Dolby Atmos is a bubble

Has Dolby Atmos Revolutionised Audio?

Mixing in Dolby Atmos decimates the conventional stereo soundstage and the often chopped-up nature of surround mixing, presenting a whole new universe of orbiting sound sources. But are its benefits being a tad overblown for music production? Let’s investigate…

Dolby Atmos is a bubble

Originally created to further audience immersion in the cinema, spatial audio format Dolby Atmos will soon mark its decade-long anniversary. Over the last ten years, Atmos technology has come quite a way from its initial charge of accompanying Disney’s Brave at LA’s El Capitan Theater back in 2012, to now becoming almost de rigour not just for film score and sound mixing, but as an ever-widening field for music producers to furrow.

While high profile figures such as Deadmau5, Billie Eilish and Finneas and Coldplay have been giddily evangelising about its benefits over a conventional mix, the music listening domain has seen the likes of Apple Music, Amazon HD and Tidal offer up immersive Atmos’ mixed tracks (or slightly differently-named variations on Dolby’s technology) to its subscribers.

But, just how much of a difference does Atmos really provide over a stereo or surround mix? While, on paper, we can appreciate Atmos as a refinement of existing surround sound technology in a movie-watching context, does Dolby Atmos’s growing ubiquity in the music production sphere truly mark a moment of real evolution, comparable to the standardisation of stereo mixing in the 1960s?. Or, should we admit that the idea of virtually enlarging the space between instruments and track elements is often something of a fruitless exercise. Just because you can do something, does it necessarily mean you should?


Before we answer that question, we need to get a grip on just what Dolby Atmos promises to bring to the table. While stereo mixing provides basic left and right channels, and 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound grants 5 and 8 encircling channels respectively, Dolby Atmos brings in an extra dimension – height. With ceiling-positioned speakers, this three-dimensional concept works exceptionally well in tandem with a massive cinema screen. Imagine a space battle with the roar of a star fighter zooming in overhead. Multiple elevated speakers can bring in sound channels slightly lower down, also. This allows for more nuanced, realistically-positioned audio. The resulting effect is comparable to a bubble as opposed to a flat stage.

Mixing in Atmos is quite different to conventional mixing. Instead of panning track elements to a certain channel, mixers can place up to 118 audio elements (or ‘sound objects’) at various points within this 3D bubble. The unique processors that Dolby Atmos relies on guarantee that the same results are smartly replicated regardless of the speaker layout and size of the venue. In a modern multiplex cinema environment, upwards of 400 speakers can be used. But the same technology can also be utilised in home cinemas, albeit with a greatly reduced number of speakers. Often, up-firing speakers that bounce sound of the ceiling are used in lieu of hammering in an actual ceiling-mounted speaker.

It’s that impact of being at the centre of an enveloping cocoon of sound which remains the basic USP of the technology. As the years have passed, Dolby Atmos has encroached into the music-making sphere. The free Dolby Atmos Music Panner plug-in is available to work with in all major DAWs as an AU, AAX and VST3, while Pro Tools is now natively equipped to work with Atmos’s three-dimensional universe. More fully-featured Dolby Atmos Suites are also available for both production and mastering purposes.

So how does this ‘bubble of sound’ idea work when you’re just dealing with the realms of simple right and left stereo headphones? Well, the Dolby Access app renders a virtual version of that aural dome that a real-life Atmos set-up creates, and intelligently directs the sound objects in their respective position. That is – if your phone/tablet and ‘phones are up to the task.


Caesar Edmunds
                           Caesar Edmunds at Battery Studios

“The reason I like Atmos is because it gives you an immersive panoramic view of audio. Basically it’s the VR of Music.” Grammy winning mixer, engineer and producer Caesar Edmunds tells us. Working at Battery Studios, Edmunds has been mixing in Atmos just shy of a year, and has notably just produced an Atmos mix of The Lathums’ chart-topping debut How Beautiful Life Can Be. “I really like it also because Dolby Atmos is such a smart scalable system that works whether it’s on a iPhone or a singular soundbar or AirPods to a cinema. Basically having your music done in Dolby Atmos is breathing new life into it. For a lack of a better term it’s like seeing colour for the first time.”

