Beyond Stereo: Dolby Atmos and the race for space

We speak to mixing engineers, composers, and recording artists to get the lowdown on Dolby Atmos and what it means for the future of music.

Spatial Audio Dolby Atmos

Up, down, and all around – that’s what Dolby’s Atmos technology has brought to the world of cinema since its introduction in 2012. By using the audio format, films like Gravity and Dune have dazzled audiences with immersive sound environments that seem to come from all around you.

However, Dolby has long maintained that Atmos is not just for film but has huge potential for music as well. But if you’re thinking that you’ve heard this one before, it’s because you have – there have been several attempts to woo consumers into buying into 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound systems in the past, and all have slowly fizzled into obscurity.

Given that history, it’s not exactly surprising that Dolby’s initial push to get Atmos into the music industry was met largely with indifference. Tidal and Amazon Music introduced support for the format almost two years ago with relatively little fanfare. So, why then are we now hearing lots of ‘spacey’ talk buzzing around music forums?

Quite simply: Apple. The American tech behemoth is stepping into the ring, and the hype train has most definitely left the station. It is offering what they call Spatial Music as part of their subscription streaming service, Apple Music, and are billing the format as a game-changer akin to the shift from mono to stereo. They’re so convinced that you’ll love the immersive sound of Atmos that they’ve gone so far as to make it the default playback mode for their premium subscribers.

So, what exactly is Dolby Atmos? Does it really deliver on its promises? And what does it mean for the industry and for consumers? We speak to a number of early adopters to find out.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos allows producers to place sound anywhere around the listener, offering a staggering 128 individual locations to send audio – compared with the meagre two channels that have been the standard since 1958.

Of course, the technology for multi-speaker panning and mixing has existed for many decades; what Atmos does is simplify and standardise the process. A song mixed and rendered using the format will automatically adapt to whatever playback setup you’re using – a single mono Bluetooth speaker, a car stereo, a pair of headphones, or all the way up to extended home entertainment systems featuring any number of speakers. Furthermore, Atmos promises – at least in theory – to offer the same spacious sound no matter how simple, or complex, your listening environment is.

How does Dolby achieve this marvel? When it comes to headphones, Atmos generates a binaural mixdown using what is called ‘head related transfer functions’ to mimic the natural way the human ear perceives the location and movement of sounds. If you’re listening on speakers calibrated for Atmos, it automatically balances the mix to account for the number of speakers and their placement in the room.

It’s undoubtedly a huge step forward in consumer ready immersive audio. But what do mix engineers feel about it?

Sony WF-1000XM4
Image: Sony

How is it changing things for mixing engineers?

“It’s hard to remember not having a really full understanding of stereo, of the infrastructure, the interfaces, the routing of patch bays. I know it inside out. But now I’m looking at Atmos and I feel like there’s so much to discover.”

That’s mix engineer James Lewis, who’s currently installing an Atmos system in his studio. Speaking to Lewis, it quickly becomes clear that he sees an awful lot of potential in Atmos, but stresses that the format is still very much “in development”.

“Apple Music has their own binaural mixdown codec,” says Lewis. “It’s different from what Dolby uses – so, what you hear on your [studio’s] binaural render isn’t actually the same as what Apple has. You may reference your mixes with headphones as a commercial release on Apple and make certain decisions from what you hear. Later, they may change the codec, and what was great when you delivered it suddenly becomes less good.”

This awkward fact may, in part, explain why some Atmos mixes will give you goosebumps, while others will leave you shaking your head and wondering how they managed to mangle a classic (Start Me Up, by The Rolling Stones, anyone?). Until the format settles, and the industry gets a handle on how to best work with the technology, listeners are likely to be faced with a mixed bag of great, mediocre, and atrocious mixes.

Mixing for Atmos is fundamentally different from mixing for stereo, and not just in terms of panning. Perhaps the biggest lasting impact that Atmos may have for mixing is how engineers treat loudness and EQ. It’s no secret that the dynamic range of popular music has become smaller and smaller during the ‘loudness war’ of the past few decades. Interestingly, it might be Atmos that provides a much-needed reset to the brick-like compression and limiting of modern popular music.

“It is going to go back to a more dynamic listening experience,” says Lewis. “And though it might take the listeners a little time to recondition, that has to be a good thing. For me, it is about dynamics, width, and space. It’s about opening the music up and letting people inside. The downside is that we will probably have to work a bit harder, because some of the free gifts you get from a mix bus aren’t going to be there anymore. So, figuring out how we are going to ‘glue’ a mix together is going to take a period of experimentation.”

Of course, any disruptive new technology also brings with it huge opportunities, and the fact that mix engineers are paving new ways of putting together music is in itself very exciting. However, an Atmos system isn’t exactly cheap, and there has been criticism from engineers who feel they are being pushed into making costly studio upgrades.

