Dolby announced its new Atmos multi-directional sound platform back in April, and today the company offered a demo of the system at the recently-renamed Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Atmos is both a new way to mix audio for film as well as a system to play it back in theaters. Rather than focusing on mixing sound elements to discrete channels, Atmos instead uses what Dolby calls "objects" — virtual sound locations within a theater's physical space. 128 different objects can play back audio at any given time, with the system dynamically adjusting what speakers represent those objects based on a theater's configuration (if 128 speakers are present, for example, each object could get its own speaker; if less are available, the system will map the audio objects to the available speakers). There's also a more immediate hook: in addition to front, rear, and surround speakers, Atmos utilizes speakers mounted above the audience. So how does it sound?
A lightning strike sounded like it came from directly overhead
Dolby projected several examples of Atmos in action, including a flashy 23-second demo clip and a remixed scene from Pixar's The Incredibles, and we we left very excited about the possibilites. The speakers hanging above the audience performed as advertised — a lightning strike sounded like it was coming from directly overhead — but ultimately that's a very specific use case. Where Atmos stood out most was in its ability to envelop the theatre and draw out specific sound elements. Back when THX first debuted, films were preceded by a swelling, resonant chord that demonstrated just how different THX was at the time; Atmos provides a similar experience, with the demo clip ending in a rattling set of tones that emphasized the surround speakers. The difference here, according to Dolby, is sheer power: Atmos is designed for the surround speakers to be nearly equal in power to the front speakers, creating a more robust audio environment for sound designers to work with.
Sound cues came from extremely specific locations
The presentation also provided ample examples of the discrete use of Dolby's audio objects. The clip from The incredibles was played twice — once with the full Atmos mix, and then again with just the surround elements. While not stunning in its own right, the clip demonstrated the precise control Atmos provides, with shouts, bullet hits, and the roar of passing engines coming not from vague general directions, but from extremely specific locations within the theatre. Dolby VP David Gray remarked that the company had been touting its products as immersive sound experiences for years, but that with Atmos "we're finally telling the truth."
Of course, the technology itself means nothing without tools for filmmakers to utilize it and theaters to play it back. Dolby has equipped just two sound stages with Atmos technology for mixing at the moment — its own facilities and Skywalker Sound — but the company is already working with third-parties to bring Atmos to additional facilities in the not-too-distant future. As for theaters, Atmos will be coming to more than 20 theaters across the world in the coming months, with Pixar's Brave set to be the first film to debut with the system (it will be premiering at the Dolby Theatre next week). While the company wouldn't confirm any additional titles, Gray did tell us that the company is hoping to roll out new Atmos titles every six to eight weeks in order to solicit feedback from the first round of theaters. Given what we've heard thus far, we imagine the uptake will be quick, and that filmmakers will be more than happy to utilize the additional flexibility the system provides. If you'd like to check out Atmos for yourself, Dolby has posted a list of equipped theaters on its site.