My Atmos Demo at the New Dolby Theater

6/12/2012 10:47:00 AM

It has been less than two months since Dolby Laboratories announced that it acquired the naming rights to what was formerly been known as the “Kodak Theater” at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles, and in that short period of time the theater’s sound system has been updated from one oriented toward the requirements of the resident Cirque de Soleil “Iris” show and, of course, its signature event as the venue for the annual Oscar Award presentation to a premiere showcase for Dolby Labs’ technologies.

 Dolby Theater 1
After the press preview on June 11, the exterior signage on the Dolbt theater, here still covered, was unveiled.

In conjunction with the official unveiling of the renamed theater on Monday, Dolby held the first open press presentation of its Atmos cinema sound system that will, over the long term, likely form the basis for future Dolby sound formats across a broad range of consumer devices from smartphones and tablets to home theater.

Explaining the basic premise of Atmos, David Gray, Dolby VP of worldwide production services called it “…a complete game changer…we’re dealing with space, not channels…” Calling it a hybrid system where the conventional idea of channels is changed to “objects” placed in a 3D space with each speaker in the system being individually addressable, Gray offered that, “We’re finally telling the truth about [the sound field] being totally immersive.”

Ramzi Haidamus, Dolby’s executive VP of sales and marketing, further elaborated that Atmos is saying that it’s “…not about the channels or number of speakers…it’s about bringing you into the movie…”

While Atmos clearly has speakers, and in the case of the Dolby Theater installation large numbers of them, and “channels” galore, with Atmos the sound designer can place a individual sounds not just in a channel such as side surround right or back surround left, but rather map it as an object to any speaker in the system and then move it through the space as appropriate to the on-screen action.

When paired with overhead left and right height speakers, a total of 20 on the left and right overhead rigs at the new Dolby Theater, the result is well beyond anything before it. Add in the fact that up to 128 objects may be positioned and moved simultaneously and you begin to get the dimensions of the system and imagine the available performance.

 Dolby Theater 2
The interior entrance to the Dolby Theater, home of the Oscar Awards ceremony and Cirque de Soleil's "Iris."
There is no question that the new Dolby Theater system is, perhaps, a bit outsized with a total of 200 amplifier channels including the 128 Meyer Sound self-powered speakers throughout the theater and the 72 Crown iT 12000HD amplifiers powering the 30 main channel JBL Vertec VT 4888 arrays and six dual 18-inch custom JBL subwoofers behind the screen. However, the point was made that it is a scalable system that will adapt to the number of speakers in any installation to deliver the proper sound rendering.

That leads to the inevitable question of when a downscaled version of Atmos will be available for consumer and home theater applications. Noting again that Atmos is scalable and that it is backward compatible to 7.1, Dolby executives would not speculate as to when we might see Atmos or a derivative of it outside of cinemas. When that time comes, however, expect to see the Atmos convention of sound objects rather than traditional channel-based systems not only in home audio, but also in headphones, smartphones, tablets, and other uses. Until that time comes you’ll have to be invited to a special event to hear it in the Dolby Theater, as the principle tenant there is Cirque de Soleil’s Iris and the Oscar Awards ceremony.

The stated goal for cinemas is 15-22 theaters in the next few weeks with six said to be operating now. By “holiday time” Dolby’s goal is to have marquee cinemas equipped with Atmos in major global venues in the US, Europe, India, and in other major cinema markets.

On the production side Dolby currently has the capability to create Atmos soundtracks in its San Fransisco headquarters as well as Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, CA, but additional mixing facilities are being established as Dolby integrates Atmos into Pro Tools based workflow systems and works with major mixing console vendors.


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