Sponsored by Jigsaw24

The Dolby Atmos revolution is already being televised, and UK based installer Jigsaw24 can make sure your studio is ready to tune in.

While it has been nearly 10 years since the three-dimensional surround sound technology Dolby Atmos debuted its height-based object capability in movie theaters, the format is finally on everyone’s mind as the emerging standard for home-based surround sound and “spatial audio” music. While the global pandemic shuttered cinemas and live music venues for a time, a growing number of Atmos-certified home surround sound systems and standalone Atmos-capable soundbars like the Sennheiser Ambeo and Sony HTA7000 cradled viewers in immersive Atmos audio from Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.

Many major audio post-production facilities have already outfitted their studios with Atmos-enabled speakers systems and production gear. Now that the Tidal HiFi and Apple Music subscriptions also support Dolby Atmos music on compatible speaker systems and headphones, the rush is on for music studios to do the same, and Great Britain’s media technology reseller and solutions provider Jigsaw24 has been designing, installing, and retrofitting Dolby Atmos studios with Avid Pro Tools systems for more than seven years.

Jigsaw24’s Audio Professional Services Engineer Patrick Roche says that especially since Apple announced that Apple Music would support Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos by the summer of 2021, the interest in music studios for mixing in the Atmos format has increased massively. Now, in addition to cinematic dubbing suites, quality-control (QC) theatrical rooms, and any reasonable-sized audio facilities, Jigsaw24 is seeing more and more interest in home-based producers and engineers wanting to build an Atmos room in their house, shed, garage and other small spaces. Jigsaw24 coordinate the audio specialists in their various professional services and customer support teams to make sure that every new Atmos room they work on meets the standards and has seamlessly working gear on day one, so the audio creative customer can focus on their craft and on discovering the creative possibilities of working with Atmos.

Getting Started with an Atmos Studio Build
Whether they’re working in cinema, home entertainment, music, or a combination, people interested in working with Atmos generally contact Jigsaw24 with questions about how to get started because there’s an opportunity for an income stream from Atmos mixing. They want to know if they can use an existing room or need to build a new room. They want to know how to get started, because it is a daunting task to do oneself, and can lead to very expensive consequences if mistakes are made.

Patrick says there are many reasons to go to a specialist when adopting the Atmos standard for your studio, not the least of which is the complexity of designing the room correctly. “Every room is different,” he says, “but an organization that's done it dozens of times already, has probably already seen and solved similar challenges. We may already have a way around your room’s issues or know how to solve your problems as they arise.”

Once Jigsaw24 has taken on a new Atmos studio job, the audio team considers the acoustic characteristics of the room for optimal speaker placement and decides if the room is suitable or what can be altered to make it suitable. Dolby has a set of noise criteria, ideal room ratios, reverb time, and other performance metrics they want an Atmos room to meet. For studios that already meet those criteria, the challenges may be how to mount the speakers, especially the ceiling-mounted channels. Can the ceiling handle the weight of hanging speakers? Is there enough height to meet the minimum specification of 2.4 meters from the floor to the acoustic center of the top speakers? With the Atmos spec, there’s some leeway to speaker placement, but moving any one speaker can also affect where the other speakers need to be. If you move the side speakers higher for example, you have to move the ceiling speakers closer together, but you still have to maintain a certain amount of separation.

The speakers also need to be correctly time-aligned with each other. “Frankly, it's just a mess if you don't do this,” Patrick says. “You don't get that pinpoint spatial imaging if you don't time-align those speakers properly.” Installation professionals like Jigsaw24 can help with all of the above concerns, but what do they do about particularly challenging spaces?

Can Any Room Become an Atmos Room?
If prospective Atmos spaces present challenges to the proper spacing of loudspeakers, the Jigsaw24 team can resort to many work-arounds. To meet the height requirement, they have raised ceilings, cut out ceiling tiles, and used creative mounting anchor points like stripping back the ceiling construction to place speakers between structural beams. When ceilings have not been able to take the weight of speakers, they have mounted speakers across the top of rooms to truss rods that are supported by the flanking walls.

Jigsaw24 consults with clients to find out their gear preferences and arrive at loudspeaker solutions that they like. Certain manufacturers like PMC and Focal make a variety of speakers that can be installed to make the best use of the available space. Focal custom installation speakers can be aimed at different angles, and if a studio does not have enough width to mount side speakers on stand, shallow-depth options like the PMC Wafers can mount on a wall or within the wall to be flush with it. For other loudspeaker types that aren’t as flexible, the audio team has carefully drilled bolts into speaker cabinets in order to hang them using adapted television mounts. “You really have to make sure your angles are correct before you actually take the drill to a speaker,” Patrick says. “That would be a very expensive mistake to make.”

The most drastic renovation Jigsaw24 encountered when retrofitting a cinematic room for Atmos required them to move a fire escape in order to make enough space for the screen width. It was an ordeal of planning and implementation, but the room was long enough, so the audio team made it work.

Every situation is different and requires a myriad of factors to consider to get the speakers within the tolerance for angles and displacement. The Jigsaw24 audio team often approaches Atmos studio design as an iterative process. As one requirement is met, they reassess to make sure everything else will be in order before beginning the actual installation.

An Accessible Path to Pro Tools Atmos Mixing
Understandably, many audio pros have an interest in trying before buying, so to speak. To get your feet wet with mixing in Atmos, Patrick recommends using the Dolby Atmos Production Suite for Avid Pro Tools | Ultimate. With these software tools, you can mix projects for Atmos using as little gear as a laptop and headphones. For best results, you should finish your project in a full Atmos facility or outfit your studio for Atmos before releasing it to the world. But the binaural Atmos Production Suite tools allow people to immerse themselves in an exciting new world of sonic possibilities.

