Mixing music in stereo has been the standard for mix engineers for decades now. When listening to a stereo mix, our ears and brain process sound that is coming from our immediate left, right, center, and from any angle in between. We also detect the distance of instruments based on their volume and reverberation. This style of mixing creates a two-dimensional stereo field in front of us that can be drawn out like in the example below:
When listening to music in headphones, you may notice that the sound of one instrument such as a guitar or synth, will sound as if it is coming only into your left or right ear. Instruments (mostly lead vocals) can also be set to sound as if they are directly in front of you. This effect is achieved when mixing engineers use a panning effect to adjust the stereo output of an instrument track. A panning effect can be applied to any instrument track letting a mix engineer place the instrument any where they want within the two-dimensional stereo field. The diagram above lays out an outline which shows how instruments are typically placed in a traditional stereo field.
This way of mixing music has been the standard to the last few decades but a new way of mixing is making its way into recording studios. Dolby, an audio technology company, created a technology called Atmos that has been used by many film directors, and now musicians, to create a more immersive experience for their audiences. Atmos takes the basic principles of mixing in traditional two-channel stereo field and triples the range in which an engineer can mix sound. Atmos adds the ability to place the source of sound behind the listener as well as overhead with a multi-channel speaker set up. Atmos turns the traditional 2D stereo field into a 3D soundscape giving mix engineers and artists a much larger space to work in ultimately helping them create a more immersive listening experience that is emotionally impactful.
WATCH: Below is a demo video from Dolby showcasing the possibilities of the software and highlighting different applications you could use Atmos for.
The concept of 3D audio mixing sounds complex but the technology behind it all is relatively simple. The Atmos software allows you to apply extreme and flexible panning effects to your instrument tracks. These panning effects can give listeners the illusion of 360° movement around their heads and 180° overhead when active. But how does it work?
The Atmos software provides two paths for audio single, “Beds” and “Objects”. Bed signals are mixed as though they were traditional stereo or surround sound channels. It is the Object signals that sets Atmos apart from a regular stereo mix. Audio signals set sent through Atmos’ Object channel have the ability to be moved three dimensionally through the Dolby Atmos Renderer (seen below).
In addition to numerous uses in film and television, Atmos is making its way into music with numerous hits and classics being “remixed” in the Dolby Atmos format. Think Elton John’s “Rocket Man” but when the hook comes in, a chorus sweeps all around the listener. And, on the listener side, more and more affordable consumer listening devices are supporting Atmos so you don’t need a giant speaker array in your home to take advantage of the experience.
Finally, in addition to the recorded listening experience, there are huge creative opportunities for live shows and performances to be performed in Atmos. Below is a glimpse into a an Ableton Live set from EMC’s Nate Mars.
The Ableton Live set makes use of the Dolby Atmos Panner plugin on each track to make various sounds in the live performance surround the listener. It is likely that we will see and hear much more the use of Dolby Atmos at major festivals like Coachella and Ultra Music Featival in the immediate future.
If you are interested in learning more about the Dolby Atmos format, be sure to check out tons of free resources on Dolby Laboratories’ site.
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