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How Dolby Atmos promises to change how people experience music and movies


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Many of the major music streaming services are now offering new spatial music playlists with more immersive versions of some of your favorite music.

The new music format is called Dolby Atmos Music. And some view it as important an innovation as the advent of stereo music recordings in the 1960s.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: From the people who surrounded you with sound effects and movie theaters comes a new music format that can move the sounds of different music instruments and vocals all around your living room, inside your car, and even inside the space between your ears.

John Couling, Dolby Laboratories: I think it's one of the most significant innovations, if not the most significant innovation of the last few decades in terms of music experience.

Mike Cerre: John Couling heads up the entertainment division of Dolby, the San Francisco-based audio technology company that developed the relatively new Dolby Atmos Music format, now being integrated into consumer electronics products and music streaming services.

Unlike stereo, which combines all the music into left and right audio channels, Dolby Atmos Music separates various instruments and vocals and moves them between and around the two channels.

So John, unfortunately the newscasts like the "PBS NewsHour," we don't use Dolby Atmos yet. But, for the benefit of our viewers, we're going to have to kind of show them what we're hearing.

John Couling: What we have here are products that you can buy. They're available in a store today.

Mike Cerre: OK, so we might be hearing the bass here, we may be hearing the trumpet, Miles Davis, there. It'll be all around you.

John Couling: Absolutely. And by spreading out the sound, you get this greater experience, both of immersiveness, but also clarity.

Mike Cerre: What's the difference if we are listening to this in traditional stereo with two speakers?

John Couling: So when you have two speakers, you have to make all of the sound come from those two locations, a left and a right. And in a record, there's a lot of sound going on.

Well, in Dolby Atmos, you have much more space. So as you spread them out into different locations, it allows each of them to shine, more authentic, more detailed, greater clarity of sound.

Mike Cerre: Unlike other major audio evolutions requiring many years for creators to adopt and consumers to access, most people who bought a new cellular phone, tablet, computer or TV in the past four years already have access to the Dolby Atmos Music technology.

Automobile companies are adding the new technology starting with their luxury models. This Mercedes is equipped with 16 speakers throughout the car.

Lizzo, yes.

John Couling: Yes. This is a great record. It was actually a Record of the Year of the Grammys. It's in Dolby Atmos. And what you get is, you get Lizzo at the front, but you get her backing vocals all around you.

You got this great beat. There's a lot going on in this song and the car really shows it off.

Mike Cerre: We don't even need Lizzo up there for "Carpool Karaoke."


Mike Cerre: Hollywood sound engineer Brad Wood converted his backyard garage and spare bedroom unit into one of the early Dolby Atmos Music studios during the COVID hiatus after hearing Elton John's "Rocket Man" for the first time in the new format.

Brad Wood, Sound Engineer: Those slide guitars, they take off from behind you and up and over your head like a rocket. And I think it's a great example of a song and a lyric and recording matching a technology.

Mike Cerre: After 40 years of first playing his own music, then recording and mixing music for bands, the art of producing music has taken on a whole new dimension and jump-started his new career, reversioning classic recordings, like Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out."

Brad Wood: And you can see all the green and yellow blobs. Those are actually called objects in Dolby Atmos, and those are audio tracks. And some of them are stationary. Some are moving and they're all overhead.

And this is the trombone solo. You can see it spinning around above us in the height speakers.

Mike Cerre: You don't have to be in a studio with multiple speakers to hear the different instruments moving around. The effect can even be heard in your earbuds and headphones connected to any Dolby Atmos Music-capable device.

Brad Wood: There are times when I am literally, like, moving my head around with my AirPods in and turning to my right and hearing a singer or a guitar coming out of the right.

It's a different kind of technology, because you still only have just the two speaker elements in your ears.

Mike Cerre: But, according to some critics, hearing sounds from different directions can be distracting.

Neuroscientists and musician Dr. Daniel Levitin believes it depends more on the nature of the sound and how the technology is used.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, Neurologist: If there was something outside of our field of vision, a sudden loud noise that's called the startle response, depending on the noise, we might jump. We might turn around.

But if they have been there all along as part of the musical piece, just like a humming refrigerator coming from the other room, you habituate to them and they're not alarming.

Mike Cerre: For the Walkman and iPod generation that traded sound quality for music convenience, the clarity of this new format can even be more pronounced.

Crank it up. Crank it up.

And for those of us still hoarding our vinyl records for a richer sound than traditional digital and streaming formats it's like listening in to the "Dark Side of the Moon."


Brad Wood: Hammond organ in the back.

Mike Cerre: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in Los Angeles.

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