MINISTRY OF DOLBY SOUND
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?
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.
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.
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 CDJ2000 digital turntables and DJM900 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