This Is How Dolby Atmos Looks Like Inside

It’s been almost a century since sound arrived at the movie theaters. In 1921 the first short films with the Photokinema system were produced, which allowed having music and ambient sound during the movie without the need of live interpreting, which was usual until that moment. Since then, the technology related to the images has evolved a lot and sound hasn’t lagged far behind.

The latest “powerful” sound related innovation that arrived at movie theaters, and also at our homes, is Dolby Atmos. During the last two years, the number of theaters prepared to reproduce films’ soundtrack with this format has significantly increased. However, a lot of film lovers aren’t really aware of what this technology has to offer, and, most of all, if it’s worth paying for. We will try to figure out the answer to these questions analyzing Atmos from the inside.

Deconstructing Dolby Atmos

To prepare myself for this entry, I just didn’t want to resign myself to getting to know the facts and watch some of the movies with the Atmos sound system that have been shown during the last months at the theaters. Furthermore, it seemed important to me to know how the sound engineers work with this technology, to analyze it from inside, and, lucky me, I had the chance to address these issues by visiting the Best Digital sound and dubbing studio, in a little and peaceful town just outside Madrid.

This isn’t just another sound studio. In fact, it has the first room with Dolby Premier Atmos certificate in Spain. This basically means that it has the necessary equipment to produce soundtracks with Atmos sound and, additionally, with an equipment directly certified by Dolby engineers in the United States. Some of the lastest movies which sound has been produced and mixed at Best Digital have been the Spanish films “La isla mínima”, “Autómata”, “Ocho apellidos vascos” and “Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el cachondo”, which gives us an idea of the material they work with.

Let’s deal with the important facts: Atmos is not simply a sound technology capable to handle a higher number of channels and speakers. Out of curiosity, it could manage the sound of up to 64 independent channels, but what is really important about Atmos is that it could virtually offer an infinite number of them. And that is because it doesn’t work with channels: it works with objects. To understand what an object is we can think about it, basically, as a sound source. In a movie sequence, we can watch several dozens of objects at the screen, and all of them could be producing sound at the same time. Atmos can handle this, but it doesn’t do it in the same way other technologies do with audio coding, like Dolby Digital or DTS.

If you take a look at the monitors you can see how Dolby Atmos recreates a 3D map of a movie theater’s sound space in which it’s going to be used

Filmmakers and sound engineers don’t need to worry about speakers or channels where the sound will be played, they work with a virtual 3D space that represents the physical theater where the film will be shown, and they interact with it through a computer. What they see are objects, or isolated sound emissions, and they can move them across the whole showroom with full freedom in a proper 3D space, and without being obliged to think about sound channels at any time. This can only be brought about by a hardware that, in the case of Dolby Atmos, takes a central position: the ceiling speakers.

Speakers in the ceiling

Unlike other sound technologies like Dolby Digital or DTS, Atmos, apart from recurring to front, side and back speakers, taking the viewer position as a reference, it also requires speakers to be installed in the ceiling. It’s not fanciful requirement, but a fundamental resource for implementing the multi-layered focus that this technology has to offer, and, above all, to render the sound with the required precision in a real 3D environment.

Put more simply, this means that combining the isolated sound emissions through different speaks in the front, sides or back with the ceiling speakers, the viewers will have the feeling that the sound has been reproduced from a random point which doesn’t need to be the same as the physical location of a loudspeaker.

Needless to say, the creative freedom this technology has to offer to filmmakers is huge. And, moreover, the presence of the speakers installed in the ceiling give away which movie theaters are already prepared to broadcast soundtracks coded with Dolby Atmos sound. During the last two years I’ve been able to enjoy at the movie theaters around twenty films which took advantage of this technology, and, to my mind, there are two scenarios in which it clearly overtakes other coding techniques. The most evident one is how it allows to position a sound in the physical space by which we are surrounded very precisely and in a convincing way.

And the second one, and therefore not less important, is that it offers us a very superior continuity compared to that of the traditional systems with a 5.1 or 7.1 distribution. When a sound source moves in the screen it should have its connection in the sound space surrounding us. The problem is that until now when the sound goes from one channel to another an “empty space” normally takes place that makes our brain to make an effort in order to reconstruct this sound movement, and normally there is a lack of space cohesion that appears as a sound discontinuity. Nonetheless, Atmos offers us a much more consistent sound and with a continuity similar to the one in real life.

But that’s not everything. Curiously, this technology also allows filmmakers to lead specific sounds to a certain speaker, and that supposes an important advantage: the mixer can get rid of the devices that happen when producing sounds in a group of speakers, and, in this way, the timbre precision of the sound is higher, which gives it realism. Luckily, Atmos is not fixed to the specific configuration of the speakers in a particular place, so it’s possible to enjoy this technology in spaces that don’t need to have the same number and the same speakers distribution. Even though, and that is a fact, they should fulfill the minimum requirements.

