Sound design plays a major and key creative role in telling a story. The reality is, the best sound design is one that audiences don’t actually notice. You try to make everything sound natural and bring the audience into the environment subconsciously, to feel as organic as possible. The creative aspect of sound design and the intricate role that it plays with how music and sound interact with visuals in a final cut is what excites me most about this craft. Experimenting with blurring the lines between sound design and music, oscillating between which of the two is at the forefront, is a process that can truly shift the overall tone of a piece.
Having worked as an audio engineer and mixer for over a decade, I have seen how developments and innovations in technology have affected the advancement of sound design as a craft. Of course, the proliferation of 5.1 surround sound was something that shifted the at-home audio and entertainment experience. At Squeak E. Clean Studios, we use 5.1 mixes for most of our broadcast spots, and also incorporate surround sound elements for sound design. Today, with Dolby Atmos technology, we find ourselves in yet another pivotal moment for sound in entertainment, allowing for sound to be three-dimensional instead of flat, coming at the listener from many different directions.
What makes Dolby Atmos different from the traditional 5.1 is that it’s object-based. You are assigning information to a specific sound by taking it out of the mix and moving it into a three-dimensional spot in the room. There is more dimension and you can track exactly where you want things to be. You have more flexibility than a traditional 5.1 mix. Getting into Atmos, you have more ability to play around with the dimensions of sound, which is much more reminiscent of a real-world experience. Instead of just having the sound come at you from in front of you, there are sounds coming from above you, behind you and all around you - it can be a really powerful plot-building tool.
Although Atmos has been around for a while, it truly stands to be the future of sound over 5.1 surround because it already is more accessible for consumers. Until recently, the only way to experience Dolby Atmos has been either in a movie theater or with a high end home theater with a robust sound system and Blu-Ray player. What makes Atmos unique and more accessible is its scalability. Now, consumer manufacturers are building soundbars, headphones, earbuds and Bluetooth devices that are Atmos and spatial audio compatible, which makes it possible for just about anyone to experience content with Atmos and spatial audio. With earbuds, it uses binaural stereo sound. When you are listening with just a soundbar, the sound actually bounces off your ceiling and walls to make it sound like it is coming from different areas. So depending on the room or device, you will have different levels of sound quality.
Given the rapid increase in the consumer access to the Atmos-enabled technology, streamers are taking notice and Atmos is now being adopted as part of a standard audio delivery format.
This year NBC was the first to broadcast with Dolby Atmos audio during the 2022 Winter Olympics. Streaming platforms are also actively edging their way into the live broadcasting space, with recent announcements of major deals including AppleTV+ streaming MLB games and Amazon Prime taking over the coveted NFL Thursday Night Football slot this fall. With streamers so actively engaged in live broadcasting, I think it’s only a matter of time before advertisers start to want Atmos mixes and sound design.
There is no doubt that with the proliferation of audio-driven entertainment and experiences that dynamic audio storytelling will only continue to be more important in the coming years. With the inherent richness and depth that Atmos offers, I believe it will continue to grow in popularity and, with the opportunity it presents to both creators and audiences to further engulf them in storytelling, will be the future of sound design.