Audio Trip: Discovering Dolby ATMOS Theatre

Monday, July 2, the audio department went on a field trip to hear the launch of the new Dolby ATMOS theatre in Chicago.  Here is how this sound compares to other surround sound options (click image to learn more):

Movies which take advantage of the ATMOS system are developed with some similarities to games in that:

Individual sounds — like the debris hurling out of an explosion, or a voice booming ominously from the sky — are mapped to “objects,” which can be controlled dynamically and manipulated around the theater. There are two sides to the system — the rendering tool in the theater, and the tool that’s provided to the sound mixer, to create the objects and tag them with metadata.

This is the first time this kind of technology has been used in movies, and you can read lots more about it here:  http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/06/dolby-atmos-brave/all/


What did the audio guys think of it?


This was, without a doubt, the most amazing cinema sound I’ve ever experienced.  Granted it was also the loudest, but I think that’s due to this being the inaugural commercial run of this technology.  The two little shorts at the beginning were outstanding.  Showing something as simple as leaves rustling and falling through the air never sounded so amazing.  You could hear the little spinning leaf travel all the way around the back of your head and back into view.  But this wasn’t like any other surround sound I’ve ever heard.  They weren’t tricking your brain into thinking you could hear the leaf fly around you – you actually heard it, just like you were in the woods.  Simply amazing.  For me, the best part of the movie was just how well this technology complimented the 3D presentation.  You became immersed in the world, with an incredible depth of field.  The audio kept you completely immersed, while at the same time managing to focus your eyes and ears on the action on-screen.  One of my favorite parts was when the heroine went riding through the woods, firing arrows at multiple targets in the trees.  I honestly felt like I was the one riding the horse, not watching someone else.    I can’t wait to see what comes next with this technology.



I thought it was a great experience, especially when coupled with 3D done right. The mix was strange at first because I couldn’t understand how high action scenes could have full-ranged, blasting orchestral music while we could still hear all of the dialogue and SFX coming from the front. Then I realized that with so many channels, they simply sent the music to an array off-center and kept the other 37 speakers free for SFX and VO. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how a film like that is mixed for ATMOS. When the heroine shot that arrow that splintered the one already in the target, I heard bits of splintering wood coming right at us – like the actual slivers on screen, spinning and flying at the audience. WOW.



Atmos is definitely the future  of immersive theater sound presentation.  Agreed with Brandon that this was an unforgettable  cinematic experience.   I’ve always been on the fence about 3D film, but incorporating “3D” sound to match the visuals for me completely justifies the need/use of this tech. I’ve never been so completely immersed in a film environment before, and it was a cartoon targeted to families.  The use of so many speakers allowed the sound mixers to move/place audio elements in so many different places. There were times when the sound seemed like it was emitting from thousands of tiny invisible emitters floating throughout the entire theater.

Thinking about the film afterwards I realized that I would have probably disliked the film greatly if I would have seen it at our subpar theaters here in Champaign. My eyes and ears were completely glued to the screen and I caught myself so many times with a huge grin on my face. The film industry is taking cues from the gaming industry here in their presentation. This is one nice step in the direction of fully immersed VR environments and experiences.



This was pretty cool. My initial impression, just looking at the speakers, was that we’d be enveloped in a world of sound. This was mostly true a lot of times, but the tester in me couldn’t help but notice the gaps. The bear fight (spoilers) didn’t sound like it was coming from the back left when the camera turned completely away, it sounded like it just was right off the screen. I was really hoping they’d pay less focus to the front and center speakers and try to just put everything where it is in relation to the camera, but a lot of sounds would just cease to play once they were out of frame.  I guess it’ll flesh its self out like 3D did, and be less of a gimmick as the people making the movies stop thinking of it as a novelty.

But one thing I did really like was their use of the ceiling speakers. When the camera was facing top-down on the dinner table, the king’s voice immediately panned from front/center to ceiling since he was positioned at the top of the screen. It made sense, so much so that I didn’t even notice until I replayed it in my head. Byron pointed out the music being sent to its own little world was one of the first things I noticed, too. At times I thought the music was mixed a little too hot, but then they’d throw in vocals and barely duck the music and everything was perfectly audible. It was pretty impressive, to say the least.

I want one. I don’t want to test it, though.



The sound design was great in this movie.  I felt like the theater was overall just too loud, but the spatial element worked well at times.  The little 45 second ATMOS intro sounded like it was totally optimized for that setup, way better than the movie.  I wonder if the sound designers for Brave had this in mind or if it was retro-fitted to this setup.  Ultimately, the audio and 3D presentation made an otherwise basic movie into a really enjoyable experience.



The Atmos system sounded great overall.  The forest scene demo prior to the movie showcased things pretty well.  I had the impression that the panning trajectories they used pretty much lined up with the various rows of speakers, however.  That is, the sounds seemed to pan straight across the ceiling along the speaker rows rather than in curves or diagonals.  I’d like to hear that again, though, to see if that’s the case.  The demo did a good job showing off the discrete placement of sound, however.  (Sounds were much more clearly placed than in traditional 5.1 or 7.1 audio with each channel played back through several speakers.)  The sound in the feature was crisp, immersive, and impressive (albeit occasionally too loud IMO).  As others have pointed out, I think the increased number of channels helped prevent masking in the mix and complemented the 3D visuals as well.



I really enjoyed the surround sound of two wailing children in both of my ears. It was, at times, more intense than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.