The component responsible of “translating” the coded soundtrack in Dolby Atmos so that it can be reproduced precisely in a particular theater with a similar speakers distribution is the sound processor, that should be ready to deal with Atmos. Broadly speaking, this device renders the sound processing the audio tracks and manipulating the delay and the equalization. This way, the viewers perceive a well-placed audio, featuring a great consistency and a realistic timbre.

As we’ve seen until now, the objects play a very important role in this sound technology, but Atmos also works with layers, which are submixes based on channels, and, therefore, are managed like the channels we already know.

Atmos at home

The first A/V receivers prepared for processing coded soundtracks in Dolby Atmos reached the market in the middle of last year. Brands like Onkyo, Yamaha, Pioneer o Marantz, among many others, allow us to enjoy this technology in our home cinema devices, but evidently we need something more than just having a A/V receiver.

The first link in the reproduction chain are contents, and, luckily, we can buy some films on Blu-ray which enable Atmos sound, like the Spanish films “Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el cachondo” or “Torrente 5: Operación Eurovegas», just like other English and American movies, like «Invencible» o «Transformers: The Age of Extinction». For the time being there are only a few, that’s true, but a lot of the forthcoming titles will directly have this technology.

We already have our A/V receiver compatible with Atmos and a fistful of movies in Blu-ray Disc that take advantage of this technology. The BD reader shouldn’t be a problem as any of them with the minimum current requirements of Blu-ray’s standards should be able to extract the sound in the bitstream format. Actually, not only a BD reader could deliver the sound, but also a video game console, a computer or a multimedia player. This is possible because Dolby has implemented Atmos in Blu-ray Disc as an extension of Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. And moreover, HDMI 1.4's specification is also compatible with Atmos.

But there’s still a “loophole”: the speakers. If we want to enjoy a really convincing surround sound experience, we should ideally install at least four little speakers in our home’s ceilings. That’s what Dolby recommends, but, obviously, this is kind of a cumbersome and impractical solution, which could make some users reject the idea of installing speakers in the ceiling. Luckily, there are alternatives easier to implement.

If we own some good quality boxes and don’t want to get rid of them, we could buy some modules that come with a speaker and are placed above them. It’s worth nothing that they point to the ceiling in order to make the most of the wall reflections and simulate the presence of a speaker above our heads. Last option is a bit more drastic if we already own a home cinema equipment: buying a set of boxes prepared for Atmos, and therefore with speakers able to release the sound to the ceiling to take advantage of the wall reflections.

Atmos in mobile devices

Dolby didn’t just merely think about Atmos for the showrooms and our home cinema equipment. They've also been able to apply this technology to mobile devices in order to give us the possibility to enjoy a surround sound anywhere using some conventional headphones. During Mobile World Congress’ last edition, the American company announced that they had been working with Lenovo to produce a new smartphone, the A7000, and two tablets, the models TAB 2 A8 y A10, with Atmos sound.

Shortly after the announcement, I had the chance to talk at MWC with John Couling, one of Dolby’s vice presidents, about Atmos’s integration with mobile devices. And I could also try the Lenovo products during a few minutes. The truth is that the feeling of being engulfed in a surrounding sound is very effective. Dolby has made something similar to what other companies had developed before, but with a bigger achievement.

In broad terms, they use some very advanced processing algorithms that make use, among another really complex sources, of the delay associated to the sound emission to our ears in order to “cheat” our brain and make it believe that the emission source is located anywhere in the space around us. But that’s not everything. Dolby has also associated itself with Jaunt VR, Silicon Valley’s startup , which designed a video camera able to register the necessary 360 degrees pictures to generate and audiovisual production of virtual reality, with an objective in mind: to complete the experience their images offer with the Dolby Atmos surrounding sound.

The competition is putting pressure on

Dolby is not alone in the surround sound market for cinema applications. In 2010, Galaxy Studios and Barco, the producer of professional projectors, joined forces to develop the system Auro 11.1, which uses a similar distribution to 5.1 which we all already now, but it also adds another 5 extra channels at height to increase the surrounding feeling. And at the beginning of this year DTS made their technology DTS:X known, which has been designed to specifically compete with Atmos.

Just like Dolby’s proposal, the one from DTS makes use of objects and not only channels, and it seems to have been well received by brands like Denon, Marantz, Onkyo or Pioneer, among others, so it would be possible for the first A/V receptors prepared for DTS:X to hit the market this year. This competition is good for the users and we profit if no company excessively controls the market, then so be it. We will follow the alternatives’ trail and we’ll tell you more when we have more interesting info about these proposals.

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