The problem with Dolby Atmos and cinema sound levels

Dolby Atmos is a technology brought in to give cinema sound an extra edge. But are its effects being drowned out by the volume control?

In the quest to give cinemas something distinctive to warrant the increasing admission price, several technologies have been deployed in recent times. So, on top of huge screens – with IMAX sites growing in number – and on top of big blockbusters arriving with a 3D option, there have been some interesting progressions in sound.

Sound is something that is hard to get right in a home environment, after all, without spending a good deal of cash. In truth, many overlook a good surround sound system in favour of a large telly. Unsurprising perhaps, when good 60″ screens for the living room are now under £1000 a pop.

Dolby in particular has been investing heavily in new audio technologies for cinemas, and in April 2012, it pulled the proverbial covers off Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos sounds like just the kind of thing cinema sound should be doing. The crude explanation for the technology is that whereas once upon a time, cinemas surrounded you with a number of speakers, Atmos suddenly allows for up to 64 speaker feeds, and 128 discrete audio tracks. As such, properly-equipped Dolby Atmos cinemas add ceiling-mounted speakers to the mix, as well as a greater number around the auditorium. The theory is that you’re engulfed in an audio mix, with sound coming at you from all around, as well as above.

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This is brilliantly demonstrated in one of the Dolby Atmos demo clips that tends to play ahead of films screened using the technology: a slow, subtle build up of noise, as you get the growing awareness that the audio is all around you. It’s really well done.

The problem, though, is that I’m not convinced that Atmos is being deployed in quite the way that it should. And it ties into a broader issue with cinema audio levels.

Anyone who has tinkered with any kind of surround sound set-up will know that it’s the placement of the sound that’s crucial. Getting the balance of levels is a fine art at times, and it varies on a film by film basis. Atmos, in theory, should all be about the placement. However, with every subsequent film that I see screened using the format, the thing that’s coming through more than anything is the sheer volume. That somewhere along the line, the onus is switching from the delicate positioning of sound, to using the separate speakers and blasting you with very loud noise from even more directions than before.

This does tie in, of course, to the ongoing debate about comfortable sound levels at your average multiplex. But I find it particularly disappointing with an Atmos mix, where there’s a chance to do something more interesting. Gareth Edwards has clearly taken a lot of care and attention with the sound mix for his new Godzilla movie, but the screening I attended turned into an audio wall of very loud noise, to the point of making my ears ring for some time afterwards. It’s been the same with other films I’ve seen in Atmos, such as Man Of Steel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Gravity, Frozen and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. These were across different venues, so it can’t just be an issue with one particular picturehouse. Each, however, seemed to prioritise volume over anything else. And surely that’s not what Dolby Atmos was supposed to do?

Directors, as we’ve seen in the past, have written to projectionists (remember them?) to specifically request care be taken in how their film is projected. But where’s the specific request asking for sound to be taken into account? To point out that, for the subtleties to work, the volume knob doesn’t have to be cranked up to maximum?

Because sound, after all, can enhance seeing a film in a cinema significantly. I always remember watching Paul W S Anderson’s often-maligned Event Horizon in the 1990s, but in a cinema where clearly a lot of care and attention had been put into getting the surround sound for the film just right. As such, the subtle placement of noise was quite brilliant, lifting the experience of watching the film by some distance. I’ve always had more regard for Event Horizon than most, and the spot-on experience of watching it for the first time in the right room may well have helped there.

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Sound, however it’s deployed, is a major, major tool in the armoury of cinema, and Dolby Atmos is a potentially terrific enhancement of what’s possible. But audio requires the same care and attention as the picture itself, from production to projection, and I can’t help but feel that not everything is going to plan.

June and July’s range of Atmos-accompanied blockbusters – from Edge Of Tomorrow through to the new Transformers and Planet Of The Apes films – are the next to try and sort this muddle out. I fear that at least some of them are just another excuse to turn the volume knob up again, drowning out some of the effect of well placed audio in the process…

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