It wows cin­ema au­di­ences, but get­ting Dolby At­mos into the home cin­ema mar­ket is a harder sell. Could dance mu­sic be the key to the tech­nol­ogy’s fu­ture?

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - First Tests -

As be­fits a com­pany with a very low blem­ish record of de­liv­er­ing state-of-the-art cin­ema sur­round-sound, Dolby’s most re­cent stan­dard – At­mos – has been both a cre­ative and com­mer­cial suc­cess. We’ve cov­ered the what, how and why of Dolby At­mos in these pages be­fore – and you can re­fresh your mem­ory at whathifi.com. So for now let’s just say the in­tro­duc­tion of over­head loud­speak­ers and a move to ob­ject-based en­cod­ing of film sound­tracks has, both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, brought a new di­men­sion to the way we ex­pe­ri­ence movie sound.

But while an At­mos-equipped cin­ema de­liv­ers an order of sound dif­fer­ent to that of its non-at­mos equiv­a­lent, it’s a lit­tle trick­ier to as­cer­tain the im­pact At­mos has had on home cin­ema.

Pro­ject­ing for­wards

Of course, man­u­fac­tur­ers of AV re­ceivers are fall­ing over them­selves to make their prod­ucts At­mos-cer­ti­fied – even smart­phones and tablets have been get­ting in on the act. But how many home cin­ema en­thu­si­asts are en­thu­si­ast enough to add two or four in-ceil­ing speak­ers to their set-up, or aug­ment their ex­ist­ing speak­ers with up­ward­fir­ing mod­ules to bounce sound from the ceil­ing?

The de­ci­sive ar­gu­ment for At­mos might be made by mu­sic. Sur­round­sound au­dio has al­ways been a dif­fi­cult sell (our list of Failed Tech­nolo­gies in last month’s is­sue in­cludes many ex­am­ples of supreme pub­lic in­dif­fer­ence to very ac­com­plished for­mats), and it’s not hard to un­der­stand why.

In the cin­ema, the viewer is keen to be trans­ported into the mid­dle of the ac­tion, to get a pro­tag­o­nist’s point of view; lis­ten­ing to mu­sic is much more about repli­cat­ing a per­for­mance, where the band or orches­tra is in­vari­ably at one end of the hall and pro­ject­ing for­wards to­wards the au­di­ence.

But Dolby At­mos DJ in­stead ad­dresses the au­di­ence in a night­club, an au­di­ence per­fectly happy to be placed right in the mid­dle of the sound and one far less

“DJS love the ex­pe­ri­ence, fans love the ex­pe­ri­ence. It has a fu­ture”

con­cerned with the per­ceived au­then­tic­ity of a per­for­mance.

The first (and, cur­rently, only) Dolby At­mos DJ in­stal­la­tion is at south Lon­don’s ven­er­a­ble Min­istry of Sound. Ar­guably the most su­per of all the Su­per­clubs, MOS had been get­ting by per­fectly well on its six be­spoke Martin Au­dio stacks be­fore Dolby, un­der the di­rec­tion of prod­uct man­ager (and ex-sound engi­neer) Gabriel Cory, in­cor­po­rated an­other 16 Martin Au­dio speak­ers into its ceil­ing.

Au­dio sen­sa­tion

The to­tal num­ber of speak­ers in the room rose to 60, across 22 dis­crete chan­nels. Sud­denly artists and DJS – most of whom need no sec­ond in­vi­ta­tion to get be­hind the MOS decks to be­gin with – have an ex­cit­ing new toy to play with and the MOS au­di­ence has a re­mark­able au­dio sen­sa­tion to en­joy.

At­mos-isa­tion starts in the stu­dio, where a track is split into ‘stems’ – spe­cific el­e­ments that can be ma­nip­u­lated within the 360-de­gree At­mos en­vi­ron­ment. Dolby’s plug-in for Pro­tools (the DJ’S record­ing and mix­ing soft­ware of choice) al­lows the DJ to se­lect in­di­vid­ual stems and pre-pro­gram where and when within the au­dio en­vi­ron­ment they want them to go.

“Once we have the stems, we can de­cide what stays in the stereo bed and what be­comes a move­able ob­ject,” says Gabriel Cory. “If there’s a speaker in the area you want to move a sound to, it’ll be driven – but if there isn’t it’ll go to the near­est one. That’s what so flex­i­ble about At­mos – you can mix it for Min­istry of Sound or for your car stereo. It keeps all the el­e­ments in place and down­mixes to the en­vi­ron­ment you’re lis­ten­ing in.”

The fin­ished mix is then down­loaded into the Dolby At­mos DJ app. The app is in three sec­tions: a tune on ei­ther side, with an ex­pand­able list of stems be­neath each, and a vis­ual real-time rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the room (with its var­i­ous stems) in the mid­dle. When a lap­top run­ning the app is hooked to the stan­dard MOS Pioneer CDJŠ2000 dig­i­tal turnta­bles and DJMŠ900 mixer, any­thing the DJ does within the app is mim­icked in the hard­ware – and vice versa. “So you can have the DJ app off to one side to per­form your set if you like – ev­ery­thing is mapped au­to­mat­i­cally to the CDJS. Some of the pan­ning might be pre­pro­grammed, but what’s neat about our soft­ware is you can still grab any one of the stems and move it around the au­di­ence in real time.”

Tech­nol­ogy with a fu­ture

Given Dolby At­mos DJ is cur­rently a res­o­lutely pro­fes­sional tool, it may not at first glance seem to be the do­mes­tic ace up Dolby’s sleeve. But be­cause it en­gages a younger au­di­ence of elec­tronic/dance mu­sic fans, un­like those de­ceased sur­round-sound mu­sic for­mats (The Doors in 5.1, any­one? Steely Dan? No?), and be­cause its tech­nol­ogy can quite eas­ily be democra­tised, there’s a de­cent chance the next gen­er­a­tion of dance mu­sic movers and shak­ers will want a home stu­dio with a cou­ple of over­head chan­nels to al­low them to come up with an At­mos mix. And once those club­bers have been ex­posed to the At­mos DJ ex­pe­ri­ence, they’ll be ev­ery bit as likely to want to repli­cate the sen­sa­tion at home as their film-lov­ing coun­ter­parts.

“This is just the first stage,” says Cory “The re­sponse has been great. DJS love the ex­pe­ri­ence, fans love the ex­pe­ri­ence. This tech­nol­ogy has a fu­ture.”

South Lon­don’s Min­istry of Sound club has the UK’S first, and cur­rently only, Dolby At­mos DJ in­stal­la­tion

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