Dolby Is Bringing "Surround Sound" to the Club
Photo via Dolby.

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Dolby Is Bringing "Surround Sound" to the Club

I went to the company's San Francisco headquarters and tested the new system.
November 24, 2015, 5:55pm

Dolby wants to bring the surround sound technology it has developed for movie theaters to the dance floor, and the move could have a lasting impact on what we experience during a typical night out on the town.

The San Francisco-based audio company first introduced its three-dimensional sound system into the world of film three years ago. Billed as the next evolutionary step in surround sound technology—pushing beyond the existing channel-based audio systems, such as 5.1, which is the current surround standard for digital television broadcasting—the Atmos system creates a three-dimensional audio field in the theater, then locates the various aural elements of a film at various points along the grid. For the listener, this means that sound can appear anywhere along the left-to-right and front-to-back axes, and also at different heights within the audio field. This technology allows creative sound designers to place the overwhelming thrust of a helicopter propeller or the first rumblings of an oncoming avalanche actually above the viewer, further immersing them in a perceived physical reality that reinforces the one shown on screen.

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It is this technology that Dolby wants to introduce into the sphere of club music, so that artists can craft even more immersive performances for their audiences.

Set to begin rolling the Atmos system out into clubs in the coming months, Dolby invited me out to its SF headquarters on an usually warm November morning to experience the system first-hand.

First, I met with two marketing reps from Dolby, who took me to the company's test theater, a room lined with ornate wood panels, thick carpets, and massive speaker systems neatly hidden behind walls of patterned fabric. Here, I was to get a quick demo on how Atmos had been used within the realm of film; after a brief spiel from one of Atmos' product managers, I was shown a few particularly audio-rich minutes of Gravity. Sitting in the center of the theater—or, per the Dolby reps, the "sweet spot" of the audio field—chunks of space debris sounded as if they were flying right by me, while George Clooney's voice may have sounded just a bit too close for my personal comfort. Actor preferences aside, the Atmos system was certainly impressive.

Photo via Dolby.

Eventually, we snaked our way through a number of doors and a few more thickly carpeted hallways before stepping into a recording studio where a handful of producers have been mixing the first pieces of music specifically designed for the Atmos system. What I encountered looked basically like a small Pro Tools rig surrounded by a ring of high-quality speakers—some at ear level, some above. On the screen, a finished track by an artist named Matt Lange had been broken up into a variety of stems (kick, snare, hats, bass, and so on)—each controlled with a special Dolby Atmos Panner plug-in, which allows the different elements of a track to be placed within a virtual three-dimensional box housing different positions within the audio field of the room. As the track played through, I could hear different pieces of sound swirling around me, and follow along as their corresponding numbered circles made the same movements in the Atmos Panner's somewhat crude display.

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Following this peek behind the curtain, it was finally time for me to hear a full Atmos club system in action, and so we made our way a few blocks down to Market Street, home to the company's sleek new headquarters. After traveling a few stories up via elevator, four company representatives and myself entered Dolby's simulated club environment. The room was barely big enough to fit everybody present, despite hosting a full Atmos system, a bunch of large speakers, a sophisticated club lighting system, and a DJ rig. Using two CDJs and a Pioneer mixer to control the Dolby Atmos playback software, we listened back to a handful of songs mixed specifically for the surround system.

When I stepped into the "sweet spot," Atmos' potential was immediately clear: standing in the middle of the speaker arrays, I felt like I was actually embedded within the music. A Christian Martin track custom mixed by the Dirtybird artist for Atmos kept its bass and kick drums more or less front-and-center while parading the tune's more ornamental elements and hi-fi FX all around the three-dimensional audio field. Later on, a party-minded beat from Foxsky stretched a slithering synth line above my head as tumbling snare rolls moved from the top-left corner of the room to behind us in the bottom right. True to its mission, the Atmos system gave the music an extra dimension.

Photo via Dolby.

Still, this cramped, controlled environment didn't seem like the most realistic of circumstances to hear Atmos in action, especially when the question of implementation seems to be such a vital one for this project. It's one thing to set up a surround sound system as precise and advanced as Atmos in a theater, where there is a stationary audience and a fixed point of focus (the screen in front of them). It seems a much more complicated task to set such a system up in a modern club, where bodies are constantly shifting, one's attention can be directed almost anywhere and—let's be honest here—a lot of people are chatting over the music.

While we're talking real-world applications, there's another thing I should mention: as of this writing, to play content on a Dolby Atmos system, a producer must mix their tracks specifically for it in an "Atmos-enabled studio," such as the one I was in. That means that—for the time being, at least—Dolby Atmos is likely to remain a rather specialized technology, available only to artists with access to such a studio and the time to put in the extra preparation (although a Dolby rep did tell us over email that "With the plug ins and tools we have developed, artists will be able to easily integrate Dolby Atmos mixing into their existing production workflow"). Likewise, only venues with the financial resources to invest in such a future-forward speaker system (or a good Dolby hook-up) are likely to be offering surround sound anytime soon.

As of this writing, Dolby has yet to reveal how it would cost to construct such an "Atmos-enabled" studio, or how much venues would theoretically have to shell out in order to provide surround sound to their customers. For the time being, it seems unlikely that every DJ and producer in the world will start constructing their sets for playback via Atmos—and more likely that artists and DJs will be sought out to develop sets specifically for the surround sound system. And though no exact venue partnerships have been announced at this point, Dolby says it will be working directly with clubs to add the necessary components (mainly additional speakers, including overhead ones) to make them equipped to support the Atmos format. In addition, Dolby says Atmos has been designed as a flexible system that can be adapted to fit a wide range of room configurations, meaning that it can be scaled up or down depending on what a particular venue's circumstances are.

Of course, Atmos isn't the first time that electronic music and surround sound have come together. Most recently, the Amsterdam-based 4DSOUND system has turned heads in the field, inviting artists such as Oscar Mulero, Robert Lippok, and Murcof to develop custom material for a mobile, multidimensional sound system. Still, Dolby Atmos appears to be the first technologically of its kind looking to build upon existing clubs systems to make them capable of bringing three-dimensional sound to the dancefloor.

Considering that electronic music is an art form that has always relied on feats of creative sound design to move listeners, club music and surround sound could be a very natural fit. Perhaps all it needs are some visionary DJs and producers to really unlock the full possibilities of such a system. And if they can really pull it off, Dolby's Atmos certainly promises to offer a much more aurally immersive experience than one might otherwise encounter on a normal night out at the club.