Soundsational! Dolby Atmos delivers exciting new audio platform


Just last month, we concluded our annual Class of 2011 overview detailing the latest trends in cinema sound and picture. Bigger, louder and even better is where movie theatres are heading. In the same April issue, Dolby Laboratories offered a teaser ad and invitation to experience the “future of sound” at CinemaCon. And now it’s here: a platform with unlimited possibilities rather than finite channels; with the ability to isolate an equally unrestricted number of individual sound objects and address them exactly to a distinct speaker or group of speakers, anywhere in the auditorium—not just all around but also from above. No wonder it is called Dolby Atmos (

Dolby enabled Film Journal International to experience all-ears and to report first-hand to our readers how revolutionary the approach chosen for Dolby Atmos truly is. Suffice it say that while this author was listening and learning, the engineers, developers, software designers, product managers and executives at Dolby were still talking in code name. Dolby Atmos wasn’t even revealed until very, very close to print deadline. On behalf of our readers, we thank the Dolby team for making this happen. With their help and full support, we are providing exclusive feedback and details about what CinemaCon attendees will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.

In addition to strong participation in the trade show and throughout the convention, which Doug Darrow, senior VP, cinema, calls “the biggest presence at this convention Dolby has had in many, many years,” Dolby Atmos will be unveiled to the industry in the same auditorium at Brenden Theatres at The Palms where Dolby 7.1 Surround was launched.

“We want the industry to know where we stand,” Darrow explains, “that we are serious about this technology and that we are putting the weight of the company and of our global brand behind it… We view this as a technology on the order of digital, 3D or the other major technology trends. Just in the way that Dolby introduced breakthrough audio technology several decades ago, the Dolby Atmos platform is of that same order.”

Design and Differentiation: Creating Dolby Atmos
True to its name, Dolby Atmos is indeed all about creating, maintaining and enhancing “atmosphere” in the cinema, both of the experiential environment and in support of richer storytelling. “The Dolby Atmos mix continues to work in the channel world,” reassures Stuart Bowling, senior technical marketing manager for cinema at Dolby, because this is what the industry is used to. In terms of the current workflow, one could think of it as 7.1 adding two distinct overhead arrays and then loading additional sound objects on top, all finely tuned and automatically controlled by the Dolby Atmos cinema processor.

Bowling credits “Dolby’s unique connection to the creative community, and the fact that we have been working on dub stages since the company’s inception” with making sure that Dolby Atmos plugs right into Avid Pro Tools, which he explains is the de-facto standard in sound editing and mixing. “This will fit seamlessly into all the post-production tools that the industry uses, yet we are providing them with this entirely new level of control… Now the creative forces can isolate sound elements or groups of elements that are separated from the main mix to be reproduced with far more resolution in the room.”

Unlike a channel-based system, Dolby “wanted to give a solution that was unconstrained,” he continues. “A content creator should be able to go off and do whatever they need to do. We gave them a huge amount of room. They will be able to create a combination of up to 128 channels/objects, sound elements stacked at any one time. We can render out no less than 64 separate speaker feeds.” Dolby’s soundscape demo of getting on an airplane and beyond seemed to make full use of every single one of them, resulting in a much more realistic experience than your jetlagged reporter could bear. Playing back and forth at the flip of a joystick in 5.1 and 7.1 allowed us to compare and to bring out all the Dolby Atmos. We all know how great 5.1 and, of course, 7.1 do sound, but wait until you can soak up the full atmosphere.

While studio footage remixed by top talent in the field is anticipated for CinemaCon—along with the possible announcement of the very first Dolby Atmos title—Bowling sticks with gunshots and a helicopter to make his point for now. The sounds flying above the audience, around the auditorium and into the corners and way beyond can now be directly targeted to every single surround speaker. The gunshot “will now be heard precisely in that one speaker in the middle rather than traditionally on the entire wall.”

The Dolby Atmos platform “was designed to really give the creative community new ways to tell a story. Sound is such an important part of that movie experience. The role of sound is to give you, the audience, the feeling for what is happening…to make you feel the power of that action.” With Dirty Harry’s Magnum, it is actually not the sound of the gun alone, he opines, but “to make you feel the recoil and the energy. We can’t physically give that to the audience, so sound fills in that gap by giving you the sense of ‘Wow, that’s loud! That’s big, that’s powerful!’”

Furthermore, “by having all of this precision now—the ability to place sound literally anywhere in the room where you want it to be for the audience—and being able to separate out any one element,” Bowling believes that Dolby Atmos achieves high fidelity and clarity throughout. “Once background noise, music and all the other elements are stacked together and diffused through the surround array,” as is the case for now, they lose resolution because “you are spreading all that information through multiple speakers.”

