Dolby Atmos – What is it and how does it work?

Dolby Atmos – What is it and how does it work?

The Future of Movie Sound?

The movie theatre experience continues to evolve as new technologies are utilised to create a more immersive, realistic environment for movie goers. In the past several years we have seen the mainstream adoption of 3D and higher frame rates, now it is audio’s turn! Let’s examine one of the more exciting audio technologies to come out in recent years, Dolby Atmos.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology announced in April 2012, first utilised by Pixar’s film Brave. The first theatre to install the technology was Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Although adaption was slow in 2012 with only about 25 installations worldwide, 2013 saw an increase to 300 locations, and currently there are now more than 600 screens installed or committed, with numbers growing daily. (You can view  Dolby Atmos releases here)

“The technology envelops its listeners with a more natural and realistic sound field, transporting them into the story with a lifelike sensory experience.”

Dolby Atmos aims to create a more lifelike experience for film goers, creating a three dimensional sound that more accurately replicates the way we humans hear sound. The Dolby Atmos format provides control over each individual speaker, allowing for more fluid movement of sounds around the cinema. In addition to this, Dolby Atmos introduces ceiling speakers to provide spherical like sound that engulfs listeners (imagine a helicopter roaring overhead panning the cinema).

How Dolby Atmos Works

Dolby’s new cinema processor features a versatile rendering engine that optimises the audio quality and surround effects of the Dolby Atmos soundtrack depending on the loudspeaker layout, and characteristics of each cinema.

Avid Pro Tools Dolby Atmos Panner

Avid Pro Tools Dolby Atmos Panner

“Employing overhead speakers as well as surrounds, Dolby Atmos can create realistic and natural sound experiences that envelop and involve you in the stories.”

Dolby Atmos has transitioned away from the traditional method of mixing surround sound. With Dolby Atmos, filmmakers don’t have to think in terms of speakers or channels (though they can still integrate multichannel sound as needed). Dolby Atmos uses the idea of object-based sound design, providing sound engineers the creative freedom to easily place or move sounds anywhere in the movie theatre. Instead of having fixed waveforms with dedicated speaker outputs that are made permanent by the audio engineer, the process instead becomes designing a 3D map of a sound space (let’s say a apartment building) and designing how an object moves through this space (think a knife being thrown from behind an actor through to the wall in front of them). The sound engineer can trace the sound path of the knife, from the rear (rear speakers), flying over the head of the actor (overhead speakers) and into the front wall (front speakers). The audio file then contains all of this data, and translates it into the Dolby Atmos theatre in which it is being played, taking into account the specific theatres speaker layout, and room characteristics.

CP850_Angled_WhiteBackground

Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor CP850

This versatility allows an easy transition for cinemas who want to adapt to the new format without having to make radical changes to their setups, while also allowing them to introduce more speakers as the cinemas room and budget allows. Dolby Atmos has also been designed to maintain backward compatibility to other formats such as 5.1, 7.1, minimising the impact on production and distribution.

The Dolby Atmos format allows for an unlimited number of audio tracks to be distributed to theatres for optimal, dynamic rendering to loudspeakers dependent on the theatre capabilities. Dolby Atmos allows for up to 64 speakers, including overheads to create full 360 degree sound.

Closing Thoughts

Dolby has created a versatile system which should allow them to work into and further develop for a long time. Just as 3D was slow at first, it seems Dolby Atmos will continue to gain in popularity for both film makers and movie theatres as they transition into a more advanced, and fairly future proof system.

Find a Dolby Atmos Theatre near you here.

Additional Links

Dolby Atmos White Paper
Director Guillermo del Toro talks about Dolby Atmos
Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor CP850

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