By Tom Menrath, Audio & Key Accounts Manager, ASG
This is an incredible time for immersive audio. From its start in cinemas in the 70’s with Dolby® Digital 5.1 surround to Atmos 3D Surround today, Dolby has remained a pioneer in multi-channel sound. And just as 5.1 Surround migrated to home entertainment, Dolby Atmos is now commonly delivered via streaming services, such as Amazon, Netflix and Apple TV.
Always at the forefront, Mix Magazine has been holding immersive audio-themed conferences for years. Its May 20 event, “Immersive Music Production Nashville,” was a series of panel discussions, technology demonstrations and listening sessions at various Nashville recording studios focused squarely on the impact of immersive audio on music production. Nashville has the highest concentration of immersive music mix facilities in the U.S.
During the Mix event, we got to visit several studios on Nashville’s legendary Music Row producing content in Atmos, including Columbia Studio A, Quonset Hut, Starstruck Studios, Curb Studio, Front Stage/Back Stage Studios, and Blackbird Studio. We listened to tracks from various producers and engineers working in Atmos.
Some of the engineers that were involved 20 years ago with groundbreaking 5.1 audio mixes are working with Atmos today and producing some of the most emotional Atmos mixes we heard that day. One highly impactful demo was from acclaimed producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay. He played stereo and Atmos versions of tracks he’d mixed in both formats. He would seamlessly crossfade the stereo material into the Atmos version and go back and forth.
It was fascinating to hear the differences in real time. It made me realize that, if done well, Atmos is a true enhancement. It’s not a gimmick or a fad. It’s a genuine way for artists to express their music in a new and very exciting way.
During our “Studio Crawl,” one of the demos that stood out took place in the George Massenburg-designed ‘Studio C’ at Blackbird. On one side of the room, there was a Sony 360 demo with Genelec speakers. On the other side, an Atmos demo with ATC speakers. Hearing the different nuances presented by each was extremely interesting and educational.
Apple’s adoption of immersive audio, known as Spatial Audio (typically derived from Atmos masters), has supercharged the need for content from record labels and artists in Dolby Atmos – as well as content utilizing Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Sennheiser’s AMBEO technology. While Dolby Atmos remains the leading format currently, Sony and Sennheiser will soon be a larger part of the immersive audio conversation. Apple Music currently offers thousands of titles in their immersive audio format.
More and more artists are thinking about Atmos production from the start, planning out their content with the intention to produce in both stereo and Atmos. Previously Atmos was used primarily for remixes of popular catalog music. That provided end users with a dynamic, new experience while also providing labels and artists with a new revenue stream.
But with people starting the recording process with Atmos in mind, it’s opened tremendous creative opportunities and given people a new way to think about presenting their music. That was really evident at the Mix event. Getting an inside look into how different engineers approach mixing for this format was eye-opening. There’s quite a learning curve for engineers to maneuver initially. It takes a lot of experimenting. Each engineer has their own take on it.
I walked away confident that immersive music is here to stay. The end user can listen to it in a variety of different ways – headphones, earbuds, soundbars, speaker systems and in their car! As opposed to 20 years ago, when the music industry put a lot of energy and resources into creating 5.1 surround music, this time it’s got traction. Much of the music created in 5.1 was very engaging, but unfortunately it wasn’t optimized for headphones, and most people didn’t have a surround sound system at home to take advantage of it. And so, it never really gained critical mass.
But now, the hardware has evolved dramatically. The headphone versions of this music are deeply engaging and satisfying. So, at this point, it’s the beginning of an exciting time in producing immersive audio and music in multi-channel formats.
It’s worth noting Sennheiser Neumann’s AMBEO and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio as immersive innovations we’ll be hearing more of soon. Sennheiser’s AMBEO is spatial audio technology that takes Atmos files and algorithmically mixes them down into a two-channel delivery system. So, you can listen with stereo headphones, but what you hear is a far more engaging spatial experience that’s far beyond stereo. AMBEO translates any stereo headphone or speaker system into an enhanced spatial experience with zero end user upgrades required.
Sony’s 360 Reality Audio uses Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound technology to dynamically place individual sounds within a 360-degree, spherical, sound field. So Sennheiser, Sony and several others are figuring out ways through software to deliver immersive experiences – even in traditional stereo playback systems.
Car stereos are another area where Atmos has garnered support. It is currently available on the Lucid Air; several Mercedes models; the Volvo EX90 SUV; and the Polestar 3. Lotus has announced a collaboration with Dolby, bringing Atmos to its Eletre EV set to debut in 2024. The car is a fantastic place to listen to immersive sound. I’ve heard several excellent car systems, both custom and factory-supplied systems.
Many private and commercial studios are setting up rooms equipped for Atmos and other immersive formats. Studio owners are looking to add speakers and redesign control rooms to make them Dolby certified or just Atmos capable. That’s a big part of what ASG is focused on moving forward in the immersive audio space. We’re currently working on a flagship Atmos mix room in the Bay Area. Once the facility is complete, it will be a showcase for the studio owners, ASG, Dolby Labs, and will be one of the premier immersive mix rooms in the country. We are extremely enthusiastic about what the future of immersive audio holds for our industry and for end users.