When you hear the name Dolby Atmos, the immersive 360-degree virtual surround sound technology, you might think of cheap blockbusters with bone-rending explosions, pounding gunfire and stunning orchestral scores.
But Dolby Atmos is not just about making loud noises. In fact, the technology can be used in a more subtle, nuanced way to enhance shows and movies that you've never associated with object-based surround sound before.
One such show is Sky Arts, Portrait Artist of the Year, in which a panel of judges seeks to uncover the next rising star in UK portraiture. Participants are invited to make impressive portraits of famous performers. The winner will receive a commission of £ 10,000 (approximately $ 12,000 / AU $ 18,000) to paint a celebrity. The resulting image wins a coveted place in a National Gallery.
The show, filmed at the Battersea Arts Center in London, plays against the backdrop of a large gallery with the scratching of paintbrushes on the canvas and the murmur of guests echoing in the cavernous hall.
It's a relaxing, healthy timepiece – and certainly not the kind of program you expect to take advantage of the cinematic sound of Dolby Atmos. We visited Sky Studios in West London to visit the Dolby Atmos-certified mixing studio and find out why the technology is actually perfect for the portrait artist of the year.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is an audio format that, just like stereo or surround sound, captures recorded audio from a movie soundtrack, a sports event, or a video game and processes it to make it sound more immersive.
Unlike stereo or surround sound, however, Dolby Atmos plays the audio in a three-dimensional space, giving it the feeling of being impacted from all angles. For example, it makes the sound of a helicopter sound like it's hovering above you.
This process takes place in recording studios where sound designers and synchronous mixers record that sound and move it digitally into that virtual 3D space. When you play the movie with Dolby Atmos-enabled audio devices, you can hear the sound effects just like the movements intended by the sound engineers.
Many cinemas are now equipped with Dolby Atmos devices, which are equipped with tweeters and strategically placed speakers to immerse the viewers in a bubble of sound. However, it's not just banned to the cinemas. More and more home audio devices, including sound bars, wireless speakers and hi-fi systems, use Atmos technology to achieve a similar effect in your living room.
There are spectators with this kind of kit that Sky is aiming for with its growing range of Atmos-enabled shows.
Build the studio
Sky's new Dolby Atmos mixing studio, built last year, was a love affair for the manager of the station's audio team, John Cochran, who told us he had "seized the opportunity" to create the new space.
However, the partnership between Sky and Dolby began a long time ago, when Sky Sports introduced in 2019 the virtual surround sound technology for football coverage in the Premier League. In the following years, Dolby Atmos' output evolved from sky to rugby, pay-per-view boxes. as well as original drama.
Atmos is ideal for live sports, where it brings you to the game and you are cheered from all angles by the spectators. But how can technology bring a soothing painting program to life?
The art of subtlety
For Dolby's Head of Home Content Engineering, Rob France, it's about conveying the beauty of a space – something that puts the Battersea Arts Center in the shade.
"We have so many beautiful spaces that sound nice when we're in them – and stereo and 5.1 do not provide that naturally beautiful sound," he explains.
"What we want to do is feel to be there – The interesting thing about Portraiture of the Year is that it's basically a visual show. It's about people who paint portraits. "
It may not be the kind of show you expect from Dolby Atmos, but as France explains, it really helps the viewer to put the viewer in the room and to give them a sense of what the participants are hearing around them. " – and that gives viewers at home an insight into the pressure they experience when they are in this pressurized environment.
Sound designer Finn Curry explains that using a multidirectional dialogue in combination with the echo of the Arts Center gives the audio a "rich feel" by "enhancing the existing" rather than adding fantastic effects that would affect the show itself.
He says, "The program has a smooth sense of time, people talk about the way they paint" – and it is his job to improve these muted dialogue snippets and bring the resonant sound of the hosts who give instructions to the forefront to move to the participants.
As the hosts intervene, their voices bounce naturally on the walls of the art center – something lost in traditional stereo sound.
With Dolby Atmos, their voices get a sense of height that echoes in the studio as well as in the room itself. This gives the viewer a real sense of immersion, making you feel like you're in the hallway with them.
This also makes it easier to understand how participants feel; As the judges tell them that they can start painting, their voices cut through the muted chatter and subtle background music, and you feel the nervous anticipation of the artists as they pick up their brushes.
It's not just about adding drama. Using Dolby Atmos means you can hear sounds that are not normally heard so clearly. the sound of brushes on canvas, the scratching of pencils on paper and the mixing of colors on a palette.
The difference is subtle but palpable, and these seemingly insignificant tonal details make for a truly impressive viewing experience. You could easily lose yourself in the gentle atmosphere of the show.
Looking to the future
The portrait artist of the year may sound stunning at a Dolby Atmos certified studio, but what about the viewers at home? Is Sky not very time consuming and only appeals to a handful of viewers who have access to Atmos compatible devices?
According to Cochrane, it does not matter if there are only a few people with Dolby Atmos soundbars and speakers – it's worth the effort for Sky to "give the best we can".
The more shows, films and video games Dolby Atmos supports, the more likely it is that consumers will invest in this kind of equipment – and for Cochrane, there is no genre that could not benefit from audio technology.
"I think Dolby Atmos has a tremendous breadth of applications, whether it's television, theater or exhibitions."
With Sky and streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube boosting the Dolby Atmos edition, viewers can now choose between standard sound and breathtaking immersion.
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