Grammy award-winning mix engineer, Jesse Ray Ernster, is an example of a producer who is forgoing those large hardware investments, instead opting to mix directly for what will certainly be the most common playback device – headphones.

“I mix on headphones using the Dolby Binaural Renderer,” says Ernster. “The obvious downside [of Atmos] is the cost of entry to own an entire system. I am completely opposed to that at the moment.”

“So, I have been doing all my Atmos mixes on headphones and then sending the file to an outside mastering engineer. He double-checks the moves I made on headphones and makes modifications to the mix if it isn’t translating on his full speaker system. I haven’t seen any consequence to this workflow, and I’ve seen a few of my Atmos mixes featured on Apple’s Spatial Audio playlists.”

Then, of course, there’s the dynamic head tracking feature which allows owners of Apple’s new AirPods Pro to lock the spatial centre of a mix in a single location – even if they turn their heads. It sounds very sci-fi and is likely aimed primarily at Apple’s long-rumoured virtual/augmented reality headset, but in the here and now it’s hard to see exactly what benefit it brings to music production. As Ernster puts it: “I keep it turned off – it’s completely disorienting.”

Regardless of the many creative and logistical questions that Atmos raises, it’s undeniably been a shot in the arm for the industry as a whole. “It’s really stimulating the engineer economy and creating a lot of work,” says Ernster.

It’s not just the mix engineers either, as Lewis points out: “It’s great for the monitoring manufacturers, because instead of selling you two pairs, they’re suddenly selling you 14. So, it’s a big win for those guys”

Apple Airpods Pro
Image: Apple

How is it changing things from music makers?

Many intrepid artists are wasting no time embracing the new format and are already taking advantage of the capabilities of Atmos – just take a look at Jungle. Despite being titled Loving In Stereo, the London-based duo gave their new album the full Atmos treatment, debuting it at a cinema stacked with 64 loudspeakers in August this year. Speaking on the benefits of mixing in Atmos, the band member Josh Lloyd-Watson makes clear that it’s not just about space, it’s also about sound quality.

“It actually brings back the life of the music,” explains Lloyd-Watson. “The choruses lift how they’re supposed to lift, rather than just being flatlined.”

Then there’s Kirstine Stubbe Teglbjærg, the Danish singer whose evocative voice helped propel Blue Foundation to international fame with the song Eyes On Fire. Kicking off her solo career under the moniker Sitrekin, her debut single was mixed for Atmos by Dyre Gormsen at London’s Eastcote Studios and went on to be used by Apple in their official launch of Atmos on their music streaming platform.

Teglbjærg says she vividly remembers the first time she got to hear the track in its expanded Atmos mix. “It was a feeling of coming home actually. I was almost crying when I heard it because everything was in its right place, and I felt like I could hear the music the same way as I hear it in my head.”

Atmos seems particularly suited to the kind of intimate, detailed music Teglbjærg creates. In fact, the format has an uncanny ability to give listeners both a sense of wide space and also of ASMR-like proximity. However, there is reason to believe that we are only scratching the surface of what Atmos might bring over coming decades and producers may eventually utilise space in the same way they do rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Producer, composer and cellist Peter Gregson offers a glimpse of that future. His latest release, Patina, was written, recorded, and produced at Abbey Road specifically to be experienced in Atmos. The results are quite simply beautiful: harmonies are given a new sense of height as they ascend upwards into the heavens, textures and melodies shift and surround the listener, and intimate textures feel just that little bit closer.

“I think, as a creative platform, it’s about having those extra dimensions to play with,” says Gregson. “It’s not just up, down, left, right – you really can push and pull things, you can really feel them. If you think about Atmos at the composition stage, you can get very creative with orchestration, with texture, and with tone.”

For now, at least, Gregson is in the minority. Most of what’s available are remixes of pre-existing tracks, and a quick look at the catalogue offered by Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music, reveals that to have an Atmos mix is to be part of an exclusive club. Major label backing seems to be a prerequisite which has led to some skepticism regarding how up-and-coming acts are supposed to budget for additional Atmos mixes on top of the usual stereo.

To remove some of these barriers, Apple has integrated Atmos into Logic Pro, allowing anyone with a copy to get started with the format – something James Lewis sees as a very welcome development. “I think it might be the small to mid-level artists that become the pioneers of producing in Atmos,” he says. “I think they might be the ones that get more creative.”

Tidal DJ

Conclusion

With almost all the major streaming platforms now offering support, and with Mercedes-Benz, Lucid Motors, and NIO building Atmos into their new cars, it seems that the new format may achieve what quad, 5.1, and 7.1 never did – mainstream acceptance.

It’s clear that there are still some teething issues to work through, and there’s a strong case to be made that spatial mixing does not suit every genre of music. However, it is hard to argue with new creative possibilities and a return to music that has an actual dynamic range.

The main thing is that the format seems to have plenty of room to grow – as Peter Gregson puts it: “You can do some beautiful things with more sound happening in more places, but really, I think the most exciting things are yet to come.”