In terms of what will happen to those speakers in the Dolby Atmos upgrade, Bowling promises an update and “more details” to the White Paper that was first introduced at ShowEast 2011. For new construction or if someone completely retrofits their auditorium, Dolby has recommended speakers to be located six feet [182 cm] apart. Overheads should be placed parallel and in alignment with the surrounds. “If you had six speakers on the side wall, you’d place six overheads as well on each side.” He says that will increase density and provide a much better surround function. “We already started talking with manufacturers. Part of that discussion is how they can adapt and begin to tweak their technology to make it better for the Dolby Atmos format as well.” For overhead surround speakers, for instance, a wider dispersion would be desirable. “Over the course of this year, Dolby will have done a lot of work with all the major speaker manufacturers to go over what the fundamental changes are, so that they can accommodate and begin making product available.” (Availability of Dolby Atmos cinema processors is discussed later in this article.)

“For existing theatres, we can build on top of what they have without the exhibitor needing to completely gut the auditorium. We can actually utilize what is there,” he assures. “While we’ve shown the ability to use overheads, from feedback that we received, we feel that overheads will predominantly be going into the main auditoriums. But in smaller auditoriums where putting in overheads may not work, the same format can play back because the audio file itself, based on the input from the mixer, is telling us in that file how to deal with each individual configuration. The Dolby Atmos processor will automatically re-render that information into the existing surround array.” In other words, “while the environment of room shape, size and geometry is changing in the interaction, the mixer has provided all the information for us and we are allocating and re-rendering the mix based on how he wanted to play back in that new room.”

Going back to Dolby Digital, which would automatically default to Dolby SR, Bowling says, “a non-Dolby Atmos-enabled room will completely ignore the format. With the next-generation decoder in it, the processor will know exactly what to do, without anyone having to include some kind of cue in the playlist to tell it what it is. It will also know, for the first time, the full details of the playback room.” In addition to all the facts about the auditorium’s physical attributes, that includes the number and types of speakers along with their respective power capabilities. “So we are making the box a lot more intelligent about knowing the environment that the soundtrack is going to play back in.”

As has been the Dolby policy in the past, that same box will also continue to support the existing formats in the market. “For legacy theatres, we can print-master out other versions such as 5.1 and 7.1.” While multiple-format deliverables and where they go continue being tracked by the studios, going forward “the biggest benefit for distribution is a single distribution file,” Bowling notes. “With Dolby Atmos they don’t have to worry about multiple inventories, because it will only play back in a room that is capable of playing it back. And any non-enabled theatre won’t even know Dolby Atmos is there.”

While he believes that Dolby “would definitely not allow upmixing of a feature that was not created in Dolby Atmos because that would have the format do something that the content creator did not want,” Bowling does not rule out the possibility of creating deliverables for other multi-channel systems entering the market, such as Auro-3D and imm sound. Again, that would entirely depend on the filmmakers, he insists. “It is important that we leave that decision for the content creator. Even though our processor can adapt itself to different room shapes and sizes, we’re not making the decision how that happens. But upmixing for alternative content, for instance, is certainly something that we are looking at as a potential feature that would go into the processor.”

Between now and when the processor actually arrives, “some of the features could change.” Bowling doesn’t “want to give away too much of what is in that box. Needless to say, we’ve got a lot of cool technology that we haven’t done before and that we want to get to the exhibitor beyond the sound format itself. The Dolby Atmos platform will provide them with a new kind of differentiator and we are allowing them to invest as they see fit.” So far, the main focus has been on the content front “so that we can start generating a pipeline as movies start to be released in the Dolby Atmos format.”

Development and Deployment: Launching into the Dolby Atmos
“This has been a real evolutionary process,” declares Stuart Bowling, explaining that the genesis of the Dolby Atmos platform goes back as far as 2007. “We were approached by a major exhibitor who was looking to the future and saying, ‘We are going to start changing the way in which we design and build our auditoriums. With all the changes in imaging technology, something has to happen with audio. What would that look like?’ Dolby was already looking at that same question, but our ability to change the industry was partly held back because the footprint of digital was still relatively small at that time by comparison to where we are now.”

From his experience with the establishment of DLP Cinema at Texas Instruments, Doug Darrow draws an interesting comparison. When digital cinema came about, he says, the main talking point about whether it would be better than HD “became wrapped around resolution as the metric of quality, when, in fact, it’s about the complete experience.”

