It’s a time of nostalgia again when we’re all reminiscing with hazy eyes about the many seismic tech stories of the past 12 months (and excited about the products that might come this year). Unusual hiatus, they won’t, 2021 However, they managed to produce some great developments in the world of audio and video. Samsung has revived its relationship with OLED (although it doesn’t dare speak in the name of the technology), Sky has given up its dishes (sort of), and lossless audio is becoming more prevalent (even if we’re still waiting for Spotify’s promised HiFi layer).
Arguably one of the most far-reaching shifts in the landscape occurred after Apple announced back in May that it would add high-resolution Dolby Atmos-enabled spatial audio tracks to Apple’s music streaming service, at no additional cost to subscribers. Honestly, it has made ripples all over the music industry.
While Dolby Atmos Music was already available to subscribers on Tidal and Amazon Premium Years (along with Sony’s competing 360 Reality Audio format), it didn’t get that much attention. Apple’s decision to bring it (and High-Resolution Audio) to the masses not only forced the streaming service’s competitors to switch their pricing structures, but also prompted listeners to plug in a pair of wired headphones and hear all the hype. About, leading many, especially those involved in Apple’s marketing, to speculate that Dolby Atmos will soon replace stereo as the de facto format for music releases.
I am afraid I must disagree. Now, I think Dolby Atmos is a great storytelling tool for filmmakers and game designers, and it’s clear that it has the potential to be truly portable and comprehensive. Depending on the creator’s choice, Atmos can work with or play against the screen’s perspective, producing cinematic experiences full of diversity, from hyper-natural to confusingly surreal.
But the implementation of the format is in Music It still looks a bit like the Wild West, and to me it hasn’t yet made a compelling case for its potential dominance as the du jour format. And even if this is the beginning of the era of Atmos music, I don’t think stereos need to go anywhere just yet.
History has shown us time and time again that there will always be constant advancement in technology with arrogant early adopters and those foolishly digging their heels in the ground. There was much skepticism about stereo when it was first developed in the early 1930s by Alan Plumlin of EMI to enable an actor’s dialogue path with his image across the movie screen. Until then, of course, all recordings were monophonic, with the same signal being reproduced in every speaker – a technique that, although directly appreciated by many listeners, can sound garbled, as each sound or instrument competes for same space.
In the meantime, the stereo closely mimics our binaural and allows for more room in the arrangements and a broader picture in which the elements, playfulness and movement can be highlighted depending on how the artist wants to place them.
Although it was gradually adopted into films over the subsequent decades, the advances in stereo in recording and home audio were constrained by the technological learning curve of engineers and the added expense of studios and clients.
After a period of oblivion during the 1960s when several albums were produced in mono and stereo (although artists didn’t always sign on to both), the latter finally rose to a supremacy that only doubled when the use of personal headphones exploded with the advent of the Walkman.
The quattro sound in the ’70s, and the 5.1 bass later, had great releases and moments in which the future of music was heralded. But they couldn’t get past the ceiling of studio practicality and the amount of money and space a fit-minded listener would be willing to forego a more immersive listening experience.
Unlike Quad and 5.1, Dolby Atmos can more easily overcome audience reticence, in part because the advent of music streaming means you don’t have to buy an Atmos copy of an album you already own.
Furthermore, because Atmos is object-based rather than discrete channels, metadata for up to 118 audio elements can be transcribed onto any system that has a Dolby Atmos projector, be it a 64-speaker cinema, 7.1-speaker .2, Echo studio or a pair of headphones connected to your iPhone. Of course, the experience varies greatly depending on the setup of your playback device. However, there is still a very low barrier to entry and Atmos has been democratized in a way that previous surround formats have never been able to achieve.
But when it comes to headphones, I can’t help but feel that Dolby Atmos Music often waters down many traits that can make private listening fun and enveloping. Having listened extensively to Atmos playlists across a number of services (mainly made up of music remixed in Atmos rather than music recorded and locally mixed in Atmos) and tried to correct the loudness bias, I found that despite the scaling and localization from the latest remixes, the tendency Stereo versions tend to have more presence (especially with vocals), intensity and intimacy – all factors that I think contribute to the feeling of immersion.
While Atmos’ remixed music can be convincingly placed within a space, this often results in a more diffuse, ambient sound that can actually reduce its visceral value. The degree to which this happens depends on both the style and quality of the remix. Just as some stereo tracks in the 1960s were largely fictional and some were reprocessed mono recordings with the addition of a hint of stereo reverb, there is a huge variance in the content currently available, in part because one feels that some tracks were quickly taken out to meet demand On a shiny new product.
Making things even more confusing, there is still no consistent approach to dealing with Atmos codecs across platforms. There are currently two different Atmos formats used by streaming services: AC4-IMS is a modern codec optimized for headphone playback that uses specific binaural settings that can be dictated by the product, while DD+JOC is an older format designed to play headphones from movies that don’t take into account Binaural configurations.
While Amazon and Tidal use the former for headphone playback on mobile devices and the latter for speakerphone playback, Apple Music only uses DD+JOC regardless of what devices are used, meaning that even if artists have trouble crafting a Dolby Atmos mix modified for headphones, it won’t be represented their preference by Apple Music. How can a format be advertised as the most faithful representation of an artistic vision if its primary form of consumption sometimes ignores product choices?
Proponents of spatial sound have suggested that the naturalness that can be achieved by Dolby Atmos Music is somewhat superior to the ‘synthetic’ sound of stereo. But does all music have to sound real to life? Don’t get me wrong, I love the concert album, I love the offline album, and I love the back to basics album recorded in the garage for 48+ hours. But just as artists can choose to turn to electric or sound, production or abstraction, wide (and sometimes mysterious) live sound must be intentional and not the result of a format superimposed on an existing recording.
When it comes to more experimental genres — like EDM (which doesn’t yet have a large Atmos catalog) or jam-based styles like jazz — 3D music has huge potential. But I don’t follow the assertion that a sound that repeats a physical space and somehow puts you in the middle of it is super authentic.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most of the music is recorded individually in small booths, rather than in Studio 1 at Abbey Road Studios where everyone stands in a perfect socially distant circle, I don’t feel that having an inside view is necessarily preferable to having a sound stage.
As a result, sometimes listening to immersive formats can be more confusing than engaging. Am I supposed to stand in the middle of the orchestra? on the stage? In a crowd witnessing a show that definitely didn’t mix in Dolby Atmos? And why is there a trumpet 20 feet behind my right shoulder?
I have no doubt that the more engineers and artists have more access to Dolby Atmos tools, the more exciting, original and innovative the music will be. In the meantime, I’m no exception to the Dolby Atmos versions that sit side by side with their predecessors. More choices are always better for listeners, and I’m looking forward to the day when it’s all, accurately Titled libraries of background artist catalogs – mono, stereo, obscure remixes – are all available to stream, compare, and diagnose. But I think it would be a shame if some hastily-produced Dolby Atmos remixes replace the superior originals only thanks to raucous marketing, blurred arcs, and pop-ups at the top of the artist’s homepage.
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