With the arrival of Dolby Atmos tracks on Apple Music, the three-dimensional format is currently all the range and has ignited one of the most dazzling revolutions in the music world since the advent of stereo. A revolution that we had the honor of witnessing firsthand in the rooms of the famous Parisian recording studio Guillaume Tell, which has just been equipped with a new ultra-modern Dolby Atmos mixing studio. We met with Dolby Atmos sound engineers and music professionals to understand how this installation and this new format mark a turning point in music production.
A legendary studio
Nestled in the old commune of Suresnes, ten minutes from the Champs-Elysées, the Guillaume Tell Studio has an incredible history and has hosted some of the world’s most famous artists. Singers and musicians of all musical genres have recorded their albums there. Johnny Hallyday, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Julien Clerc, Prince, the Rolling Stones and Depeche Mode are just a few of the legendary artists to have walked through the doors of this studio. Since 2014, it has also overseen the recording of music for cult films, such as The Crimson Rivers and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“The Guillaume Tell Studio has always been a leader in the music industry, from working with some of the world’s greatest artists to bringing great movie scores to life. Investing in Dolby Atmos is a natural step for us to continue being a creative home for artists from around the world. Producing music in Dolby Atmos is a leap into the future and we are thrilled to be part of this revolution,” says Denis Caribaux, sound engineer at the Guillaume Tell Studio.
9.1.4 Dolby Atmos studio
To listen to music in Dolby Atmos, it must first be mixed specifically for this format. It is not a simple filter applied to the music, but an entirely reworked mix so that each element is realistically positioned in space and true to the expectations of the artist and the sound engineer. To achieve this, the Guillaume Tell studio upgraded its 5.1 mixing room by adding eight new Genelec speakers, four of which are in the ceiling. This 9.1.4 channel Dolby Atmos system includes three front speakers (left, center, right), two surround speakers, two surround rear speakers, two wide surround speakers to optimize the transition between the front and surround speakers, and four Atmos speakers.
The Dolby Atmos 9.1.4 system of the Guillaume Tell studio creates a genuine sound bubble in which each speaker is calibrated to provide a strictly identical sound level. The constancy of this level is essential so that the effects do not lose their power or impact as they move through space. In addition, Dominique Schmit – Dolby’s head of audio and content – explains that wide surround speakers are very important when mixing in Dolby Atmos, as they allow for more precise spatial transitions, ensuring a better match across many Atmos devices.
A new mixing process
In order to mix in Dolby Atmos, sound engineer Denis Caribaux uses 100% digital equipment, with a Sony OXF-R3 console with 120 mono channels as the central element, which allows him to work on each instrument and voice separately, and then to mix them in the most harmonious way possible. At this stage, there is no change in the work process compared to a stereo recording, except that the mix exported by the console is not in stereo, but in 7.1.
Atmos effects are then placed using Dolby’s own RMU (Renderer Master Unit) software. In it, the sound engineer can freely move each loop in all directions, after which the software takes care of reproducing them in space through a discrete Atmos file, that is to say, with several channels (up to 128) to supply all the speakers in a Dolby Atmos system. This file then undergoes a mastering phase before being exported to platforms such as Apple Music or Tidal, both of which are Atmos compatible.
This Dolby software is also able to transcode the Dolby Atmos multichannel mix into a stereo rendering optimized for headphone listening. This is called Dolby Atmos binaural. This is the mix that is used when listening to Apple Music Atmos tracks with headphones, while playback is based on discrete Atmos with an AV receiver or an Atmos soundbar.
How does Dolby Atmos revolutionize the listening experience?
Dolby Atmos gives artists more space and freedom to fully realize their creative vision. They have more depth and flexibility when positioning different instruments and voices. According to sound engineer Denis Caribaux, it’s like going from mono to stereo, but with even more flexibility. One of the advantages of working with a wider soundstage is that you can space out the different chords and instruments to make them stand out more. Usually, high-quality hi-fi equipment is required to enjoy great sonic depth and effective separation of individual frequency ranges in stereo. With Dolby Atmos, the breadth of the soundstage provides additional texture and more effective detail separation, even on a more modest system, whether it’s a Dolby Atmos setup consisting of multiple speakers, a soundbar, a connected speaker, or even stereo headphones thanks to binaural Atmos. The artistic choices and the work of the sound engineer are more easily preserved and noticeable by the listener. The advantage of Dolby Atmos in music is to make all these elements accessible with basic equipment.
The Dolby Atmos listening experience
After discovering the creative process of Dolby Atmos music, we were able to enjoy private listening sessions in this famous Parisian studio. Denis Caribaux is particularly fond of Elton John’s Rocketman remixed in Dolby Atmos and we immediately understood why as soon as the track was played in the studio. We rediscovered this song with amazement and enthusiasm. Elton John’s voice was embodied right in front of us with striking elevation, while the guitar chords were transparent and stood out very clearly at the sides of the stage. The track was accompanied by haunting backing vocals that seemed to come partly from behind, while many effects seemed to fly over us, like the natural reverberation of a room. The Atmos mix of this track provides the sensation of being immersed in the music, of being right in the middle of a concert. This spacious feeling was also quite well preserved when listening to the same track in binaural, with stereo headphones. Naturally, the result was different than with the Atmos speakers, but we noticed a wider and rather interesting organization of the various sound levels.
On the track Believers by American pop rock band Imagine Dragons, the arpeggio was very prominent between the front and stereo Atmos speakers. The plucking of the guitar strings took shape in a new way and stood out effectively from the other arrangements, despite being positioned in the background. The height of the soundstage benefited the percussion instruments, which gained in impact and power. The bass circulated around us in a surprising way and reinforced the feeling of immersion, as well as the sound bubble effect.
Will Dolby Atmos replace stereo?
Music production in Dolby Atmos is still in its infancy, but has the potential to offer artists greater creative freedom. Even if it is possible to remix old recordings in Dolby Atmos with a very impressive result as demonstrated by Elton John’s Rocketman, the strength of this new format can be increased tenfold when the Atmos production is considered at the recording stage. It is therefore possible to accurately record the sound of a hall such as La Scala in Milan or the Philharmonie de Paris, and to offer a reproduction in Dolby Atmos, as if the listener were in the hall themselves. Dolby Atmos seems sufficiently revolutionary and has all the cards in hand to become part of our listening habits, in binaural or, ideally, with a home theater system or a compatible soundbar.
However, only time will tell if the Dolby Atmos music listening experience will prevail over stereo, but right now it is more likely that the two formats will continue to coexist for many years to come. Stereo sound has been an established standard for over half a century, with millions of stereo tracks that would be impossible to remix in Dolby Atmos. Moreover, this Atmos mix is not appropriate for all music and must be done deliberately by the artist. Therefore, we can expect a massive rise of new productions in Dolby Atmos, as well as many remastered albums, but not a total replacement of stereo.