EXPANDING YOUR IMAGINATION
Living up to its name, Home Theater Forum typically places emphasis on entertainment in the home. Today there are nearly 9,000 Blu-ray titles available globally which have become the reference benchmark for all entertainment in providing the best 1080p picture and lossless audio. The advantage of lossless audio is that it delivers an listening experience identical to the studio masters.
But what about the theatrical experience?
Dolby has been one of the leading pioneers in sound for the past 4 decades. It was their encoded surround effects that "wowed" audiences starting in the late 70s with films like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Apocalypse Now. Dolby's multi-channel 5.1 encoding was introduced both into the theaters and home entertainment systems during the 1990s and over recent years, Dolby has been improving upon the theatrical and home systems listening environments.
Recently, Dolby has been continuing to improve upon the theatrical listening environment. In 2010 the company introduced Dolby 7.1 which added two additional rear surround channels to auditoriums which enhanced overall directionality in providing a complete circle of sound around the audience.
Now, once again, Dolby is pushing the envelope in providing even more realistic sound for theatrical audiences....
Theatrical sound hasn't differed much than the 7.1 audio many consumers have been enjoying in their homes. Walk into most modern theatrical auditoriums and you'll find the traditional set of speakers lining the front, side and rear walls. Until now, this was the best way to provide 360 degrees of sound across the theater.
Typical Dolby Atmos theater with speaker arrangement
(Click on photo for larger picture)
Attempting to further immerse audiences into the most realistic and lifelike experience ever, Dolby has introduced their new Atmos format. Home Theater Forum was recently invited out to Dolby to listen to their new Atmos system, demonstrated in their state-of-the-art theater. With the placement of 6 surround speakers across the sidewall, 5 against the backwall, and 6 hanging above our heads from the ceiling, I anticipated a highly stimulating listening experience.
I was not disappointed.
Our demo began with the simple sound of falling rain group with occasional claps of thunder. As I had expected, the sound emanated directly above me. What I found interesting is that I was able to distinguish varying levels of sound overhead, from front to back. For instance, sitting mid-theater, I was able to sense more intensity in rainfall towards the front. When there were bursts of thunder, sound was designated to just a few of the ceiling speakers, giving the sense of pinpointed directionality.
The next set of demos we listened to were designed to demonstrate movement across the channels. In a 7.1 environment, to move objects from front to back/side to side, sound simply disappears from one side of the auditorium and appears in the other as you move it from one set of channels to the other. Now, with the addition of ceiling speakers, Atmos has the ability to fill in corners of sound that before were not possible.
Atmos is designed to be incredibly flexible. Dolby has a ProTools plugin so there is a minimal learning curve for mixers to start using it. It is adaptable to multiple theater configurations. Dolby currently has Atmos installed in a 26.3 configuration in their San Francisco mixing stage, a 38.1 configuration in their Burbank mixing stage, 41.3 in the Stag mixing stage at Skywalker Sound and they demo'd it in 47.3 at the Brenden Theatre in Las Vegas for Cinemacon. There can be a maximum of 64 channels.
(Left) Dolby's John Loose explains the process of mixing for Dolby Atmos. (Right) Dolby Atmos rendering plugin for ProTools enables pinpointing sound anywhere.
(click on images for larger picture)
The picture on the right shows a pre-production sample of the Atmos monitor Protools plugin. It gives sound mixers a visual indication of what is happening with the Atmos mix in real time and allows them to make adjustments. The top left of the monitor has 118 circles representing the 118 objects that can be individually placed and moved at any given time. The objects outlined in green represent objects that are being used in this portion of the mix. These objects are also in the 3D space in the lower right representing a theater. Here is where the sound mixer can actually "drag and drop" a sound object onto the soundstage and pan it around the theater the way they want by clicking and draging them with the mouse. It encodes in real time so they can hear the sound panning around them as they move it around with their mouse. The levels on the upper right are sound levels for the main 9.1 channels. The rectangle with the circles on the lower left represents the speaker configuration for the mixing stage being used and shows which speakers are currently active in the mix.
To keep it simple for sound mixers, they just need to mix in 9.1 (7.1 with left and right ceiling channels). Once they have the basic mix down they can take up to 118 individual objects at any given time and place them anywhere in the room. If they want the sound to fly around the auditorium they can simply take their mouse, click on the object, and drag it around the room based on how they want the sound to move (see picture above). This movement data is encoded in the mix and decoded real time by the Atmos processor in the theater based on the speaker configuration for that specific auditorium. The sound mixer doesn't need to do a 47.3. a 38.1 and a 26.3 mix -- just the single Atmos mix. Each Atmos system will have an initial setup done that includes an EQ of the room, calibrating all channels to 85db, and loading the exact speaker configuration. Once the system is set up, it will run a daily check to verify that all speakers are working correctly. If it detects a problem it will email a service request and route around the problem speaker(s) until that problem is fixed. Atmos systems use full range speakers at each location, and extend the surround speakers forward to make for more seamless pans. They recommend that there be one pair of ceiling speakers for each pair of side speakers.
Watching a scene from Planet of the Apes (2011) I was amazed to watch a helicopter spiraling out of control as I listened to the movement of the motors and blades as they seamlessly swept from the left side, over my head, to the right channels and then the front.
I believe horror and science fictions movies are going to provide the most terrifying, realistic noise landscape for audiences now that content creators can place threatening sound effects just about anywhere in the auditorium. Take for instance a sound demo (with no video) we sampled that placed us directly in an airplane seat. Around us were the sounds of passenger conversation. Above us we could hear people opening the overhead bins. Towards the front, the sound of the pilot making an announcement. Suddenly -- BAM -- the plane is out of control. We can hear screaming from every direction as the plane plunges towards earth. Suddenly the sound of rushing water from every direction, seemingly rising from bottom to ceiling as we crash into the ocean. Shortly thereafter, audio becomes muffled as we find ourselves completely submerged with the sounds of bubbles above us. Without any video accompaniment, we were left totally to our imaginations to use the sound for filling in the picture. It worked wonderfully.
In conclusion, Atmos helps tell the story. Every time you can make some technical improvement that removes a barrier you are helping the movie's worth. That’s a good thing. There are limitations to arrays and the most obvious limitation to a single array is the inability to pan a sound without the timbre changing as you go from one loudspeaker to an arrangement of speakers, making it possible to fill in those corners that were never possible before, and I think it’s exciting. Atmos is not only useful with loud movies with lots of pans, the accuracy and low distortion meant it’s probably useful to every movie, even a dialogue film.
Brave opens June 22nd
There will be a very limited Atmos theatrical rollout for 2012 as Dolby is focused on content creation for the Summer 2013 releases when they plan on having the system installed at 1000 screens nationwide. For now, Atmos will be unveiled in 15 theaters this year in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York for Disney/Pixar's Brave. While nothing has been finalized, it was obvious that Dolby would like to bring Atmos to home theaters, but we were told it was 3 to 4 years out, and there is no additional data. We did hear a rumor that they are looking at using 11 speakers and subs for home use.
(Click on the above video to learn more about Dolby Atmos)