With Sky and Netflix both asking for Dolby Atmos mixes for their original series, and high end features increasingly embracing the format, our audio customers are beginning to ask if it's time to get their mixing rooms Atmos-certified in order to score more high end work.
Our answer? It's time to start. While there are definite benefits to being certified, it's a time-consuming and expensive process, and most facilities want to hold off upgrading a room until they have a client demanding an Atmos deliverable. However, waiting until you've signed a contract means that you're hit with the cost of the upgrade all at once, and have a limited window of time in which to figure out how to create and deliver immersive content.
By laying the groundwork in advance, you can develop your room over time, learn the skillset you'll need for mixing immersive sound, and make informed decisions at every step of the way, whether it's best for your business to optimise the room for Dolby after all, or whether you want to specialise in Auro-3D, Ambisonics or other another format.
First, we should clear up a common misconception: Atmos is not like any other Dolby standard, and the home entertainment certification for Atmos (the one required for Sky and Netflix commissions) is very different from the cinematic certification that'll let you mix features. This means that 'adding' home entertainment Atmos capabilities to a room that has a Dolby 7.1 cinematic licence (something we're asked about fairly regularly) is incredibly difficult, and is unlikely to save you much money; you'll have to install a full Atmos speaker array alongside your existing one, rather than being able to do both with the same kit, as people commonly expect they'll be able to do.
Ideally, if you're experimenting with Atmos, you want to be starting from scratch or as close to it as possible, so ideally upgrade a stereo room. It's a big step up that involves investing in a lot of loudspeakers, but ultimately it's easier to hit the required standard and be as precise as necessary about your speaker placement when you start with a non-certified room.
"We always look at the existing technology and how we can integrate it into the new workflow, in order to minimise the cost," says Audio Business Manager Joffrey Ghiringhelli. "We can work with people to assess what of their existing setup can be reclaimed and used in the new room, but because the requirements for home and cinema certification are so different, it's best not to assume you will be able to build a room using only repurposed and repositioned speakers."
Expanding the monitoring setup in a stereo room is the best way to begin preparing for immersive mixing. You can move the room up to a 7.4.1 or 9.4.1 setup (whichever suits your room best), so that you can practise mixing in that space, and folding down to a 7.1 or 5.1 mix. "Pro Tools will let you monitor natively in various immersive formats, including Atmos and Ambisonics, so the initial cost of entry for anyone who doesn't actually have to deliver an immersive mix is £10 – 15,000 worth of monitors and management for them," says engineer Matt Ward.
"As well as the monitors to move you from a 7.1 to a 7.4.1 environment, we'd recommend something like the JBL Intonato for loudspeaker management, delay compensation and EQ. Then you might need some hardware to glue that all together – more Pro Tools interfaces, and maybe some Dante interfacing to make sure you can get enough channels out of your DAW into the loudspeaker environment."
The key thing to remember is that none of this is a wasted investment. Any speakers you install can be positioned, or repositioned, should you wish to get your room certified by Dolby in the future. "We'd recommend coming and consulting with us before you deploy your speakers, because if your ultimate goal is to use the room for VR or Auro mixing rather than Atmos, we'd advise slightly different speaker locations to make it easier for you to ultimately get that certification," Matt explains, "but whenever we work on a room, we do work as close to the official recommendations as we can, so you only need to make minimal changes if you decide you so want to pursue a certification."
"If you're being asked to deliver immersive mixes to clients, but don't need the Dolby name behind you, you don't need their RMU unit, which is the single most expensive element of that setup," says Saxon Greenep, our resident expert on Atmos installations. "You can create the mix using Pro Tools' Dolby Atmos Production Suite plug-in, and use the same software to perform QC on a final Atmos master and generate the metadata you need."
Dolby have their own Panner plug-in for Pro Tools setups (you can get the full story on how to use that here), but Cubase's VST MultiPanner will also support Atmos mixing.
If you've been leasing with us as you develop your room, you shouldn't need too much extra hardware to land a Dolby certification – although their rendering unit is expensive to buy and license, and the testing and QC needed is "a lot of work in itself, there are clients who won't work with you unless you are certified," explains Joffrey. "We always try to meet the specifications of the certification whether our clients want to go for it or not, so that if they ever change their mind, the room will be in line with what Dolby recommends."
Aside from buying the requisite rendering unit and licences from Dolby, you'll need to set aside significant time to get your monitor setup precisely aligned to Dolby's requirements – it will be the work of days rather than hours, even if you’ve already been delivering non-certified mixes.
As well as developing your own rooms, we strongly advise talking to the production companies you'll be working with about how they plan to capture their sound. While at the moment it's standard operating procedure to take an existing set of 5.1 stems and repurpose them for an immersive mix, there are ways to start collecting original sound effects in 3D.
"It's very feasible to collect sound effects and audio atmospheres in Ambisonics right now, and there are high order mics that will let you capture audio in Ambisonics, which can then be imported into Pro Tools," says Matt. "That gives you much more space for more creative sound design, and the result is much more engaging, but production companies are reluctant to be the first to make the investment, and there's a conversation that needs to start happening between production and post to get the most out of the technology."
If you want to develop your rooms for immersive audio, we can help you at every stage, providing system design, installation, integration, training and project management. Give us a call on 03332 409 306 or email audio@Jigsaw24.com. For all the latest news, follow @WeAreJigsaw24 on Twitter, or ‘Like’ us on Facebook.