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Immersive Technologies Help Music Hit the High Notes

The new audio technology adds an extra dimension—height —to recorded music. Does it work for jazz?

Elliot Scheiner
Producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner

Stereo and conventional surround sound capture the width and depth of a recording venue, but as anyone who’s ever heard live music knows, reflections from above are just as important to natural reverberance. Thanks to new “immersive audio” technologies, it’s now possible to capture the height of a soundscape, from the famously low basement ceiling of the Village Vanguard to the 83-foot ceiling of Carnegie Hall. Dolby Laboratories is bringing its Atmos technology, already a standard in commercial cinemas and home theaters, to music.

Immersive is the biggest push in new music recording and distribution technology since surround sound. But of course, surround-sound music largely flopped. Why might immersive take off when conventional surround sound didn’t?

All Directions at Once

Immersive sound reproduces height information in a few different ways. It can come from speakers mounted on or in the ceiling. It can come from “Atmos enabled” speakers and soundbars with speaker drivers that point upward to bounce sound off the ceiling. Or it can come from conventional headphones, using digital processing that tries to trick your ears into thinking they’re hearing sound from above. (Sony has its own immersive technology, 360 Reality Audio, available only in Sony headphones.)

With traditional jazz recordings, this might take the form of added reverberance that attempts to simulate the acoustics of a studio or small jazz club. In fact, some of the more than 200 tracks Blue Note Records has remixed for Atmos were produced by “re-amping,” or playing them into a room at Capitol Studios and capturing the reverberance through microphones. But progressive jazz artists might find more creative uses for the technology.

Producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner, who has won three Grammy awards for Best Surround Sound Album, says that immersive sound can work for jazz, and that it can be used for much more than reverberance. “Immersive, if done right, can benefit any kind of music,” he says. “Usually it’s not going to be about panning sounds around, where all of a sudden you have a guitar coming from above, but I did some immersive mixing with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis where I had background singers in the top.”

Recording with Dolby Atmos
Recording with Dolby Atmos.

Getting Immersed

Atmos Music is currently available through Amazon Music HD and Tidal Hi-Fi streaming services. The streaming apps show you which tunes are available in immersive sound—for example, Atmos tunes in the Amazon app are labeled “3D.” The easiest way to access Atmos is through Android smartphones, many of which have a Dolby Atmos option in their audio processing. This processing works with any set of headphones, although its effects will vary depending on the headphones and the listener’s hearing characteristics. Another easy way to hear Atmos is with the Amazon Echo Studio, a $199.99 smartspeaker with an upward-firing speaker driver.

With Atmos-equipped surround speaker systems and soundbars, you can currently hear Atmos Music only on Blu-ray discs, mostly concert videos. However, according to Dolby senior director of music partnerships Christine Thomas, it’s likely these systems will soon be streaming Atmos Music, perhaps through an update to streaming devices such as a Roku Streaming Stick+. “We’re confident our partners will be making this available on more platforms,” she says.

A full surround system exploits the benefits of Atmos in a way that headphones and smartspeakers probably never will. At Dolby’s demonstration theater in Hollywood, Thomas played me some Atmos mixes through the theater’s state-of-the-art, 43-speaker sound system. While Atmos mixes of Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me” and Bobby Hutcherson’s version of “Maiden Voyage” sounded somewhat spacey and disembodied, an Atmos version of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” completely blew me away. The Atmos mix had a dramatically more natural ambience than the stereo version does, with all the instruments—especially Shorter’s tenor—perfectly imaged across the front of the theater. It sounded like I was sitting in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio right in front of the band.

As with surround-sound music, the appeal of Atmos depends on the taste of the recording engineer, and the huge variety in Atmos playback systems will likely introduce even greater variability in the listener experience. “The biggest challenge with immersive sound isn’t the core technology, it’s that so many types of devices are used for playback,” Scheiner says. “They’re trying to make it work with single speakers and column speakers [in addition to surround systems with ceiling speakers], but you don’t mix it that way. I wouldn’t want anyone to hear one of my mixes through those kinds of speakers and think I mixed it.”

Fortunately, it’s easy to get at least a taste of Atmos at zero cost—through an Android phone and headphones you already own—or at the reasonable cost of the Echo Studio. Granted, many Atmos mixes I’ve heard through my Echo Studio have underwhelmed me. But the Atmos version of Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” sounded so much more natural and spacious than the standard version that it proves this technology can benefit even a 56-year-old classic—if it’s done right.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.