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Bringing Dolby Atmos to the home via Blu-ray

Formosa’s Tim Hoogenakker walks us through his re-mastering process

By Mel Lambert

There is no denying that Dolby Atmos immersive soundtracks have added an extra allure for cinema audiences — as evidenced by the enhanced success of action movies at the box office — but, until very recently, it was an experience reserved for your local multiplex. All of that is to change with the availability of Atmos-capable receivers from a number of leading vendors, including Denon, Marantz, Onya, Yamaha and Pioneer, and an offering of new Blu-ray discs with Atmos soundtracks.

While the consumer format involves fewer playback speakers than the theatrical format, Home Atmos can convey an added sense of reality for home viewers. And most current-generation Blu-ray players will support Dolby Atmos content via HDMI outputs to a suitable AV receiver equipped with embedded Atmos decoders.

To find out more about the Atmos Home re-mastering process, we spoke with Tim Hoogenakker who, separate from his day job as a re-recording mixer at Formosa Santa Monica (the former POP Sound location) where he works on a number of feature film and music projects, has been handling an increasing number of Blu-ray disc releases, including John Wick, Expendables 3 Unrated and Step Up: All In, plus others to come.

“All three soundtracks were re-mastered in a 7.1.4-configured mixing room,” Hoogenakker explains, “which involved taking the original [Avid] Pro Tools sessions, with the horizontal beds plus Atmos objects, and selecting what I wanted to place in the 7.1-channel horizontal mix and what I wanted to put up into the four overhead or height speakers. I also made level, pan and EQ adjustments, as necessary, and adjusted the overall dynamic range to enhance certain elements.”

Other currently available Atmos-capable Blu-ray titles include Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, plus several offerings for Japan, India and China. Just announced titles include On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Unbroken and Gravity.

The Workflow
Having started his near-field mix, editorial and general layout of Pro Tools sessions at Formosa Santa Monica, Hoogenakker transferred to a custom-designed re-recording suite installed at Dolby’s Burbank office. The Atmos Project Studio is equipped with Avid Artist Series control surfaces, Genelec Model 1037B monitors for left, center and right playback channels, Niles DS8HD in-wall speakers powered by Crown 300N amps, plus a pair of Ken Kreisel subs (one for the main bass management and LFE, and the second to augment the surround.) A separate Home Theater Room, designed to mimic a “typical” consumer environment for QC testing, is equipped with KEF R700 towers for left and right front and rear speakers, a KEF R600 speaker for the center channel, KEF T301 wall-mounted speakers for side surrounds and an M&K MX-350 subwoofer. A quartet of KEF R50 Dolby-enabled speaker modules mounted on top of the four R700 towers handle upfiring playback which, when bounced off the ceiling, provide height channels. All loudspeakers are driven by a Denon AVR-X5200W AV receiver, aside from the rear overhead pair, which is fed from a separate ART SLA-1 amplifier.

“For John Wick I started with the original 5.1-channel mix [supplied by supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger],” explains Hoogenakker. “I opened up the mix into a basic 7.1 Atmos bed with music, sound effects and backgrounds, and then looked for objects to be routed to the overhead speakers using the [Pro Tools-enabled Atmos cinema] panners. I pulled some of the strings and other orchestral elements of the score to both the 7.1 and height channels to add extra depth — it’s unusual to pull the score apart like that, but it worked for this particular film very smoothly – in addition to some backgrounds to help pan the action across the added surround channels. I also placed many effects, such as a helicopter passing overhead, into the [height] speakers, while keeping the intention of the panning referencing the 5.1.

“But there were sequences where the gunfire, for example, was playing extremely loud. Understanding that’s what the director intended, I worked on pulling it down somewhat for the consumer audience, but also made sure that the EQ was the same while removing that deep, low-end rumble, which won’t play clearly in most home setups. In fact, I try to keep the heavy low-end in the 7.1 mix and check that it folds properly into the down mix. I normally monitor at 82 dB rather than [the cinema standard of] 85dB, which is just too loud for consumer mixes. I always trust my ears, and base my overall levels on the dialog elements, pulling down loud effects excursions and using overall limiting to contain the transients, where appropriate. I also made a separate special Nighttime 2.0 LtRt mix for the John Wick Blu-ray, with a very aggressive control of dynamics and tight limiting, which left me some room to keep the Atmos mix as bombastic as intended.”

For Expendables 3 Unrated, the re-recording mixer was able to start with the original 7.1 Atmos bed and objects prepared for the theatrical release by Dolby and Lionsgate. “But the unrated version of the film had been mixed in 5.1-channel,” Hoogenakker recalls. “So for those unrated sections I needed to re-create the Atmos immersive mix by first building the 7.1 bed. Then, while comparing it with the theatrical release, recreate, edit and mix material together in Pro Tools. There was a 13-minute running time difference between the unrated and rated versions. Since there are a lot of branch points on the Blu-ray discs [between the rated and unrated soundtrack] — I remember counting 30 in all — I had to pay particular attention to level transitions across those points to ensure that playback remained seamless.

