Dolby Atmos: For more than just action movies

As Point1Post finalised the mix for the new Showcase Cinemas’ XPlus trailer in Dolby Atmos, Audio Media paid a visit to see how this immersive listening experience is providing new opportunities for mixers and producers alike.

XPlus is Showcase Cinemas’ proprietary large-format auditorium experience that combines Atmos sound with high-quality digital projection and screen technology to offer a more immersive experience. BAFTA-nominated re-recording mixers Adam Daniel and Graham Daniel completed a number of mixes for the UK, US and Brazilian markets.

This, however, is far from Point1’s only experience of Atmos, with foreign-language films, theatrical presentations and more in its back catalogue. Graham Daniel is keen to point out that Atmos is not just for action movies: “We’ve just done a Turkish movie, Mucize, based up in the mountains of east Turkey and it’s wonderful. The sounds that have been created – people shouting in the mountains – you can hear it all the way around you. And all of the placement sound suddenly becomes a reality. We also had a guy who kisses a pigeon near the top of the screen and then releases and in this room we heard it fly down the side and reappear on the other side of the screen. It’s so real.

Burak Topalacki, who created all of the sound design and was a mixer on the trailer as well as acting as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on Mucize, added: "It’s not only surround. Height is like this new dimension for us. We have this pigeon flapping on front speakers and we could make it fly up from the floor to the ceiling and land back. It’s great to feel the movement from up and down, left to right. It’s not necessarily on the surrounds but on the front we have a new dimension, which is really exciting."

The popularity of cinema screenings of live productions is another area in which Atmos has proved itself. Point1Post recently worked on such a production of The Crucible. Graham Daniel explained: “It’s quite important with things like the replication of the theatrical experience – say, ghosts in The Crucible and those sorts of productions – in that you’re sitting there suddenly in the theatre with lots of people. They recorded it in the Old Vic and had lots of microphones in and around the room, neck mics for the people on the stage, boom mics as well, so they had something like 20-odd mics that they had as sources. So when they replicated the sound in this environment it was a cinematic experience, but also you felt as though you were sitting with the audience watching the play as you hear the audience moving around. You do really experience the theatrical presentation."

Adam Daniel added: “To me that was quite a new experience because it was the first time we’d done any live theatre and it sounded real but – the dialogue levels, the energy, the recording, and with the Atmos mix of it all it was a lot more lifelike and it worked.”

Explaining the technical detail behind Atmos, Adam said: There are 118 objects available to you in Atmos. When you first hear that it sounds like a big figure but when you actually start to work with it that is finite – there is a limit. Although they are objects they’re not single sources of sound. It’s best really to think of it as a 118 wide output bus on your mix so you can reroute as many tracks as you like to any one of those objects. One of the concerns is if I’ve got a car is it just going to be one track that I’m panning, but really if you’ve got your track there you can still have lots of elements making it up but actually its output destination is moving but the actual source components can still be as wide as you like. It’s really powerful.”

The Dolby Atmos mixing stage at Point 1 features a 45-speaker JBL system with four-way screen channels, and a 48-fader dual operator Avid Icon D Command running Pro Tools HDX2 and HDX3.

“The biggest plus as far as the surround sound is concerned is the two bass management speakers at the back of the room. These mean that when any sound moves away from the screen rather than being a band-limited small speaker sound it suddenly becomes a wide range sound,” added Graham. 

“For us it’s the biggest plus – the clarity and the flexibility this gives us. Because there’s no limit on what you do in your sound space. Absolutely no limit."

"We love it," he continued. "When technology moves ahead you have certain reservations but I must say that Dolby has come up with pretty much all the answers with Atmos. Now we can follow the trajectory of anything on the screen, we can actually track it off screen. And it’s really exciting." 

Mixing in Atmos has added a new dimension to the work at Point1. “There are 14 speakers in the ceiling and you can route audio to those as a stereo array," explained Adam. "We found quite successfully on Mucize that by putting a different atmosphere above you suddenly you realise you’ve been listening to the walls all your life and suddenly you’re listening in to a much more natural envelope of atmosphere and it worked really well.”

Looking to the future, the studio is keen to complete a full end-to-end Atmos mix. Adam said: Most projects have become Atmos after the original production but now that Dolby has got its local renderer that means the guys in the cutting rooms can actually use the same tools to prepare the tracklay and that makes the translation from the cutting room into the theatre a lot more seamless. It’s been really well panned out. I think the way we look at the objects and things, if we were doing a project end to end we’d be quite happy to spend a similar amount of time pre mixing as mixing because essentially they’ve just swapped one panner for another and the whole experience has really been like a duck to water. There’s no steep learning curve. We got taught the basics and then straight away we were pushing the boundaries.”

The addition of Atmos for the home has been another important development, that Adam believes can only be good for business: “I think it’s really important that there is a domestic Dolby Atmos as well as I think it will encourage producers to think their investment in Atmos is going to be lifelong to the product rather than just at the cinema. At the moment it seems to be an additional cost and an additional cost is always questionable, especially for how long it’s going to last but now it’s on domestic it’s going to last the lifetime of the project.

"60% of our enquiries relate to Dolby Atmos so there is a demand and we think it is increasing. We love it – any time we’re working back in 5.1 it seems like we’re taking a step backwards. We’re looking to that whole end-to-end Atmos experience because the potential is great."

Graham concluded: “We can’t help but think that Dolby Atmos will become the de facto standard. Almost everything that comes out of America now – certainly the big movies – and most movies over here are in Dolby Atmos.”