The Atmos-phere, Netflix, and the next generation of broadcast media

Today's media landscape isoften described as a competition for eyeballs. Broadcasters compete withthe cinema and the new breed of over-the-top streaming services. Streamingservices compete with traditional media and with each other. The battlelines are drawn around premium content, made available in box-set bulk and on-demand. Thesubscription-paying customer has come to expect nothing less, on a full rangeof devices, in new and ever more immersive ways.

Arguably the most popularof these new value-added immersive ways is Dolby Atmos. With movies,drama, sports, entertainment and music all embraced in the Atmos-sphere andoffered by most of the major media outlets, Dolby Atmos audio is fast becomingthe premium format of choice. Perhaps what we're seeing is, in fact, acompetition for eardrums?

Netflix have recentlylaunched their Post Partner Programme (aka Netflix NP3), which is anaccreditation scheme for post-production partners devised “to ensure that themillions of Netflix member's viewing experiences are nothing short ofexceptional, according to official blurb. Via the NP3, Netflix aim tocultivate an efficient and reliable supply chain for the ever-increasing volumeof high-end content it orders worldwide (with their $8bn production budget, noless). For vendors wishing to be included on the list of Netflix-friendly posthouses, Dolby Atmos audio capability is highly advantageous. By implication,this will likely become mandatory over time.

Hardly surprising, then,that the worldwide post-production sector is reacting to the growing consumerdemand, gearing up en-masse to post and deliver in Dolby Atmos. Here, upstreamof the consumer technology, the audio post professional has an exciting newsonic canvas on which to paint, along with sophisticated new workflows andtoolsets to understand and implement.

The all-important 3Dsoundscape offered by Dolby Atmos is achieved through a flexible, hybridapproach to panning. Mixes are built on a bedrock of channel-based beds in morefamiliar, traditional surround formats (such as 7.1). To these beds, theremainder of the 128 channels are given over to objects. Objects are individualsonic elements which can be individually placed, pinned to speakers or moved atwill within the listener's three dimensional listening environment. The desiredbehavior of each object channel exists separately from the audio itself,detailed in a metadata track, such that the mix can be rendered and masteredfor consistent-sounding playback across a variety of room and speaker setups.

It's thischannel-intensive, object-based panning where Atmos audio truly sparkles tolife as an immersive format. It's also where audio-over-IP (AoIP) comes tothe fore.

The long-term trend untilrecently has been towards fewer physical ins and outs. Mixing in-the-boxand the shift away from consoles in favour of control surfaces, even in some ofthe world's largest mix stages, has limited the need for discrete I/O, even informats such as 7.1. When considering an Atmos workflow, what quickly becomesapparent is that this trend is reversed, and emphatically so. Not simply a caseof adding more speakers, Atmos brings with it the need to present, route,monitor, manage and clock each of the hundreds of channels an Atmos mixtypically entails.

Whether goingchannel-by-channel from the DAW(s) to the Atmos hardware renderer and back, orA/B-ing either of these sources through the monitoring controller, theinstallation arithmetic can be daunting. Add to this the likelihoodthat most Atmos-ready stages won't be working in Atmos all day, everyday. They'll almost certainly, and interchangeably, need to be 5.1,stereo or 7.1 too. Key to any commercially successful installationis flexibility and efficiency.

Dan Shimiaei of LA'sFormosa Group explains “There's no longer a correct or even a permanent amountof I/O for a mix stage offering immersive formats. Not only does themath quickly exceed the traditional building blocks available to a DAW system,but the requirement changes from project to project or from morning toafternoon".

This new reality bringswith it some clear cost implications. Some of which areinstallation-related, such as wiring and hardware. Others areoperational; setup and turnover times reduce a room's billable capacity.

Shimiaei continues“Formosa Group handles multiple back-to-back projects across our stages, eachof which will have different requirements. There's zero scope forerror, so each of our many setup types needs to be accurate, repeatable andrecallable. Every half hour we can save is valuable tous. Operating, managing and being able to scale all of this withoutRedNet isn't economically viable".

Ultimately the role ofAudio Over IP in today's more technologically demanding immersive audioenvironments is to enable their existence. For many needing Atmoscapability, the cost and complexity can be insurmountable obstacles in the pathto new and expanding revenue streams. Software tools such as DanteController simplify complex routing workflows into easily manageable visualsnapshots. These configurations can be recalled in seconds,effectively re-patching hundreds or even thousands of audio channels. Craig Holbrook of Westwind Media concludes “With RedNet the footprint islower, the cost is lower and it's much easier to install" .=""

Entertainment history islittered with new audio and video formats designed to place the audience wherethey'll always want to be, at the heart of the action. Many never really tookoff, consigned to the 'whatever happened to' pile, along with the hardwareinvestment they required. Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, hasreached the critical mass of consumer uptake which few formats achieve, andcontinues to gain momentum. So much so that the ability to deliveraudio content in Atmos is likely to be a necessity for studios soonerrather than later.

Behind the scenes in theworld of AoIP, Dante finds itself in asimilarly established position; with widespread adoption of compliantdevices such as Focusrite's RedNet range. What is also clear is thatthe two go hand-in-hand: Contemplating an Atmos upgrade is an ideal time todiscover the power of RedNet.