Those who don’t yet own a copy of Pro Tools | Ultimate may want to consider purchasing the Avid Pro Tools Carbon audio interface, which is being bundled with a Pro Tools | Ultimate Perpetual License and Auto-Tune Hybrid for free through the end of 2021. With the Carbon’s excellent-sounding preamps and headphone amps, it may be the quickest and best path to begin experimenting with Atmos mixing on headphones.

Keep this in mind when mixing Atmos on headphones: Because the binaural technology in the Dolby Atmos Production Suite uses a lot of phase tricks to convince the ear that something is somewhere else within the space a few millimeters outside of the ear canal, rather than presenting it with dedicated speaker drivers, some audio professionals who've spent a lifetime training themselves to hear bad phase differences and bad early reflections don’t always appreciate the illusion of headphone Atmos at first. “We’re trained to hear these things as phasing nonsense,” Patrick says, “but once people get used to it, take the headphones off to listen to it on speakers, and go back to headphones, they start to hear how it all correlates together.”

Avid for Atmos and Pro Tools Atmos Training
When mixers are ready to step up from working with Atmos Production Suite on headphones, the audio team at Jigsaw24 can discuss the nature of your work and your ambitions for using Atmos to determine an optimal hardware setup. You will need an Atmos renderer, which can be an internal renderer, or for better performance, a dedicated outboard Dolby Rendering and Mastering Unit (RMU). The RMU can be built on a Mac or PC platform using MADI or Dante for networking audio in and out. Patrick points out that the RMU is somewhat mislabled as a renderer, because while a fraction of its function renders for the speakers, it’s also like a master recorder that records all the beds, objects, and metadata in one big file and then produces various audio files—one for QC, another for delivery, and re-renders sub mixes for various speaker configurations like 5.1, 7.1, stereo, etc. It can also dynamically change the speaker configuration with the press of a button.

“That’s a great way to illustrate the advantages of Atmos to your clients,” Patrick says. “You play back a good Atmos mix, then hit the stereo button, and the sense of deflation is palpable as the human engagement with what's happening noticeably vanishes as you fold an Atmos mix down to stereo.”

When working for cinema, the outboard RMU is essential, which has a requirement for 128 audio tracks to and from the renderer. That puts you in the territory of a Pro Tools | HDX2 hardware system, but Patrick also says that a trend these days is to go with a single Avid MTRX HD audio interface with multiple digital I/O card expansions. That way, in the traditional cinema workflow where you have a playback machine and a recording machine, or multiple playback machines for sound FX, foley, dialogue, and music, they could all go through one MTRX with multiple Pro Tools cards, and that MTRX feeds into the RMU, while it’s all synchronized over a network.

On a smaller scale, if you don’t need the 128 channels of the outboard RMU, and you want to stay within the domain of the Dolby Atmos Production Suite but also output to Atmos speakers, Patrick says the Avid MTRX Studio is ideal. With its 16 analog outputs, you can output to as high as a 9.1.6 surround system.

Regardless of the hardware particulars, anyone investing in an Atmos mixing room may also want to invest in professional Atmos training, like the 3-day PT210D Pro Tools | Dolby Atmos Production course (US$1,499 per person). The Jigsaw24 audio pre-sales and support team staff all take that course keep their Atmos skillset sharp, andPatrick recommends it as a very in-depth and comprehensive class for learning the Atmos production and mastering suites.

Everyone is also welcome to visit the Jigsaw24 Soho, London location to demo its presentation space Atmos systems. These entail Pro Tools MTRX Studio and Carbon interfaces, Avid S6 and S4 control surfaces, a Dolby Atmos RMU, an Atmos speaker array of JBL 7 Series studio monitors, and various monitor controllers. Visitors can try out the components to learn how they all fit together in a workflow. They can also experience Atmos material in person from Tidal, Apple Music, and Apple TV played back on Focal custom installation speakers with BSS processing and some Crown amplifiers.

The Creative Renaissance of Mixing in Atmos
Beyond seeing Atmos as another technological mountain to climb or revenue steam to mine (which is of course is nice), there is a real opportunity for Atmos to be a widespread creative frontier for audio mixers to explore and enjoy. In comparison to 5.1 surround sound, the Atmos soundstage is more exciting and engaging, and with the accessibility of Atmos material through ubiquitous mobile devices, streaming services and headphones, Atmos may soon be mainstream in a way that 5.1 never was. That means better chances for audio producers and engineers to reap creative and financial rewards from the technology.

“Once you get engaged with Dolby Atmos content and realize the advantages and the creative things you can do, it can change your approach to mixing and how you arrange your productions,” Patrick says. “It really engages you with a sense of why you do this and how you do it.”

Another great way to learn about Atmos mixing is just to listen to as much material as possible on as good of a system as possible in video and audio formats. Not all of it is impressive, as much of it was probably not converted from the original multitracks, Patrick says. Atmos can also be unforgiving to sloppy mixing errors that may have been tucked away within stereo mixes. In Atmos everything is much more noticeable, which may force mixers to step up their game.

“It's sort of the Wild West; there’s no rights and no wrongs,” Patrick says. “And this isn't just about whizzbang objects flying all around your head. Some of the best Atmos mixes I've heard, like great choral recordings in old churches, are more about giving space and size to the performance. It's a great time for learning about this, and we spend our lives on the nitty-gritty technical stuff so the mixers don’t have to.”

To enquire about a Dolby Atmos studio instal contact Jigsaw24.

They are headquartered at 8 Golden Square, Soho, London W1F 9HY.