By moving away from a channel-based sound system and creating an expandable platform, Dolby Atmos will avoid that same pitfall of a numbers game. As Dolby’s senior VP for the cinema segment, Darrow feels that Dolby Atmos is “another very important and likely most impactful technology” that continues to expand upon the entire moviegoing experience. “We all know that audio is more than half the experience. You talk to the creative community, that’s what they tell you. This is a way to put an audio experience in this environment that is different and unique, and clearly in line with the type of experience that the industry has been looking for. As we started to introduce this to exhibitors, there is pretty enthusiastic support,” Darrow confirms.

At the same time, he knows that “exhibitors are rightfully cautious about how much they invest in other technology generations that they have to worry about. Is it going to be fully supported by the creative community? Is this for all movies or a limited number of movies? They are going to ask all of the same kinds of questions that happened with digital projection, 3D and every other major technology transition.”

In-house at Dolby too, many, many more questions were asked over the past four years. “We spent a lot of time talking about the problems,” confirms Matt Cuson, senior marketing director of the cinema segment. “The good news is for every solution that was proposed, there was somebody in the room who was able to shoot it down. And when we came up with another solution, somebody else would shoot that one down.” After a while, the Dolby team “had a pretty good idea of the killer issues that were going to block any idea that we came up with. So we got to a point where the feeling was almost like, ‘Okay, this is an impossible solution.’ Which is good, because if we can actually solve it, then it is going to be really hard for someone else to solve it. We were really encouraged by how difficult the problem was.”

One running theme throughout all the discussions was about expanding the number of channels, Cuson continues. “11.1, 13.1, 22.3…what’s the right number? Since nobody could agree to a number, that was a clue. Okay, if we can’t agree internally, with all the experience that we have,” the question became: How would all the stakeholders in the industry ever come together on one? Never mind that there would always be the next higher number. “So it doesn’t matter what number we picked, it’s going to be the wrong number for somebody, right?” Cuson asks. And just like 2K and 4K before, “it also opens the door for a competitor to come in with a bigger number down the street.”

As part of the development process, Dolby remixed existing film footage “to publicly gauge interest” in 11.1 and 13.1, respectively. “We got a lot of interest,” Bowling confides. “In fact, maybe too much interest. Even though we said it was a concept, the industry kind of preempted us and thought we would imminently come out with something.”

Going through a learning curve on both sides, the first major hurdle was in post-production. In 2008-09, “mixing in 11.1 or 13.1 would’ve doubled, if not tripled the production of a movie,” Bowling recalls. “They felt like we were adding another deliverable and were wondering how to mix in all those different formats… We don’t have time to keep adding onto the production.” By contrast, with full integration into existing workflows and an infinite number of sound objects on top of a manageable number of channels, Dolby Atmos does not constrain the content creator. “That’s why we spend a good chunk of our time with content creators and bringing in mixers, sound designers, editors and directors… They are all actively involved in making that technology happen. It is not Dolby knocking on the door one day, saying, ‘Hey, we have another format for you.’ Content is king, there is just no way around it. You can build all the formats you want, but if the industry isn’t excited about it and is not going to use it, that’s how formats fail.”

Cuson further notes, “We didn’t want to be in a position where we ever had to say ‘No’ to anyone.” With feedback from all partners in the industry, “we determined that if you add more speakers, you can do more things with them… You have to have an arbitrary number of speakers, and we needed an arbitrary number of locations. Because for a variety of reasons—structural, financial—they don’t always end up where we tell people to put them. That became the guiding light. How do you invent a system that does that?” Thereafter, “it quickly turned into a real system discussion,” he explains. “It wasn’t about format, it wasn’t about bits and bytes flowing from here to there, or how you pack stuff. That conversation happened way, way later.” With the Dolby Atmos platform now, “we have this end solution that was a lot of work but is going to be relatively easy for the industry to absorb.”

Part of all that work was “setting up a test facility in a commercial cinema,” Bowling continues. “The auditorium was shut down for seven months. We placed speakers everywhere to fully understand what was going on. How do speakers interact? How do we obtain the directionality we are looking for? What was the perception of sound in that room? And with stadium, what is it like when you’re in the back, middle and front? Research was able to get a lot of great data,” he assures. At the same time, “we turned our screening room here into a mix room and created the majority of our Dolby Atmos content there. That way, we could take it over right away to see how it played back and translated into the commercial auditorium.”

If all continues to translate as well, what rollout timing could the industry expect? “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” Cuson warns, calling for a phased approach in the adoption “where everything has to progress in a balanced way. You need a few theatres, you need a few titles. You need a few more theatres, you need a few more titles. You just have to work it out, keeping everything at the right pace. It has to happen at a common pace.” To get things started, however, “we need a baseline, some critical mass for the very first movie. You need enough screens to make it worthwhile. But also not so many that support becomes difficult, and you possibly set yourself up for failure.”