“I put material into the overhead speakers only when it was appropriate, since I didn’t want to pull the audience out of the action [with distractions]. There is a scene in a large hotel, for example, where I placed bullet ricochets into the overheads because it seemed to work, as well as ambiences and gun zings. The music score presented a number of challenges on Expendables 3 because of the scene extensions [to accommodate the unrated sections] which, with my music-mixing background, I could blend and rebalance as necessary, to ensure a seamless experience.”

Since Step Up: All In had been mixed in 7.1-channel format, “this film was more of a remaster/upmix rather than remix the Home Atmos soundtrack,” Hoogenakker explains. “Being a very music-driven film, it was fairly straight-forward — just transitioning material appropriately up into the overhead speakers.”

Checking format compatibility was critical for all of Hoogenakker’s recent Blu-ray Home Atmos projects. “A large portion of my time is spent on carefully checking the down mix from 7.1 to 5.1 and stereo playback so that there is no compromise for non-Atmos playback or for consumers using a TV or flat-screen’s two loudspeaker channels. I check the channel-to-channel phase effects that are hidden or lost in a down mix or maybe sound too loud, as well as dialog that becomes veiled — that just cannot happen!

“For equalization on the Home Atmos projects, lately I’ve been really enjoying DMGAudio’s EQuality plug-in,” Hoogenakker states. “But, when need be, the stock [Pro Tools] EQ III seven-band plug-in still works great for many applications. I don’t really use much outboard hardware anymore, because so many things are now ‘In the Box.’ Sometimes I’ll use the TC Electronics 6000 for its UnWrap algorithm, but that’s about it. For dynamics control, the Avid Pro Limiter has been my strong contender lately. As far as processing tools go, sometimes I’ll use a combination of Waves UM226 [stereo-to-5.1-channel upmixer] along with some of my own custom plug-in/routing that I use to tailor the mix, while making sure that everything folds down as close as possible.

“For my normal mixes at Formosa, I use an AMS Neve DFC Gemini console, while doing 90 perecent of the work in-the-box within Pro Tools to create the near-field mix, which is the way I normally work anyway. The DFC has become more of a big ‘stem-router’ these days, especially since I needed to shift my mix over to Dolby to finish the home Atmos mix, because the Project Studio doesn’t have a DFC console.”

He emphasizes that it’s incredibly important to always assure the filmmakers that “I’m always trying to remain as close as possible to the integrity of their original theatrical mix, while keeping these consumer Blu-ray disc mixes strong and dynamic as much as possible where appropriate.”

“Dolby Atmos as implemented in the home is a 100 percent object-based audio format,” confirms Brett Crockett, Dolby Labs senior director of Sound Technology Research. “The rendering component in the Atmos-capable AV receiver configures the single object-based mix on a Blu-ray disc — or through streaming video services — for optimum playback based upon the consumer’s specific loudspeaker configuration. First introductions of Dolby Atmos range from 5.1.2 to 5.1.4 to 7.1.4; Trinnov has announced a processor that will render to as many as 32 speakers. The maximum speaker configuration supported in a home system is 24.1.10 — a Dolby Atmos ‘super system’ with 24 speakers on the floor and 10 overhead speakers.

Dolby Atmos Project Studio

Dolby Atmos Project Studio

“The receiver decodes object audio and related metadata, defining the objects as specific X-Y-Z coordinates and then configures the Dolby Atmos mix for optimum playback for the connected speaker layout. Data rate for a Dolby Atmos mix will vary based on the complexity of the mix itself and the number of objects that are present in the mix. New home authoring tools and encoding methods take into account the sound objects’ spatial information to efficiently encode them in Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. This spatial coding is not a channel-based, matrix-encoding system like Dolby Pro Logic II or Dolby Pro Logic IIz; instead, our new coding technique allows all the audio objects created for the cinema to be used in the home theater.”

Auro Technologies also is promoting its multichannel Auro-3D immersive format for consumer use, with a number of special-release Blu-ray discs currently available and more planned for the coming year, while DTS and other firms are developing open-format Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) immersive audio.

Streaming Dolby Atmos Soundtracks
In addition to Blu-ray Disc releases, a number of streaming service and digital lockers, including UltraViolet, also are offering films with Dolby Home Atmos-encoded soundtracks, using 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel cores plus companion height-content metadata, dependent upon the available bandwidth. The soundtrack for Lionsgate Pictures’ John Wick, for example, is being streamed by content service provider VUDU in Dolby Digital Plus Enhanced AC3 (EC3) format at a 384kbps data rate — 540kbps and 640kbps offer additional media opportunities. Streamed Atmos soundtracks are said to be fully backward compatible with existing home-entertainment systems. Netflix, Amazon and Google also are planning to offer immersive soundtracks via streaming services.

Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA.

Pictures of Tim Hoogenakker taken at Atmos Project Studio ©2015 Mel Lambert

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