Inside Dolby's 3D Sound Revolution

Speakers
Illustration by George Wylesol

        

The Atmos format goes beyond stereo to put listeners in a virtual room. Amazon and labels support it, but will consumers buy in?

In a blacked-out theatre in the heart of Hollywood, the sound system is playing “What’s Going On” -- and Marvin Gaye’s voice is coming from above. The effect comes from a remaster engineered for Dolby’s Atmos Music format, which allows engineers to manipulate where sounds in a recording seem to be coming from. Dolby, a San Francisco audio company that licences audio formats to theatres and consumer electronics companies, believes that this kind of three-dimensional sound is the future of music -- and sold two of the three major labels, as well as some artists, on the benefits of Atmos.

For all the changes in how consumers listen to music, the stereo format has been the standard for 40 years, and few consumers seemed to want to hear music in 5.1 surround sound and other new formats. But while 5.1 and other such formats required additional speakers, Atmos lets engineers create an immersive experience using remixed albums and speakers that have Dolby technology built in.

The company has already won over prominent artists including Post Malone (who tells Billboard “it was the coolest thing that ever happened to me”) and J. Balvin (“The quality [between Dolby Atmos and stereo] is just not the same”). “Lizzo was crying” when she heard Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ in Atmos Music,” says Dolby svp and chief marketing officer Todd Pendleton. “She talked about how it freed the intent of what the artist had in their heart.”

Atmos tracks will only play back on compatible equipment, and before Christmas Amazon’s Echo Studio, a $200 smart speaker built in partnership with Dolby and supporting Atmos, was released. Consumers who buy the Echo Studio can test out Atmos Music on Amazon Music HD -- the company’s $15-a-month high-fidelity streaming service -- by requesting to hear specific playlists of Atmos-enabled songs (including “What’s Going On”). Tidal also offers music in Dolby Atmos on its high-fidelity plan, which is $20 a month.

“Streaming services see Dolby Atmos as a premium experience for their listeners,” says Dolby Music Director Tim Pryde. That’s one reason there’s so much enthusiasm among labels and streaming services, both of which see premium formats as a way to boost their margins. So far, consumers haven’t responded with as much enthusiasm. But a MusicWatch survey found that most people who pay for a music streaming subscription also value higher audio quality -- and half of them said they would be willing to pay more for it.

Atmos also has backing from two of the three major labels, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, which have announced plans to make their music libraries available in the 3D format. “We’ve been working quietly with Dolby to make Atmos into an immersive format that’s embraced by artist teams, music services and fans,” says UMG’s president of operations Michael Frey. UMG has 10 Atmos studios located in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and London, with plans to build more studios in 2020, including additional Atmos facilities in Capitol Records’ Studio E to keep up with demand. Dolby also provides Atmos plug-ins to digital audio workstations like Abelton, Pro Tools and Nuendo, making it possible for more than 500 recording studios worldwide to be Atmos-enabled -- including the famed Abbey Road Studios. 

“That learning curve on the technical side is pretty low,” Pryde says. “The philosophical learning curve, that's the part that I think takes more time. What do I do now that I know I can place an instrument above me? Do I want to do that? Is that cool or is there something else that I want to do? That's the part that the artists start to go, ‘Oh well let me spend more time crafting this, because I've spent 20, 30, 40 years crafting stereo, I kind of have to unlearn that.’”

“Artists come into the studio believing they have already created the best mix possible,” Samuel Lindley, senior vp indie distribution strategy at UMG, tells Billboard. “Then they hear it in Atmos and there’s this light that clicks on -- you can see inspiration take hold and they immediately start talking about all the new space they have to work with in Atmos."

Sony has its own 3D audio format, 360 Reality Audio, which is available on headphones and features music from Sony Music’s catalog, but it requires a third-party app to setup and use, which limits its use cases for the public at large who prefer a seamless experience. For all the effort, 360 Reality Audio does sound pretty fantastic.

For Dolby Atmos, widespread adoption will hinge on how well the format sounds in headphones. For now Dolby Atmos is only available on headphones on select Android devices using Tidal’s high-fidelity service. “Our goal is to bring the same 'wow' factor that speakers now provide,” Frey says. Dolby’s been courting additional headphone partners, including Apple, to get Atmos in the hands -- and on the heads -- of more users.

When it comes to devices that will push audio to those headphones, Dolby is ahead of the curve, with over 500 million Atmos-enabled devices on the market, including the latest iPhones, iPads, and Samsung Galaxy smartphones. 

There are only a few thousand songs available in Atmos right now. Universal Music Group says it is working to remaster albums and master upcoming albums in Atmos. “This is now about getting the content and creating these experiences and getting the artists on board,” Pendleton says.

Dolby is already working on the live sector as well. During a recent Tidal showcase at Hollywood’s Neuehouse, Grammy-nominated rapper Meek Mill performed. Overhead speakers lining the venue’s ceiling had his voice coming down like hail. It was formidable, even for the cheap seats. The company has also brought Atmos to the rock band Santana’s Las Vegas residency at the House of Blues.

“It's kind of like when we went from film to digital,” says Drake music video director Karena Evans. “It's going to change the entire game for filmmakers and for artists.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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