“There is a secret plan to exclude independent artists!” “Atmos is just a gimmick!” “Musicians and consumers are not excited about immersive spatial audio!!”
There’s been a lot of commotion online lately about Atmos and Spatial Audio and its acceptance, adoption, or not, by consumers, artists, and labels.
I’d like to address some of these issues.
There are, of course, some legitimate concerns and I’ll talk about these a bit futher down.
The “Secret” Plan by “Evil” Corporations
Let’s start with that “secret” plan by “evil” corporations like Apple, Dolby, Amazon, all major labels, to shun independent artists by excluding them from playlists if they do not provide an Atmos mix.
First of all, playlists is a whooooole other game that I’m not going to get into here but I’m just going to say:
- that there is no evidence so far that that is true, we’ll just wait and see, and
- there are a lot of major artists at this time that do not have their catalog, or new releases either, done in Atmos.
Will they get de-playlisted? I don’t know. Maybe they will! But, they are certainly majors, not indies, so the whole “excluding indies” argument kinda falls off the cliff here.
DOLBY ATMOS for Music is expensive for Artists and Distribution is tough!
Indie artists won’t have the resources to provide an Atmos mix you say.
What? Why not?
Atmos is now available built-in in quite a few DAWs with no additional software needed!!! And, with binaural monitoring you could really get a good start in headphones—if you are a DIY person—and then, to make sure stuff translates well, go to an Atmos studio [like our studio!] for a few hours to check your mix or use a second pair of ears.
Well, how about distribution?
Distrokid offers Atmos now with an extra fee per song. Quite steep if you ask me but pricing will come down as more competitors offer the service.
Avid Play has a plan which for less than your weekly Starbucks you can have unlimited Atmos uploads!!!
What Company owns Stereo?
And then there have been statements like these:
“The issue I have with Atmos is that it’s owned by a company. This is never a good thing . . . What company owns stereo?”
Hmmm, where do I even start with that one! Atmos is a technology, a codec, not a speaker or monitoring layout!!
Only Engineers care about Atmos!
I also read somewhere that: “The only people talking about Atmos in music are engineers. Consumers and musicians aren’t excited about it, that alone tells me all I need to know.”
Apple reported earlier this year that in 2022 more than 80 percent of worldwide subscribers enjoyed the Spatial Audio experience, with monthly plays growing by over 1,000 percent!
Take that with a grain salt? Fine!
The new Metallica record is in Atmos, and so are the new records by Procupine Tree, Snarky Puppy, Tiësto, The Weeknd, Tears for Fears, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles.
And how about the just released in Atmos Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd?
Or just look at the Made for Spatial Audio playlist on Apple Music or the Top 100 US and Global . . .
Look at the sales and tons of new releases of “smart” speakers, TVs, soundbars with Atmos built-in.
Apple recently announced a deal to include Spatial Audio in cars (certain Mercedes models at this time but more companies are signing up—not announceable yet but coming VERY soon!).
And Spotify just finished building an Atmos studio in Los Angeles!! [IMHO only a matter of time till they announce that they’ll also support Atmos].
Never mind the proliferation of the format as evidenced by ticket sales in live venues, even though this is just the beginning, but more on this a bit further down.
The Sound of Atmos
Talking about the “sound” of Atmos, there’s been some that think “Atmos is a gimmick” with “things flying around” and instruments being in positions that they’d never be in real life.
Friends, spend some time with the format. Just listen. Attentively!
Talking about binaural here because on any sort of speaker system understanding Atmos is much easier.
And who’s to say what and how artists create anyway?
Check out the song Boom by Tiësto & Sevenn if you want to hear stuff flying around!
Check out Def Leppard’s Photograph to hear how cool Atmos can be with “classic” rock tracks.
Check out Flowers by Miley Cyrus or Tatuaje by Latino-Pop sensation Riza.
Speaking of that song, do this:
Let’s choose Apple Music on iPhone through any pair of headphones (I’m using AirPod Maxes).
Go to Settings > Apple Music scroll down to Audio and select “Dolby Atmos Automatic”—which now is the default on Apple Music
by the way—then go to Music and play the song and then get back to Settings and switch “Dolby Atmos” to “off.”
Listen to the difference! Listen to the placement of the vocal.
In the stereo it is “inside your head”—a classic issue with headphones.
In Atmos it is in front of you, closer to the speaker experience than the headphone experience.
Listen to the other elements of the song.
You can pinpoint them in the 3D space.
The stereo mix is great, don’t get me wrong, [we also do traditional Stereo Mixing and Mastering] but the Atmos as a format provides such a better experience, in my honest opinion!
When I turn Atmos off it is less exciting.
The Binaural Experience through Headphones
Speaking about the headphone experience! I’d like to make a statement! Read my lips!
NO SPECIAL HEADPHONES NEEDED FOR DOLBY ATMOS – SPATIAL AUDIO!!
You can use ANY set of headphones!
Yes, of course you are not going to have the extra features like head tracking that some headphones provide, but those are just that, extra features, and not something required to be able to enjoy Atmos binaural playback!
So, I did say before that there are some legitimate concerns.
Some naysayers profess that Atmos sounds phasey, has less punch, is less “coherent” than stereo.
Sure, that might be true . . . for that particular mix they heard, not for the format as a whole!!!
For a couple of mixes I was working on last week the client commented how more punchy and more coherent and also how much clearer and more dynamic the mix sounded, in the binaural render as well, not just in our 9.1.4 control room.
Yes, there may still be out there living among us some early day Atmos mixes that were practically either early day experimentation with the format, or in most cases I believe, upmixes from stereo, something that is now not accepted by Apple (they WILL reject your stereo upmixes trust me) but word on the street is that they are being replaced with proper Atmos mixes slowly but surely.
And don’t forget—and this is true even more with Apple’s Spatial Audio—the algorithms are being improved constantly!
Spatial Audio does not sound the same way today that it sounded 2-3 months ago. Consensus, amongst Atmos engineers at least, seems to be that it does indeed sound better now.
And here’s the amazing part. The masters are not changing!!!! This is like free re-mastering every so often!
OK, but “does that mean it changes the mix?” Does streaming from your phone, in headphones, in the car, “change” the mix? I consider these improvements in the decoding algos as upgrades of the playback device. Like you buying a better set of headphones or a newer soundbar.
What about the Sweet Spot?
“Atmos, at least with a speaker setup, is a “format for a sweet-spot” and “when you are out of that sweet spot things sound weird!!!” Like when you are in the kitchen cooking listening to music through a Sonos multi-speaker setup. OK, I see the point.
My response is two-fold. First, as in these systems the speakers start talking to each other—like the new Apple Pods can, just two of them at the moment—and with Atmos being a real-time decoding format where the algo knows the speaker setup and can deliver an appropriate mix, it’s only a matter of time that “weirdness” will no longer be there.
Look at the Dolby Live at Park MGM theater [or the Sphere!!] in Las Vegas where 5,200 seats are all in the “sweet spot!”
Now let’s talk about creativity and being brave! Who? Everyone? Yes! Yes! Artists, labels, mixers!
Artists need to think different and compose for the format.
Labels need to provide the leeway to the Atmos mixing engineers to utilize the format in its full potential, not just try to match the stereo mix.
And Atmos mixers need to be brave as well!
Some of us might not be brave enough and some of us might be still stuck in doing things the “stereo way” instead of embracing the format for what it really is and what it can offer.
Embrace the format. It will open so many new avenues of creativity for all invloved!