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

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

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

Netflix have recently launched their Post Partner Programme (aka Netflix NP3), which is an accreditation scheme for post-production partners designed “to ensure that the millions of Netflix member's viewing experiences are nothing short of exceptional". Via the NP3, Netflix aim to cultivate an efficient and reliable supply chain for the ever-increasing volume of highend content it orders worldwide. For vendors wishing to be included on the list of Netflix-friendly post houses, 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 consumer demand, gearing up en-masse to post and deliver in Dolby Atmos. Here, upstream of the consumer technology, the audio post professional has an exciting new sonic canvas on which to paint, along with sophisticated new workflows and toolsets to understand and implement.

The all-important 3D soundscape offered by Dolby Atmos is achieved through a flexible, hybrid approach to panning. Mixes are built on a bedrock of channel-based beds in more familiar, traditional surround formats (such as 7.1). In addition to these beds, the remainder of the 128 channels are given over to 'objects'. Objects are individual sonic elements which can be individually placed, pinned to speakers or moved at will within the listener's three dimensional listening environment. The behavior of each object exists separately from the audio itself, detailed in a metadata track, such that the mix can be rendered and mastered for consistent-sounding playback across a variety of room and speaker setups.

It's this channel-intensive, object-based panning where Atmos audio truly sparkles to life as an immersive format. It's also where Audio-over-IP (AoIP) comes to the fore.

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

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



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

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

Shimiaei continues “Formosa Group handles multiple back-to-back projects across our stages, each of which will have different requirements. There's zero scope for error, so each of our many setup types needs to be accurate, repeatable and recallable. Every half hour we can save is valuable to us. Operating, managing and being able to scale all of this without RedNet isn't economically viable".

Audio interfaces in Focusrite Pro's RedNet range of Dante-enabled devices are perfect partners in a Dolby Atmos infrastructure. Specifically, the RedNet HD32R Pro Tools | HD I/O, D16R AES I/O and A16R Analog I/O enable easy connectivity and routing between Dolby Atmos enabled DAW, Dolby Rendering and Mastering Unit and the monitoring environment, allowing facility operators to streamline their workflow and tailor I/O count quickly and reliably.

Ultimately the role of Audio-over-IP in today's more technologically demanding immersive audio environments is to enable their existence. For many needing Atmos capability, the cost and complexity can be insurmountable obstacles in the path to new and expanding revenue streams. Software tools such as Dante Controller simplify complex routing workflows into easily manageable visual snapshots. 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 is lower, the cost is lower and it's much easier to install".

Entertainment history is littered with new audio and video formats designed to place the audience where they'll always want to be, at the heart of the action. Many never really took off, consigned to the 'whatever happened to' pile, along with the hardware investment they required. Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, has reached the critical mass of consumer uptake which few formats achieve, and continues to gain momentum. So much so that the ability to deliver audio content in Atmos is likely to be a necessity for studios sooner rather than later.

Behind the scenes in the world of AoIP, Dante finds itself in a similarly established position; with widespread adoption of compliant devices such as Focusrite's RedNet range. What is also clear is that the two go hand-in-hand: Contemplating an Atmos upgrade is an ideal time to discover the power of RedNet.