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Dolby's Mega-Challenge

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By Gordon Meyer
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Earlier this year, I wrote an article for P3 Update about Dolby’s new Atmos sound system.  Atmos is intended to provide a dramatically more immersive audio environment in theatres  Some of the features include object oriented mixes instead of channel oriented, and adding height with speakers on the ceiling.  For example with the opening shot from the original “Star Wars,” when the Imperial Battle Cruiser flies overhead, you’re supposed to hear the sound moving from the back of the auditorium to the front directly over your head.

So far, most of the movies released in Dolby Atmos were originally mixed in either 5.1 or 7.1 with elements re-mixed for Atmos as a sort of retrofit.  According to Dolby, only a handful of movies so far have had their audio design incorporate Atmos technology from the beginning.  And, as I said in the original article, there’s definitely a learning curve involved so that sound designers can take full advantage of what Atmos has to offer. 

I’ve now seen several movies with Atmos soundtracks at three different Los Angeles area venues – the El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard, the AMC Century City and the AMC Burbank.  AMC has been one of the more enthusiastic supporters of Dolby Atmos, incorporating it into their ETX auditoriums, which combine extra-large screen size with kick ass sound. 

There is a long history of new technologies changing the way Hollywood and the world tell stories on the silver screen.  Technologies like synchronized sound, color, stereophonic sound, 3D and wide screen all began as novelties, only to become common practice over time.  Their use became common because it was clear that, not only did these technologies provide filmmakers with exciting new storytelling tools, their use made such an important difference in the audience experience that, until they became commonplace, audiences often went out of their way to see movies using these new technologies. 

This certainly happened in the late 1970s and early 80s when Dolby’s stereo optical technology first hit the market.  The original Dolby Stereo was a matrixed four channel system in which technical limitations prevented precise sound placement.  But, compared to monophonic sound, it made a huge difference in the audience experience.  When Dolby and DTS each introduced their respective digital sound technologies which featured discreet audio channels and separate right and left surround channels, audiences could hear a dramatic difference between Dolby Digital and its analog predecessor and they bought more than enough tickets to justify the investment of new sound equipment by exhibitors.  But does Dolby Atmos provide a comparably dramatic difference in audience experience?

My own completely subjective answer is no.  At least, not yet.  When researching my June P3 Update article, I attended back to back screenings of the new “Star Trek” movie, first in 5.1 channel sound and then in Dolby Atmos.  While I could hear a difference between Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 5.1, it frankly wasn’t a terribly dramatic difference – certainly not enough of a difference for me to want to go out of my way to experience a movie in Dolby Atmos instead of 5.1 or 7.1.  I recently attended a publicity screening of Disney’s “Planes,” a CG animated film that has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.  This was at the AMC multiplex in Burbank in their ETX auditorium, which is equipped for Atmos. While it sounded very good, my experience was that, just as with “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the differences between 5.1 and Dolby Atmos were subtle, rather than dramatic.

But I had an epiphany as to at least two reasons that I wasn’t hearing as dramatic a difference as I would have liked.   The first is that there is definitely a learning curve involved for audio designers, who are just beginning to explore and discover what these new sound capabilities can do for them.  Ironically, the Dolby Atmos trailer that’s often at the beginning of movies shown with this sound system shows off the way Atmos can deliver specific sounds to specific areas within the auditorium with pinpoint accuracy.  In order to really take advantage, sound designers need to train themselves to think outside the 5.1 channel sonic model they’ve been using for over 20 years.

But there’s another key factor that really hit home.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the features of Dolby Atmos is to add an audio dimension of height in addition to its horizontal plane of sound placement.  Dolby does this by placing speakers on the ceiling.  But at the AMC Burbank, the side and rear speakers were already at least eight to ten feet above the heads of the audience.  So hearing sound that was coming from directly above instead of above and to the sides didn’t have the same kind of dramatic impact.

Ironically enough, the kind of audio dimensionality that Dolby adds to the mix with Atmos will probably be much more dramatic when it’s ultimately adapted for home use because a living room has a more intimate sound field.  First of all, the speakers themselves are much closer to listeners, often as close as three feet, depending on the speaker layout. In a living room/home theatre environment, those side channel speakers are also much more likely to be somewhat close to ear level, so that when additional speakers are added to the layout for vertical channels, whether in the front, the sides, the rear or directly above, it’s much easier to discern that dimension of height.

I think that, in time, as audio designers learn more and more what they can do with Dolby Atmos or any similar sound system, we will hear the same kind of dramatic difference between 5.1 and Atmos as audiences did between Dolby Stereo and Dolby Digital.  Or to use a visual metaphor, our ears will be treated to the same kind of difference in audio fidelity as our eyes enjoy in the difference between standard def DVDs and high def Blu-rays. But if exhibitors are going to invest in an upgrade to Dolby Atmos from their present sound systems, audiences are going to have to hear that difference loud and clear and vote on the new audio standard with their box office bucks.

Stay tuned!

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time with encore airings at 8:00 PM Wednesday evenings and 6:00 AM Saturday mornings.

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Guest Thursday, 18 December 2014
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