First of all, what IS it?
Let me start with this: We've been listening to audio from two speakers for ages (Left and Right Stereo). For example, a set of headphones often is only two speakers, one for each ear. While the stereo field in a production is quite capable of producing a three-dimensional image, it's limitations face some challenges when it comes to hearing sounds from behind you, below you, above you, in the back corner, etc.
Full-range stereo speakers can provide some ability here to give you a presentation that appears to your ears as immersive, meaning, you hear sounds from all around you, or at least, sounds that protrude from the speakers themselves. Vertical dimension is found by the tweeters being set on a different ear-height than the woofers. This allows at least some form of vertical sound-staging.
I own a 1989 set of Polk Audio SRS-SDA2.3TLs speakers that I have cherished for almost two decades. These exposed some new technologies in the 80s that allowed them to create a much wider stereo image because of how they can cancel signals going to each ear. The right speaker will send out-of-phase signals to your left ear which attempts to cancel some frequency range from the right speaker to the left ear, while the left speaker will send out-of-phase signals to the right ear that will cancel some left-speaker signals. This process, which is merely implemented by way of a line-lump transformer wire plugged in between the speakers gives you more of a head-phone type experience without headphones. They're quite amazing and fun to listen to. Still, this was early technology that helped launch other products decades later, such as a Surround bar.
Since Surround Sound (Dolby and DTS) became a usable concept in the consumer market, it's become quite a house-hold name and often sold in the consumer market big box stores as a "package" (which often sounds cold and harshly fatiguing). Where Surround Sound is limited is in the production and implementation. In Surround, a mix engineer can push signals to each speaker channel. This means, for example, the center channel is where most dialogue decisively comes from. But how do you get a voice to appear between the center and right-front speaker? You have to manually do that by bleeding some of the voice into the front-right channel. It's a painful time-consuming process, if done well.
Object-based Audio of Dolby Atmos
Dolby has developed a breakthrough technology that allows a mix engineer to take an instrument in a mix, assign it to a dot, and move it wherever desired on the sound-stage. Dolby Atmos technology will work out how to make the sound be heard exactly where the dot is placed in the mix. The ease of it is, that the mix engineer can put the dots on a playing field or sound-stage exactly where they need to go, and the technology works out how to play the audio through the speakers. Much like my 1989 set of Polk speakers, the technology aids in the experience. You don't have to worry about how it works.
Additionally, the objects can be placed above or below you! Atmos brings to the table a vertical sound-stage, or, in my view a spherical sound-stage. This means that you can deploy any number of speakers from 2 to 64 speakers, using up to 9.1 bed tracks and up to 118 dots (objects) and Atmos will figure out how to map the audio for a real immersive experience. In fact, even on headphones, the technology works hard to sort of create this spherical room you're listening to. The cool aspect is, Atmos does its job whether you have 64 speakers or 12. It adjusts how to work based on the implementation.
While the world we live in is far more complex than a set of speakers can recreate, we will work tirelessly to duplicate a recording from the room to the listener. Here's where I see the strength of Atmos:
Give movie-goers a truly new experience that has never before been widely available. Theaters will no doubt be purpose-built and retrofitted with Dolby Atmos systems that give thrill-seekers an un-caged nth dimensional experience. Couple this with 3D viewing, and we'll need barf bags during the show!
Watching a concert long after an artist has retired, meanwhile hearing the show as if you're actually in the 5th row.
Video-gaming WOW! How about a little Top-Gun Navy dogfighting? Want to hear everything around you?
Meditation rooms. I bet nobody thought of this yet. Imagine being able to sit in a field and hear birds fly over, the wind, distant chimes, and the occasional fog-horn to calm you?
Psychedelic dance club EDM systems. Imagine Amon Tobin's sandbox now. Where he's performed his mixes live in Surround, watch out! You're going to hear club mixes that can blow your mind!
Imagine being able to mix live in Atmos because of object grouping? Imagine the sound of a guitar moving around the room as the guitarist walks out into the crowd? Or Tommy Lee's drum sound going UP in the air and over the crowd with him!
The benefits of such a technology is profound. What I'm seeing is a mad-dash for new Atmos mixing and mastering rooms. And it's going to explode! It's being pushed feverishly on a massive scale.
I hate to think of something so cool as being flawed. While I believe the flaws aren't going to stop Atmos from becoming a household name and making its way into many home theaters, I do still see some reasons why it might prove to be a fad of sorts:
To build an Atmos room is expensive, no matter how you spin it. I mean this by doing it right. Sure, you can build very modest systems, but the technology will never be truly appreciated until you build a real Atmos system. And people do get bored with this sort of thing. It becomes just a part of the production and is an after-thought to many.
