“Instead of mixing and producing music to speakers, we are doing it to [physical] space,” said Michael Frey, UMG’s president of operations, global studios and technologies. “And then if we want, we can actually move it around through space. The heart of what we're trying to bring to life is a much bigger palette.”
Unlike traditional stereo mixes, Atmos Music provides a "you-are-there" quality, with tracks mixed so that each song is experienced differently depending on where you are in the room. When Bill Berry's drums kick in around the 50-second mark on R.E.M.’s “Drive” -- remixed in Atmos for a Blu-ray included with the 25th anniversary box set of the group’s 1992 album Automatic for the People -- the snare issues crisply and distinctly near the back wall of the studio. Continue to circulate, and other elements of the mix -- bass, guitar, Michael Stipe's cavernous vocals -- become more pronounced.
“You can personalize the experience by just walking around the room and positioning yourself,” said Samuel Lindley, UMG’s senior vp indie distribution strategy who has written and produced songs for artists including Mariah Carey, Ludacris and Twista under the alias The Legendary Traxster. “The idea from a creative standpoint is that it allows us to tell our stories in ways that we've never been able to before.”
The process of mixing or creating a song in Atmos involves conceptualizing everything in terms of physical space, with the separate parts of a composition moved around like pieces on a three-dimensional chess board to achieve the exact mix its creators desire. Unlike with stereo, the number of speakers is irrelevant so long as those speakers are Atmos-enabled.
“Because you're building to space and because you're not building to speakers, you can get this experience from one speaker, from a mobile device all the way to…[however] many speakers you want,” said Todd Pendleton, Dolby Laboratoriers’ chief marketing officer and senior vice president. “It's literally built the space into the experience.”
On monitors positioned above the mixing console, greenish-yellow circles of varying sizes move around inside a cube as an Atmos-mixed version of Beck's "7th Heaven" plays from the speakers. Each of those circles represents a different element of the mix, offering a visual illustration of how they've been positioned in the physical world.
"7th Heaven" represents an example of a new piece of music created specifically for Dolby Atmos. But older songs, such as Gaye's 1971 classic "What's Going On," can also benefit from the technology.
“One thing that struck me earlier was, I could hear Marvin Gaye's fingers snap,” said Lindley of hearing the song inside the Capitol studio. “I could hear details that would definitely get lost through a phenomenon called masking...[when] all of those different frequencies are coming out of two speakers, they lay over each other and hide things. When you can break that out into a spatial environment, you can start hearing every detail.”
The companies have held what they describe as “hundreds” of listening events to gauge the technology’s potential. At a swanky after-party for last year's Oscars, 1,500 well-heeled guests were caught unawares as Atmos-mixed tracks were suddenly played over the venue's speakers. Atmos was also deployed at a recent Wu-Tang Clan interactive exhibit hosted at Dolby SoHo to promote the group's Showtime documentary Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics & Men.
To be clear, Dolby isn't the only company making a push into immersive audio for music. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Sony Electronics introduced 360 Reality Audio, a technology that similarly utilizes three-dimensional space to enhance the listening experience. That technology has already received buy-in from companies Live Nation, Warner Music Group and, of course, Sony Music, as well as streaming services such as TIDAL, Deezer, nugs.net and Qobuz.
When asked about Sony's product, Frey responded, "The creative intent is what we're completely focused on. And we very much would like to be agnostic to solutions. And if there's another company out there that has a solution, god bless it. We're working with many different companies, but only one company has been put in front of our creative community -- because it holds up to the intent. And if others can get their technology to hold up to the intent of the creative, we're in. But until that happens, we can't put the trust of our creative community in harm's way. We can't do that."
The partnership between Dolby and UMG may have just been announced, but the label has already been engaged in a process of remixing old content as well as creating new music in Atmos. And they’re not just focused on complex recordings with dozens of tracks. Said Frey, “We can do this with an acoustic piece, where there's very little to play with except the vocals and maybe a guitar."
For a song like that, the difference is much subtler and more difficult to describe -- an observation that could be extended to the Atmos experience itself. Sometimes, it's easier just to listen.
“It's hard to talk about this, because it sounds like you're just using big fancy words,” said Frey. “You have to experience it.”