What is Dolby Atmos? An in-depth look at the latest surround sound technology

Introduction: Dolby Atmos is a revolutionary surround sound technology developed by Dolby Laboratories. Using high-level speakers in combination with traditional surround sound setups, Dolby Atmos provides an immersive and multi-channel sound experience. Although it has been used in the film world for nearly a decade, Dolby Atmos is still in its infancy when it comes to music and music production. In this article, we will discuss the requirements for mixing in Dolby Atmos, considerations when choosing speakers, the role of headphones, and the difference between Dolby Atmos and Apple Spatial Audio. We will also explore the question of whether small home studios should invest in an Atmos mixing room.

Requirements for mixing in Dolby Atmos: To mix in Dolby Atmos, there are several requirements that must be met. Some key requirements include:

  1. Room Size: A minimum space of 3 meters wide by 3.5 meters long is needed, similar to the size of an average bedroom.
  2. Number of speakers: A minimum setup of 9.1.4 is recommended, which means 9 ear-height speakers, 1 subwoofer and 4 height speakers. The number of speakers can vary between 8 and 14, depending on the specific configuration.
  3. Dolby Atmos I/O: An audio interface with sufficient inputs and outputs is required, such as 8 outputs for a 5.1.2 setup. This ensures that the sound is processed and delivered correctly.
  4. DAW Support: Additional software, such as the Dolby Renderer, may be required for mixing and controlling the mix on other systems. It is important to work with a digital audio workstation (DAW) that supports Dolby Atmos.
  5. Speaker stands and cabling: Speaker stands, cabling and power are required to correctly position and connect the speakers. In addition, 2-4 height speakers should be mounted in the ceiling to create the three-dimensional sound.
  6. Acoustic Treatment: Additional acoustic treatment may be required to address challenges that may arise when mixing with multiple speakers. This can help improve the sound quality and consistency of the mix.

Although setting up a full Dolby Atmos mix room like those found in large studios can be costly, with the right modifications and simplifications it is possible to achieve an Atmos setup in a home studio.

Considerations when choosing speakers for Atmos mixes: When choosing speakers for Atmos mixes, there are some important considerations. Dolby Atmos requires that all speakers in the setup be full range and capable of producing frequencies up to at least 40 Hertz. This means speakers with 8- to 10-inch drivers are needed, rather than smaller 5-inch near-field monitors that would not suffice.

Another recommendation from Dolby is that all speakers in the setup be exactly the same or sound as close together as possible. This means it is ideal to use all the same speakers. The only exception is for the 2-4 height speakers, which may be smaller. For example, if you choose Yamaha HS8s as ear-height speakers, you can use the HS8s for all ear-height speakers and use the HS5s for the height speakers.

Headphones as an alternative: While it is possible to mix stereo and Atmos tracks using only headphones, there is an important difference between the two. When mixing stereo tracks with headphones, you can check the mix on real speakers, even if it's just a small portable radio or by listening to the mix in the car. This makes it easy to get an idea of how the mix sounds in the real world.

For Dolby Atmos, however, it is not easily accessible for everyone to listen to their mixes through a real-world Atmos setup. This may complicate the mixing process, but it is not impossible. It is important to realize that the binaural mix and the actual Atmos mix are two different things, even if they are both recorded in the same audio file. Mixing with headphones makes the binaural version of the mix sound good, but without an Atmos setup, there is no way to know how the mix will sound through speakers. This can be challenging and some will consider it a blind guess.

Dolby Atmos versus Apple Spatial Audio: It is important to distinguish between Dolby Atmos and Apple's Spatial Audio. Although they are similar technologies, each has its own approach. Apple has taken the Atmos decoding process and put its own spin on it. This means that when you mix a song and upload it to a streaming service, the mix may sound different on Tidal than it does on Apple's music service. Apple has adopted their own methods for decoding Atmos mixes. This difference can lead to variations in sound reproduction depending on the platform on which it is played.

Logic Pro X offers an edge: Logic Pro X, a popular digital audio workstation (DAW), offers an advantage over other DAWs when it comes to Atmos mixing. Logic Pro X lets you listen to the binaural version of your mix using both Dolby Atmos and Apple's renderer. This allows mixers to control how their mix sounds on both Dolby Atmos-compatible systems and Apple devices. Other DAWs and Dolby's Rendering software only offer the ability to listen to the binaural headphone mix with Dolby's decoding. While there are ways around this problem with other DAWs, the process of controlling the mix on an Apple device can be more complicated.

Should home studios invest in an Atmos mixing room? The question of whether small home studios should invest in an Atmos mixing room has no simple answer. Dolby Atmos is an ambitious attempt to bring stereo music to a surround setup, but previous attempts such as quadraphony and 5.1 have not achieved the desired success. Atmos has potential, however, because it is scalable and can even be listened to with simple devices such as a phone and earbuds. To be truly successful, however, Atmos must be widely embraced by consumers, not just industry. It is up to individual home studios to decide if they want to invest in an Atmos setup, taking into account the potential and possible challenges of the format.

Differing opinions: Looking at what people think of Dolby Atmos, opinions are divided. Nigel Godrich, producer of Radiohead, considers the "Dolby Atmos thing" nonsense and bluster. He believes that music cannot sound good in a 5.1 setup and is difficult to master. He remains of the opinion that mono is limited and stereo is optimal. On the other hand, Jan "Stan" Kybert of Dean St Studios, who has worked with artists such as Paul Weller and Oasis, is convinced that Dolby Atmos for music will certainly surpass stereo. With these differing views in mind, it is clear that there is no consensus on the future of Dolby Atmos in the music industry. (source:https://www.production-expert.com/production-expert-1/dolby-atmos-is-it-worth-it)

Conclusion: It is not easy to determine whether small home studios should invest in an Atmos mixing room. Dolby Atmos is an ambitious technology that aims to bring stereo music to an immersive surround setup. While Atmos has potential and is scalable, it must be widely embraced by consumers to be truly successful. Mixing Atmos tracks presents challenges, especially when listening to the mix through speakers without an Atmos setup. There are different opinions about Dolby Atmos, ranging from skepticism to belief that it will surpass stereo. It is up to individual home studios to decide whether to invest in Atmos, taking into account the potential and challenges of the format.

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