of the stereo while you do. Perhaps, then, you might truly realise why the mighty Dolby is being marketed as a trend that may change the world of music forever.

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