Though engineers like Edmunds are wowed by the format’s vast aural playing field, it hasn’t stopped some commentators have raised a cynical eyebrow. Writing in The Verge, Chris Welch noted that exploring Apple Music’s range of Dolby Atmos mixed tracks is often a hit-or miss affair; “Songs that truly showcase the immersive potential of Atmos are more often the exception than the rule. In many cases, spatial audio tracks have an artificial wideness to them, unfamiliar placement of vocals and instrumentation, and just sound… off. Distant? Too reverb-y?”. Stereophile’s Jim Austin had a similar experience, “The perspective seemed unnatural: What’s that tuba doing on my ceiling? Sometimes on rock songs, the lead vocals were pushed out to the side as if they were just another instrument and rendered quieter and thinner.”

Dolby Atmos logo on Apple Music tracks

These are common complaint, yet this unnatural, overly-spaced out perception is perhaps more a consequence of many of the larger streaming entities relying on automated, mechanical processes to upscale existing stereo audio to meet a quota of available Atmos-ready tracks, as opposed to being a true reflection of those who carefully consider every nuance of their Atmos mixes.


Speaking of which, Stan Kybert, a longtime producer and engineer, has recently launched Music Immersive, a brand new Atmos-focused company currently building a bespoke studio complex in London’s Tileyard. Kybert’s sole aim is to push and develop Dolby Atmos mixing with some of the world’s biggest artists. “The first thing to stress, is that Atmos is not like stereo, where you make a mix and master it, then wherever that mix is played, it’s the same file that you hear.” Stan tells us, “With stereo, it’s the same basic mix in the kitchen as it is in the club, the car or the tube. Atmos isn’t like that, Atmos is a dynamic format. Before it plays on a device, it asks what the device is and optimises to that device.”

Stan Kybert mixes in Atmos
                            Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert (via Bucks Music Group)

Kybert fills us in further on Atmos’s scalable nature, “In my new room (which is a 9.1.4 high-end experience) You get this full, immersive 14-speaker enveloping of sound, but that same file will unpack via Apple Music and optimise for the headphones. And everything in-between.”

So, do Stan and his Music Immersive team envision a future where Atmos will eventually overrule stereo as the default format for music listening? “I hope not!” Stan quickly responds, “Even though I’m dropping a hell of a lot of money into Atmos. I also don’t really like the idea of Dolby’s format owning all music. Music has got to be for everybody. You’ve got to respect the craft of record-making, throwing up another eleven speakers isn’t necessarily going to aid the creative process. But, I don’t want to be negative here, it’s a nuanced thing. Stereo has still got a place and Atmos can run along side that, just like vinyl and streaming.”

There’s not a direct correlation between the two formats, then and – as Stan stresses – Atmos’s strengths don’t supersede stereo, particularly for casual listeners. “People always try and compare Atmos to stereo, and it isn’t the same at all. It’s not for everybody, it’s not for casual listening – it’s for those wanting an immersive music experience.” Stan says. “So, stop thinking in stereo. Atmos is taking you out of your world. If you really want to invest in Atmos then it demands a bit more of you. But, you get that richer experience.”


So, how does Kybert respond to the ‘overly spaced-out’ criticism that certain Atmos mixes have faced? And how can that be avoided? Well, it comes down to mindset at the mixing stage fundamentally. “Look, I’ve been making records for 25 years, that really aids me in deciding what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate for mixing in Dolby Atmos.” Stan says. “When I do classical stuff I’m not panning orchestras all over the place! When I’m doing my electro, there is a lot of movement in that. Considering the music first is very, very important to a good Atmos mix.”

To that end, Stan details some of his mix choices on recent Atmos projects:

Bicep – Isles “This has an aggressive and dynamic use of Atmos technology, with lots of movement.”

The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You (Remastered)“Not a lot of movement because, well, it’s the Rolling Stones, and they’re a unit. If you start pulling that stuff apart it stops being the Stones.”

Lorde – Solar Power – “Kind of fits in the middle of those two approaches, it’s an acoustic recording, yet there are some layers and textures in there that really lend to some wonderful spatial movement. Atmos enhanced what was there.”

Logo of Music Immersive

While it’s clear then, that Atmos is – in music production terms at least – still in its relative infancy, for enthusiastic Atmos producers like Stan and Caesar, the format offers a great deal for those passionate music listeners. “When I got into this, Atmos a huge unknown, there was a big back catalogue from old artists that they were using to get content up and the mixes were appalling.” Stan recalls, “I’d say, it’s only been the last three months that I’ve actually heard some consistently great Dolby Atmos mixes. Mixing in Atmos is becoming it’s own nuanced skillset, for sure.”

Stan is also keen to point out the fact that the longevity of music technology is always tied into how it’s applied to the creative process. “Dolby Atmos’s lifespan will be dictated by how creatives use it. That’s an exciting thing. That’s why I’m investing in it and that’s what I want to push.”