Dolby Atmos

Last night, thanks to the fantastic people at the Australian Screen Sound Guild, I had the opportunity to check out the latest ground-breaking Dolby Atmos technology at Soundfirm’s amazing new Port Melbourne facility – the first and only post production theatre in Australia to deploy this truly awesome technology.

Soundfirm joins an elite list of approxmiately 30 facilities globally that are able to offer this technology. Their very slick and comfortable “Theatre 1” is perfectly set up for Atmos mixes (and of course realtime 5.1/7.1 down-mixes – thanks to Dolby’s fancy Rendering and Mastering Unit), and has been specifically built to provide the Feature Film and Cinema Commercials markets with the finest mixing and delivery environment in the country. It was a massive investment, but it’s so exciting and makes me so proud to see a Melbourne company getting in early and experimenting with this exciting tech, and offering such a high-end and compelling service to the local and international market. I really hope it takes off!

Since launching just over a year ago (where it was first utilised in Pixar’s Brave), over 40 films around the world have been announced or released with Dolby Atmos sound (you can check out the complete list here), with more than 100 screens enabled globally. Sadly, in Melbourne, apart from Soundfirm the only other place you’ll hear Atmos is the Reading Cinemas in Waurn Ponds – however, I’m personally now on a mission to try and bring Atmos to Village VMAX at Knox. Trust me… once you hear it, you won’t want to go to a theatre without it – so PLEASE let Dolby and your local theatre know, by completing this form (it only takes a few clicks – promise!). Feel free to do it twice – once with your local theatre, and once with VMAX at Knox!

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Atmos unleashes the potential of sound in storytelling by giving filmmakers and mixers the creative freedom to easily place or move specific sounds anywhere in the movie theatre, not just wherever there happens to be speakers. It gives filmmakers full creative control over the placement and movement of sound around the audience enabling the precise matching of audio to onscreen action.

Dialogue follows characters. Sound effects track with camera pans. Ambient sounds literally surrounds you. As lame as it sounds, for the first time, you’ll hear the whole picture.

In Melbourne, most theatres offer what’s called 5.1 surround sound – meaning there’s speakers at front left, front centre, front right, rear left, rear right and a sub-woofer – exactly the same as you’d find in most consumer/home surround sound systems. Sadly, there are currently only 10 theatres in Victoria that offer 7.1. surround sound – which adds two discrete channels establishing four distinct “surround zones” in the theatre for a more vivid and engaging moviegoing experience. I used to have a 7.1 Dolby Digital EX setup at home – and those additional two speakers really did make a big different – although it’s really hard to find a DVD that offers true 7.1 sound.

However… Atmos simply blows this all out of the park.

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Atmos does away with the notion of speaker channels, and instead controls each and every speaker completely separately. It now gives theatre owners the option of installing a wider range of surround speakers in the roof of their theatres – as opposed to just on the side walls like you would in a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 setup. How many speakers you install really depends on the size of the room. Interestingly the Dolby guys mentioned last night that they actually had to install two separate Atmos systems in the Dolby Theatre (formerly known as the Kodak Theatre) in Hollywood because of the balcony.

Basically, this allows sounds to be rendered in a 3D environment, meaning that rather than a sound coming roughly from the left or right, the sound will appear from an exact point in the cinema, in 3D – it could be above, below, to the left or to the right of you. Last night we were lucky enough to watch the “destruction” sequence from Gravity – and it was absolutely incredible. It broke all the traditional rules (i.e. dialogue would fly around the room) – but it brought with it a level of realism so perfect and so detailed that it absolutely has to be heard to be believed. I originally watched Gravity in Village VMAX’s 5.1 cinema at Knox – and the difference is very obvious – Atmos makes you really feel like you’re there. If I had a choice between 3D and Atmos, I would pick Atmos any day of the week. They also showed us another demo of a jungle soundscape – and the depth of the sound is simply amazing – you could literally hear monkeys climbing across the room from the rear of the theatre to the front, and birds flying all around you.

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The format allows for an unlimited number of audio tracks to be distributed to theatres for optimal, dynamic rendering to loudspeakers based on the individual theatre’s capabilities. The hardware supports up to 128 discrete audio tracks and up to 64 unique speaker feeds. In addition to playing back a standard 5.1 or 7.1 mix using arrays, the system will give each loudspeaker its own unique feed, thereby enabling many new front, surround, and even ceiling-mounted height channels for the precise panning of select sounds such as a helicopter or rain. At the same time, Atmos promises to revolutionise movie distribution by eliminating the need for multiple print masters – i.e. a single delivery file will now play faithfully in any theatre – although this concept brought with it a bit of playful heated discussion last night, as the industry still struggles with Interop vs SMPTE DCPs. However, if Interop eventually (and finally) dies, then this will hopefully become a reality.

The tech behind the scenes is actually quite interesting – although in the scheme of things, apart from the “magic” that’s happening in the Dolby Rendering and Mastering Unit (RMU) – everything else is fairly simple and logical. I would even go so much to say they’re doing a fair bunch of “hack jobs” to make the system work with traditional hardware (not in a bad way). You can learn more about the tech and what Atmos means to content creators here.

Massive thanks to Australian Screen Sound GuildStuart Bowling and David Gould from Dolby and Soundfirm for running the event!

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