Among the events of press day at CEDIA this year was Dolby's press conference to introduce Atmos for the home to the installer community. It started with a presentation from Brett Crockett, Dolby's Director of Sound Research, who reiterated the basics of Atmos, including its object orientation, the importance of overhead speakers, hacking the mechanism of human hearing to facilitate upfiring Atmos-enabled speakers, compatibility with existing Blu-ray players, and the news that Transformers: Age of Extinction will be the first Blu-ray with an Atmos soundtrack. (Unfortunately, Dolby made no announcements regarding other upcoming titles.)
Then it was time for a panel discussion, which I was privileged to moderate. The panelists (L-R in photo above after me at the far left) included Greg Russell, re-recording mixer for Transformers: Age of Extinction; Paul Wasek, Marketing and Product Planning Manager for Onkyo and Integra; Jeff Cowan, VP of Training for Denon and Marantz; Andrew Jones, Director of Speaker Engineering for Pioneer and TAD Labs; Joel Sietsema, Director of Brand Management for Definitive Technology; and Brett Crockett.
I started by asking what each panelist thought is the most important thing consumers need to know to get up and running with Atmos. Brett started by saying it's to realize that you have choice. "When we first announced this, we thought everyone would say, 'Dolby is going to try and make people buy a lot of speakers.' But with a very modest investment, you can get your foot in the water and build from there." Joel mentioned the importance of getting a demo, which is the only way to really appreciate what Atmos can do; fortunately, there will soon be many retailers where such a demo can be heard.
Andrew's response was that it's actually quite easy to implement; he likes to say it's only running four more wires to locations where there are already speakers (assuming you plan to use Atmos-enabled upfiring speakers such as Pioneer makes). Jeff pointed out that, while we wait for Atmos content, Atmos-equipped AVRs do a great job with legacy content; almost anything currently available can sound better because of the way Atmos technology works. On the other hand, Paul thought it was important to realize that Atmos content is coming, and soon.
Speaking of legacy content, I asked Brett to discuss the Dolby Surround upmixer, which expands anything from 2-channel stereo to 7.1 soundtracks to all available Atmos speakers. "We realized that there won't be a lot of native Atmos content at first, so we invented a new upmixer to replace Pro Logic II family. It works in a very natural way; we didn't want it to be hokey, and I think we succeeded. I love listening to stereo music through the Dolby Surround process. It's like the movies—I'm 'in' the sound. I've also heard some older Blu-rays that I could swear were Atmos mixes."
Next, I asked Greg about the process of mixing in Atmos for Transformers: Age of Extinction. "This was probably the most fun I've had mixing a movie in a long time," he said. "People speak about the objects, and it's really great to have that clarity and definition for each object," he said. "but what's also significant is to have full-range surrounds that don't wimp out when you pan things like helicopters to them. The sound retains its rich, deep character." He was originally skeptical that the cinema mix would translate well in a home environment, and he was really surprised that it works so well. "How great is it for people at home to experience the vision of a filmmaker?"
Brett reiterated that an ideal Atmos system includes full-range speakers all around, including the overheads, to maintain a consistent timbre as objects move throughout the soundfield. He also mentioned that movie-sound mixers were hesitant to put beefy sounds in the surrounds and overheads, because they were used to avoiding that in home mixes. "The first time I heard a 7.1 version of an Atmos mix, I knew that 7.1 has changed forever. An Atmos mix is going to sound better on a 7.1 system as a result."
I asked Greg if it's more or less difficult to mix in Atmos compared to mixing a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack. He replied that it can take somewhat longer than a conventional soundtrack, mostly because there's a new freedom to experiment, and engineers like to play around with things they couldn't do before. Even some of the musical elements can end up in the overhead speakers. "For example, the score for Transformers: Age of Extinction was a collaboration between composer Steve Jablonsky and Imagine Dragons, and we ended up putting the choral vocals in the ceiling, almost like the voices of angels."
What about the translation from cinema to home? For the home version, Greg listened on smaller monitors and found that it translated very well. "Just beware of lighting fixtures; we're moving a lot of air, so anything loose is going to rattle!"
Next, I asked Andrew and Joel about the greatest challenge they faced in creating speakers for Atmos. Joel said it was to nail the on-axis frequency response while minimizing any shift off axis. For Andrew, it was seeing how concentric drivers could be used, which was more of a head start because that type of driver lends itself to the technology really well.
Paul and Jeff also spoke about the greatest challenge they faced in developing Atmos AVRs. Jeff said it was a business decision—Atmos requires a lot of processing power, and the question arose about whether or not to allow current products to be upgraded to Atmos with a firmware update. Denon and Marantz decided they would not allow a firmware upgrade; instead, they doubled the number of DSPs in their new products to fully support Atmos as well as Audyssey auto room correction. Interestingly, Paul said that Onkyo and Integra made the opposite decision, and that some of their current products can be upgraded via firmware.
In the final few minutes, I asked about speaker placement, and Brett reminded everyone that Dolby just released a detailed installation guide, which you can download from AVS here. He also said that if the speaker placement isn't perfect, it should still work pretty well; Atmos is designed to be forgiving. Joel agreed, saying that Atmos is almost begging you to try and make it not work. It's very resilient, so don't be afraid if you don't have the perfect placement.
It was a great panel, and I thank Dolby for inviting me to moderate it. Dolby also recorded video of the entire thing, and when it's available, I'll post it on AVS.
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