Is Dolby Atmos the future of cinema sound?

A huge change to movie audio

Dolby Atmos

Disney Pixar's upcoming animated blockbuster Brave has been chosen to launch Dolby's latest cinema sound format, Dolby Atmos.

The revolutionary new audio system, which had its public debut in the US in June, introduces a ceiling array to the traditional surround speaker configuration and allows object-based sound design for the first time. Dolby describes the end result as the "illusion of an infinite number of speakers."

The choice of movie title seems serendipitous. Dolby's gamble on Atmos looks certain to make it the front runner in what is shaping up to be the most hotly contested evolution in cine-sonics since the advent of 5.1.

Four other companies (Barco, Immsound, Iosono and Illusonic 3D) have rival immersive audio solutions at various stages of development, all intended to complement the higher picture quality now being offered by 4K digital cinemas.

The stakes are high. The winner of this new surround sound format war could potentially dominate big screen audio for a generation, making $millions from studios, exhibitors and ultimately home video licensing.

Where to hear it

Dolby Atmos will make its public demo at the newly branded Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, home of the Academy Awards; the most prestigious of only 14 theatres in the US equipped to play the format.

The first commercial European cinema with the sound system is the Cinesa Diagonal Mar Screen 9, in Barcelona; unveiled this week for the first time, for the CineEurope 2012 trade expo.

The first UK cinema to get an upgrade to Dolby Atmos will be London's Empire, in Leicester Square; no launch date has been announced, but given that Brave opens in the UK on August 17, it's a fair bet that it'll be ready by then.

A game changer?

Stephen Field is the senior vice president for programs and products at Datasat Digital Entertainment (formerly DTS Digital Sound). He's more familiar than most with the next generation of 3D sound formats. Datasat makes the AP20 cinema sound processor, used in theatres worldwide, and has just launched a new high-end home cinema processor based on it, called the RS20i (yours for a cool £16k).

He told Tech Radar that systems such as Dolby Atmos not only change the way films are experienced, but fundamentally alter the way sound designers think about mixing movies.

''Suddenly every element in the frame becomes a separate sound object," he says "and the resulting soundtrack gets mixed on the fly at each and every cinema, depending on the speaker configuration in the theatre.

"If you have a hundred speakers down one wall, you can have the sound come from the exact speaker specified by the movie's sound designer. If that speaker fails, or you have far fewer speakers in an auditorium, then the system calculates where it needs to create a phantom speaker, so that the sound still appears in roughly the same space."

Object based
In Dolby Atmos every element in the frame can be a separate sound object, able to be placed anywhere to create an immersive soundfield

The process is called adaptive rendering. Dolby Atmos achieves this immersive innovation by combining additional sound channels with object based steering. Engineers can place an audio object anywhere spatially, with a precision impossible in conventional 5.1 mixes. The result is a more natural and immersive soundfield; the days of crude overhead pans are audio history.

Academy Award winning director Brad Bird was given a preview of Dolby Atmos earlier this year. He excitedly tweeted afterwards: "Was given a demo @ Dolby today of sequences from INCREDIBLES & MI:GP remixed in their brand new top secret system. KILLER."

Winning over Hollywood

Dolby is banking on the fact that mixing in Atmos doesn't impose significant time or creative penalties on a studio's existing workflow; after all, time is money. The post production process automatically creates 5.1 and 7.1 mixes of a movie, and it's these that are used for unmodified cinemas and home video distribution. The Atmos mantra is 'author once, optimise everywhere.'