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Dolby’s new Atmos audio tech will soon have you surrounded

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Dolby Atmos
Dolby hopes for good vibes with its Atmos cinema surround sound system

Movie sound has come a long way since the invention of “talkies” in the late 1920s, but if you thought your Blu-ray player and multichannel speaker package was the state of the art and can rival anything your local multiplex has to offer, then that could be about to change.

Earlier in 2012 Dolby announced its groundbreaking new Atmos surround sound system. Now it says it will be expanding the number of cinemas worldwide that feature Atmos to 100 screens by early 2013.

These “early-adopter” cinemas are being used to showcase the technology. The system’s full commercial launch will follow later in 2013, by which time more films will have been released using the format.

So far in the UK, the system has been installed at Screen 1 in the Empire Leicester Square, London. Most of the handful of Atmos-ready cinemas to date are in the US, with others in China, Canada and Spain.

“When Dolby Digital was launched in the early 90s it was only to a handful of screens as well,” said Julian Pinn, Director of Cinema Marketing at Dolby Europe. Atmos is a “radical next step, not an incremental next step” he added. “For exhibitors to be signing up for it already, before we have a product available, is fantastic. Well in excess of half the screens in the world have been converted to digital cinema. Sound is the next step that we can improve upon.”

He was speaking at a press briefing to coincide with the official opening of Dolby’s new offices in Soho Square, London.

Dolby Atmos

It’s 41 years since Dolby used its noise reduction for Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange. In the following years Dolby moved into stereo and then surround sound technology for the cinema and in the home. The company says 30,000 films have used its technologies in that time.

“These developments are a good example of how science and artistry go hand in hand,” said Pinn. “These new innovations allow the artistry to get ever more immersive.”

Dolby Atmos

Immersive is certainly the right word. Compared to conventional 5.1 or 7.1 based multi-channel sound, Atmos can convey a maximum of 128 “dynamic audio elements” across 64 separate lossless audio channels. The major change is a set of overhead speakers as well as additional side channels (pan-through arrays) for smoother steering of sound movement around you or more precise placement of sonic “objects”.

However, it is also scalable to a suitable number of speakers for each cinema. For example the custom-made screening room at Dolby’s Soho HQ has 34 channels (using JBL speakers and Crown amplifiers), while down the road at the Empire Leicester Square are more than 60 speakers. Dolby also suggests that a couple of high-power subwoofers are placed at the back for better bass management of the smaller rear speakers.

“Dolby Atmos is an object based system,” explained Pinn, “so you can have leaves flying around and rendered to each individual speaker. It’s also a hybrid, it still has the channels available to the mixing community, so if the mixer wants to have a sound that’s coming from all of that wall, he can do that.”

Pixar Brave

Pixar’s Brave was the first movie made with an Atmos sound mix. Pixar also created the subtle minute-long “Leaf” trailer to accompany some Dolby Atmos films. A more whizz-bang alternative 20-second trailer called “Metallic” was mixed by Erik Aadahl (sound editor of Kung-Fu Panda, the Transformers movies and I, Robot among others).

We're told that the first of Peter Jackson’s upcoming Hobbit films, An Unexpected Journey, is due to receive its UK premiere in Dolby Atmos (and 48-frames-per-second 3D) at the Empire. There will be a simultaneous premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square, but that venue’s sound system will not be Atmos-ready at the time.

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey

Other Atmos productions include Taken 2 and surfing drama Chasing Mavericks, with more to be formally announced soon.

“Good sound is really important for cinema-goers these days,” suggested Pinn. “You get affected really negatively if there’s something wrong with the sound, and it’s really easy to get it wrong. That’s why Dolby is trying hard to optimise every stage, from the creative idea through to post production and exhibition.”

At the briefing Dolby also used its screening room to show selected scenes from The Woman in Black and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which were specially remixed for Atmos, each to stunning effect in their own different ways.

As Dolby’s website claims, Atmos could become “A whole new reason to go to the movies”. Its existing surround sound tech is also a mainstay of home cinema. Obviously, no-one is likely to install dozens of speakers all over their living room, but could the object-based audio developments heard with Atmos eventually make it into domestic products in some way?

Guy Hawley, Senior Director of Cinema Sales for Dolby Europe told Trusted Reviews: “We feel it’s going to be something quite different. There’re other things you can do when you are using it in the home. It’s like the Red Button; you can do other things because you have got those objects there. You can almost do your own remix – if you wanted to hear more dialogue – or whatever it might be. If you’re a Formula 1 fan, maybe you want to see a bit more of Sebastian Vettel and hear more of his radio traffic. Those are the lines we’re thinking along. There is a place for Atmos in the home but it’s probably going to be driven more towards how to use the objects for something a little different.”

More info: Dolby

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Images: Dolby, Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros

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