Dolby Atmos

29 October 2012 in Film

Friday night I attended a presentation at Dolby Labs to hear about the recently released Atmos sound platform. Their theater is a gem of a room: cozy, grande-dame glamorous, and unbelievably quiet (it floats on its own slab, thus isolated from spaces above and below). Dolby treated us to clips from Brave, Mission Impossible IV, the upcoming Woman in Black, and the just-released Chasing Mavericks. Atmos met my expectations head on, in ways that are often more real than real. Sound effects are magnified from the global level—waves breaking on the California coast—to the local—a single leaf snapping free from a tree branch. Creaking wooden floorboards curl around you from all different heights and locations and, in tandem with the visuals, sound more ominous than they might in a typical surround-sound array.

Disclaimer; I am not a film sound aficionado. I rent DVDs at my local video store and am often content to watch them, propped up by pillows, on my laptop (i.e., not plugged in to the monitors in the other room). In this regard, I sometimes wonder if an improved, multi-dimensional palette of sound is all that necessary. Give me a good story and I’m content, even if the sound is crappy. But here’s what sold me on Atmos: in the Mission Impossible clip, the “extra-real” sounds of wind and sand became a racing, chasing, escape story all unto themselves. I couldn’t help but notice how, in contrast, the music soundtrack fell flat.

Atmos has the potential to demand better music composition for film. I do not mean that music should mimic the spatial, directed quality of the sound effects. No, I imagine that soundtrack music, in order to balance and support such precisely placed and sculpted effects, may need to do the opposite. Keep the orchestration, melodies, and harmonies simple; let music be the centered, grounding “bed” over which sound design takes flight. The challenge for the composer will be to do more with less, to write a great score that doesn’t get in the way.

The soundtrack has its competition now; that much was clear in the clip of a room full of wind-up toys. What begins as a single, local sound (one toy), forms a complex web as other toys are added, one by one, to the mix. The layers of mechanical chiming sounds, in different locations around the room, become a beautiful, standalone composition. Music, per se, would be completely unnecessary. Atmos puts new emphasis on sound design as composition and, in turn, music composition will have to find a way to rise to that level of technical excellence.

The evening was fun and thought-provoking. Big thanks to Dolby for generously opening their laboratory to me and other attendees of the AES convention.