Modern music productions don't place much emphasis on three-dimensional space. They just smash all the music into your ears as loud as possible and with the heaviest impact. If you're listening to Katy Perry and you care about a totally immersive experience, something's fundamentally wrong with your perception. I believe the two experiences are diabolically opposed. I doubt most Katy Perry fans would care much about Atmos while riding schoolbuses or walking the noisy streets of Chicago listening to ear-buds.
Building mix and mastering rooms for Atmos is expensive. Many engineers have built rooms already, expecting the onslaught of major label clients who are already running to them with the Atmos hot-potato of Immersive audio sales. But once all the Beatles music is converted over, how many new clients are going to seek this, especially in the unsigned market?
Acoustics in a room are already challenging for a mere two speakers. How do you expect an Atmos room with 12 speakers will fare? Talk about a calculation nightmare, not to mention, most listening rooms aren't built with perfect ratios to begin with. Trinnov Audio offers some technology here which can automatically tune the room for you and keep working always. However, it's expensive.
Mastering engineers will likely not work as much with Atmos in their own spaces. There are a number of them building rooms for this, and their ears are trully magnificently tuned to how a sound should sound, but Atmos mix engineers working in a full-blown Atmos room I expect will have a much better idea of how the production should sound in a true Atmos space. After all, we're seeing a trend where more and more mix engineers are releasing their own masters. Look at Brittany Howard's Jaime recorded, mixed and mastered by Shawn Everett. Even though the Wiki shows Bob Ludwig provided mastering guidance, Bob didn't master the final release. Atmos mixes will likely see mastering engineers visiting the Atmos rooms and working there, or offering guidance, formatting and Quality Assurance services.
Underground artists, especially those who are analog purists or budget-minded aren't likely to want Immersive mixes. This is is the biggest detractor, in my opinion. What we've grown to love about stereo for over half a century, to many listeners, doesn't need anything else. Music is music. While listening to Adele perform at Carnegie Hall in Atmos would be nothing short of emotional, I don't believe many outside of the affluent listeners can afford to care as much. And we already know how niche the audiophile market is compared to the general music lovers.
Many mixes converted to Atmos might suck. Yep! I said that. And to be honest, some mixes shouldn't be touched again and again. I've heard some truly awful surround mixes on DVD-Audio. Some are totally superficial. Some, like Yes' Fragile in DVD-Audio omitted at least one massively important element in South Side of the Sky: the bass warble coming back into the final verse. I can't stand not to hear that mistake. Someone was in a hurry or wasn't too familiar with Yes.
It requires the listener to posses the decoding technology. This could very well limit the types of systems available to analog and tube aficionados and leave them only with brand new hybrid technology, or to require adding many expensive analog components to the system only afforded by the wealthiest for some time to come.
Ok, so I've provided at least some reasons why I feel Atmos is a bit trendy, but that's not a fault. That's just a reality. Dolby pulled out all the stops in object-based audio, and I believe they've struck gold. Honestly, I can't wait to find Atmos productions in the theaters and listening rooms appropriately designed for such experiences. However, I don't believe the rest of the planet is going to find much benefit to something so grand.
Billions of people listen to music. Most listen on earbuds, or on portable systems on a shelf or counter, and smartphone speakers. Some listen on a set of full-range stereo speakers in front of them. Fewer listen to music on a surround system. Even fewer listen in environments treated and set up properly for the right reproduction of sound. I personally don't see a majority of audio enthusiasts seeking immersive audio, and I don't see many music artists seeking to spend the extra money on it. I believe this will be where the fun falls short. After all, if you love a song enough, you don't need it to sound as if you're onstage with the performer, or on Row D, seat 23.
However, I do see the home-theater movie buffs, live concert lovers, and video-gamers dumping tons of cash into a room like this! Headphones alone won't be the best, so they'll want more. And Dolby Atmos is ready to give it to them.
Dolby Atmos and Immersive Audio seeks to rid the world of the old stereo standard, because we can. And in the minds of these companies it has to succeed, because if it doesn't, they may go bust. Dolby has been at the forefront of encoding/decoding of audio for the listener, starting with simple Analog Noise Reduction NR from the mid to late 1960's. Nearly everything Dolby has done has been started to improve the listening experience, and as a company, I've always been a fan. The only problem is that we're quickly running out of ways to "trick" the ears. We need a way to give the ears exactly what replicates real life. Atmos is probably the best in this field we're going to see for a long while.
Even though I believe it to be amazing to hear and experience, I do feel it's ultimately going to either be a fad or a technology that will only succeed if it's smarter than the listener. Only when you can take the setup process, additional technology, and expense away from the listener and give them an immersive experience that doesn't require anything new to buy (including the art), it might just become the thing we all do.