Today Apple announced that lossless audio and Dolby Atmos spatial audio is coming to their subscription service, Apple Music, at no extra cost. If you’re anything like myself, 3D spatial audio in music has always seemed like a lot of effort for a very small audience. But, with Atmos coming to one of the biggest streaming platforms on the planet, maybe it’s time to take a look.
So lets get through the basics first. Dolby Atmos is a 3D audio system that’s mostly been used in cinema. Rather than specific channels like more traditional 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups, Atmos allows you to pan in a 3d space, including height and distance. This makes the system more flexible as it will work in a room with a 12 speaker setup, as well as a room with 64 speakers.
But elaborate speaker setups are inaccessible for 99/100 people, so it’s the headphone experience that’s going to be consumed by the majority of Apple Music subscribers that we music producers should be paying attention to. And no, you PC users don’t have to miss out, you can grab the Dolby Access App here to enable your Computer and Xbox. Dolby have a binaural encoding engine that takes these immersive sonic experiences and pulls them down to a 2 channel stereo output for headphones, using some clever tricks to create the illusion of space and surround sound. Skepticism here is warranted, but you’d be surprised what’s possible. Consider that, thanks to our single pair of ears, we always hear sound in 2 channels, regardless of the speaker setup.
So every person who subscribes to Apple Music will, from June, have access to a catalogue of Atmos enabled music on hand, and be able to listen on headphones of their choosing (no special headphones are required). There’s a real opportunity here for music makers to explore this and stand out from the pack, so lets take a look at what you need to make a Dolby Atmos enabled track and answer a few questions.
Can I make a Dolby Atmos Enabled Track at Home?
Yes you can. You need at least the Dolby Atmos Production Suite software, which isn’t too badly priced at $299 (Apple Mac only unfortunately) and the free Dolby Panner plugin. The Production Suite has a 90-day free trial too!
Can I make a Dolby Atmos Enabled Track with Headphones?
Yes, you can even do your 3D spatial mixing with a standard pair of headphones. Much like an ordinary stereo file, it’s highly recommended to go to a professional studio (one that’s setup for Atmos) for your mixdown and mastering so you can get the full experience, but if you just want to have a play around at home, you definitely can.
Here’s a good rundown by Avid on mixing with headphones – avidblogs.com/creating-atmos-mixes-with-headphones
A couple of years ago we got to check out the Dolby Atmos certified studios at Melbourne tertiary institution Collarts along with some JBL Professional reps (story here). It’s an impressive installation that’s for sure, and it could well be worth pursuing further learning on producing audio for the spatial audio platform.
The Avid website lists Pro Tool Ultimate as a System Requirement. THIS IS NOT THE CASE. And to be frank, is quite cheeky on their part. Pro Tools Ultimate has some inbuilt Atmos integrations, that’s it, that’s the compatibility part of it. The production suite is compatible with Ableton Live, Cubase, Logic — whatever you like. There are instructions in the FAQ section of the Dolby site showing you how to set up Ableton Live and some others. Check it out here.
I think it probably goes without saying, but i’ll mention it anyway, you computer needs to have some serious horsepower for this stuff.
The relationship between Dolby and Avid is convoluted and a bit confusing – Avid sell it and market it with a strong Pro Tools spin, but Dolby make it and house the documentation and free trial. This makes some answers difficult to find. Hopefully the Atmos entry points become a bit more streamlined in the coming year.
This is all obviously a big learning curve, but there’s going to be a ton of us in the same boat, so get to it!