When I was a theater manager, I remember THX engineers coming into our theater and balancing our sound system for their radically new sound design. It was exciting to be able to hear a movie sound effect go from one side of the theater to another. Sadly though, while it was ground breaking back in the day, it was still easy to see that it just went from one far end of the room to another in a heartbeat. Cool, but not exactly natural. Sound design has evolved pretty quickly since we’ve entered the digital era, but Dolby is about to take an evolutionary leap that changes the game entirely.
Dolby’s next step in sound design with ATMOS, a multi-channel cinema design spec that will advance sound design, while simplifying how sound is delivered. And Dolby says that what IMAX and 3D have done for the immersive movie watching experience, Atmos will do for theater sound. Let’s take a look …
The most significant development in audio since the arrival of surround sound is here. Dolby® Atmos™ delivers audiences a more natural and realistic soundfield, transporting them into the story with a lifelike sensory experience. Developed with input from professionals throughout the movie industry, Dolby Atmos represents a dynamic shift in audio, reinventing the traditional surround sound methodology and offering a complete platform for sound now and well into the future. – Dolby
The Atmos standard is really the next logical, albeit large, step in a progression of sound design that has lasted for nearly a century. What started with mono, then moved to multi track stereo, then surround sound with 5.1 which divided the room into 4 sectors, and then 7.1 sound which divided those sectors even further. But according to Dolby Marketing Manager Stuart Bowling, further dividing the theater into sectors wasn’t going to get it done from a content creation perspective.
Sound needed to be more fluid and immersive. Atmos will take sound effects and move them, not from channel to channel or sector to sector, but from speaker to speaker (up to 64) as independent objects in the sound stream. So a helicopter will literally sound like flying over head and moving around the theater. Even with Dolby 5.1 or 7.1, you can get an idea of where the effect is by theater sector. But with Atmos, the effect will sound more fluid, as if it’s moving from one side to another gradually, like a speaker panning through the room (the system is called a “pan-through array.”). So listening to someone walk into frame from a great distance, it will sound like they’ve started behind you and gradually get louder as they get to the scene. It’s groundbreaking.
And while theater goers will enjoy the new spec as being ultra realistic and immersive, sound designers will certainly enjoy it because they will have unprecedented control of the placement and movement of sound within the movie theatre. “I’ve been realizing more and more that Atmos is an instrument now,” says sound engineer Erik Aadahl, “and we’re just cracking the surface of what this spec can do.” And Atmos promises to do so while simplifying the process. There will no longer be a need for individual track files to be sent to a dedicated speaker zone. The sound file will be one individual file that is panned throughout the room from speaker to speaker.
And theater owners will like Atmos because they can upgrade their theaters gradually, starting with the setup they have, and then slowly adding more speakers over time. And Atmos will work in any theater setup, so that they don’t have to upgrade all theaters at the same time. And because every theater room is different architecturally, Atmos is able to provide a more consistent sound experience across those designs. And older, arthouses, which don’t get the sold out audiences to justify great investment in sound equipment, will also see an increase in sound quality with a minimum investment. For theater owners, they’re primary concerns has been how to get people to come to the theater,” says Bowling, “but with Dolby’s new Atmos technology, we’re literally futuring proofing the experience and giving theater owners a tool to leverage theater goers to come back.” (Now if they could only do something about ticket prices).
The first film being released in the new Atmos spec is Disney/Pixar’s BRAVE, an animated film about Merida, young, Scottish princess who defies an age-old custom, and enters an archery contest. The movie will be in theaters June 22. It’ll be interesting to see how many people duck when those arrows start flying!