Dean Street Studios mix room

HHB on Dolby Atmos for Music: what engineers and studios need to know

Since 1976, distributor HHB has pioneered pro audio equipment solutions for recording studios, broadcast operations, post facilities, and systems integrators. A guiding interface between audio pros and the manufacturers that serve them, they’ve led the way when it comes to Dolby Atmos for Music. 

With demand surging for Dolby Atmos mixes following Apple Music’s adoption of spatial audio, its engineers have been on speed dial for studios upgrading to immersive audio.

Recent projects include a Dolby Atmos mix room upgrade for London’s legendary Dean Street Studios, post-production indie Roundtable Post, and industry giant Molinare. HHB has also been working with a growing number of private studios now adopting the format.

From small in the box systems to fully outfitted studios, HHB knows what’s needed, what should be taken into consideration, and how to ensure any room follows Dolby’s best practices, whilst being flexible and future proof.  

Audio Media International asked HHB CTO John Johnson, and Head of Sales Matthew Fletcher to share tips and insights for those planning a Dolby Atmos studio upgrade. 

Genelec speakers in Atmos recording studio

Experts in Dolby Atmos for Music creation

Dolby Atmos has become the de facto immersive audio standard for film, television, music, and broadcast content creation. Introduced in the cinema, it was quickly adopted by studios for Blu-ray releases, and top streaming services such as Apple TV+, Apple Music, Disney+, Amazon Music HD, Netflix, Prime Video and Tidal.

It’s now available to consumers via a huge variety of devices, including headphones, soundbars, smart speakers, smartphones and audio separates.

HHB delivered its first Dolby Atmos theatrical facility in 2014, but has a relationship with Dolby that goes back much further, supplying noise suppression technologies and the like. “We’ve been working with Dolby for decades,” declares John Johnson, Chief Technology Officer. 

“In 2016 we opened our own state of the art experience centre on Wells Street in Fitzrovia.  We were first focused on theatrical pre-mix and then the emerging home entertainment workflow. This aligned very neatly with the push from on demand services driving the format as their premium offering for sound, where it’s often coupled with 4k HDR and Dolby Vision.” 

The Dolby Home entertainment specifications would end up being the basis of the Dolby Atmos for Music specification.

“With the rapid growth of Dolby Atmos in the home, consumers became more and more aware of it as a new way to experience audio; it came as no surprise to us when the first Dolby Atmos Music mixes were released.” 

Over the past year, Atmos for Music has gone from a niche experimental new technology to mainstream for music production, says Matthew Fletcher, Head of Sales at HHB.

“Demand for content from streaming services, in particular Apple Music with Spatial Audio, has given music producers the confidence to invest in the equipment needed to create in this immersive format,” he says.  

“HHB’s experience in providing Atmos solutions for the TV post industry has given us the knowledge to advise, install and support all Dolby Atmos Music solutions.”

So are requirements for Atmos Music the same as those of post for TV? Not exactly, explains Fletcher.

“There are differences and the tools and requirements have evolved to make solutions for creating content more flexible and realistically achievable in smaller spaces. Multiple Pro Tools HDX rigs with a hardware Dolby renderer may be the choice of large commercial facilities to give maximum flexibility for a variety of session types, but a native workstation with software rendering is also a very capable solution for a producer wanting to create an Atmos mix.” 

What’s common to both is the immersive speaker configuration. “The technical team at HHB carefully tailor solutions based on the existing equipment, room size and budget to best fit the clients’ requirements.”

                                                                     Image courtesy of Sonosphere

Installation tips and tricks

HHB works with several different loudspeaker brands and products. Some, such as Genelec’s SAM speakers, have built in DSP able to handle the time alignment delays, EQ curves and bass management required for immersive audio work, but traditional analogue speakers can also work very well with an external processor, such as the SPQ DSP in an Avid MTRX Studio, says Fletcher.

Care needs to be taken when mounting speakers: “The ideal is to have the height speakers at least 2.4m from the floor and so lower profile speakers mounted as close as possible to the ceiling is important in smaller rooms. By using bass management for the heights, offloading some of the low-end content to the sub, it’s possible to use smaller speakers. Don’t worry if your ceiling is a little lower, there is always a compromise to make the system work, we have provided Dolby Atmos solutions for surprisingly small rooms!”

When it comes to Digital Audio Workstations, Pro Tools is ubiquitous in the post-world. However, it’s important to remember that there are several other workstations such as Logic and Ableton Live commonly used in music production that are fully compatible with Dolby Atmos. “The latest version of Logic Pro has the Dolby Atmos renderer built in,” says Fletcher.

When major recording labels got behind the format, audio streaming services followed. “Tidal was one of the first to offer Dolby Atmos but we saw an explosion of interest once Apple made its announcement around spatial audio. The growth has been exponential in studios large and small.” 

There’s a great deal of overlap between post and music however, comments Johnson. So just how big a challenge is it to move from a studio already equipped to mix in 5.1 to 3D sound? 

“There are interesting challenges when it comes to updating a control room or studios, even coming from 5.1 or stereo,” he says.

“That said, the barrier of entry for creating content in Dolby Atmos can be quite low. It is really important to get a consistent calibrated playback environment, generally based around a 7.1.4 (7 speakers, 1 sub, 4 overhead speakers). The power of today’s computers makes it possible to do an entire mix in the box on something as portable as a laptop.” 

“With all formats it’s important to A/B with different sets of speakers and environments and this is even more important with Dolby Atmos when trying to balance everything from a speaker-based playback to smart speaker to binaural in your headphones, which is how most will experience Dolby Atmos music,” says Johnson. 

“There are certain products that make testing this easy and reliable, and we work closely with engineers and studios to ensure Dolby’s best practices are adhered to as closely as possible to ensure quality mixes.” 

For more visit HHB online.