Dolby is currently looking at anywhere from eight to 15 locations worldwide “that we would set up with a Dolby Atmos in-theatre system,” Cuson expects. “With that foundation we would build out the numbers as big as we practically can in the timeframe that we have.” Realistic expectations for 2012 remain under 100 systems, “but the ultimate goal is to get 500 or 1,000 screens by summer 2013.” At this point in time, when content creation is the first priority, “the current Dolby Atmos systems that we are developing are really optimized for production at the studio. It is not yet optimized for exhibition and will go into a theatre only temporarily, for playback of the movie and to gain additional experience. We will eventually pull those production units out and replace them with a proper Dolby Atmos cinema processor.”

All the while, the Dolby team will be working in tandem with all other exhibitors “to build out their speaker and sound systems,” Cuson says, and on having their amplifiers and wiring ready. “Even if they can’t play Dolby Atmos this year, exhibitors need to start planning for it this year.” He recommends to look at financing, operations and construction. Exhibitors should plan when to take the theatre off-line to do any construction, if necessary, and think about any other upgrades they want to accomplish at the same time. “When the cinema processor becomes available, we’ll plug it in. And hopefully that will then open up 500 or 1,000 theatres in a span of a few months.” The long-term goal, however, is for “every movie and every theatre.”

Bowling echoes that sentiment. “Dolby certainly has a long history of bringing successful formats to the market. Dolby 7.1 is still growing, we’ve actually eclipsed 60 titles in under two years,” he enthuses about the most recent format (FJI July 2010). “We took a stance for the industry, working with everyone and getting on the soap box evangelizing the benefits for the industry and for the greater good of having much more exciting content available for exhibition. And that’s certainly what Dolby Atmos will do. This format will be a real differentiator for them which they have not had before. It is going to give them that new tool and the excitement factor.”

With Dolby Atmos, “we are now in a situation where you can’t do this in the home,” Cuson concurs. “This is an experience that you’ll only get in the theatre… This needs to be massively deployed and we are very serious about making sure that it does get massively deployed. Even though Dolby Atmos will first be heard, and seen, in the bigger premium theatres—and that’s certainly worthy—Dolby doesn’t do anything for those alone. This format really has to be for everyone in the industry. So we spent a lot of time making sure that it was going to work for every single movie, in every single theatre, should people want it.” Cuson believes “that’s kind of very much who Dolby is, and what we’ve been doing all along, in terms of compatibility and really embracing the whole industry. And, of course, elevating the art of storytelling and the art of the cinema experience, getting people out of their homes to come to the theatres.”

Ioan Allen on Dolby Atmos
“We’ve reached the end of the line with the channel-based system,” states Ioan Allen, senior VP at Dolby. “We’re asymptotic to perfection. You could see what was needed next was the ability to put a sound anywhere.” Already in 1953, Harvey Fletcher, an American physicist, inventor of the hearing aid and one of the fathers of stereo sound, went on record with that very fact. Allen provides the relevant quotation: “Stereophonic systems do not consist of two, three or any other fixed number of channels. There must be sufficient of these to give a good illusion of an infinite number.”

Allen is also ready to admit that “we couldn’t do that yet. But Dolby Atmos gives us the chance to accomplish it now, I believe.” To date, if a sound moves from front right, center and left to the left wall, “you get a shift which comes from going to an array as opposed to a discrete. With Dolby Atmos, because of sound objects addressing individual speakers, you can make the transition go around terribly smoothly. Suddenly I can put a sound anywhere I like. In fact, not just on the horizontal plane but in the vertical plane as well. Dolby Atmos creates a totally symmetrical hemisphere in terms of the playback.”

Other good things come with Dolby Atmos as well, he continues, like “the ability to automatically create a 7.1 and 5.1 mix with it to make it easy for existing theatre systems. It has always been a Dolby philosophy to never force the theatre owner to have to buy something new. We have always ensured to remain compatible with the previous generation. We respect our customers, if you like. So the theatre owner has the choice to do this rather than having to do it.”

If Allen gets his choice, he “would not want Dolby Atmos to be associated with 3D only or the huge picture experience. Because I believe Dolby Atmos can work for any movie. Coming up with a format that can be universally adopted and is not just tied to some ‘boutique’ experience is something that we’ve done very consciously in the past. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t mind being attached to a premium experience,” he laughs. However, when you are doing what Dolby is doing, “making it sound better, you can’t come up with a movie that doesn’t want to sound better.”