The labyrinthine corridors and staircases of London's Abbey Road studios are dotted with photographs of many of the music legends who have passed through their more than 90-year history, but the most abundant are those of The Beatles. There are several album covers signed by George, Paul, John and Ringo. From a pedestrian crossing in front of the entrance to the studios, the four from Liverpool gave a patina of legend to the premises, which have seen the birth of many of our musical and film memories, from Pink Floyd to Star Wars, from ' Oasis in Avengers: Endgame. It is history, but also the future, because technology is creating a new way of hearing music. The key is to make it three-dimensional.
Although the first stereophonic broadcast was documented in 1881, it did not reach the cinema until 1940, with Walt Disney's film Fantasia, closely linked to the technology, because to calibrate the sound in the first theaters of theaters that would broadcast them, the entertainment company bought a number of audio oscillators that two young engineers, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, founders of Hewlett-Packard (HP), had started making in a garage messy from Palo Alto (California). Today it is considered a "historical monument" as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
The implementation of stereophonic sound would become popular between the 1950s and 1960s, although groups such as The Beatles were in favor of recording some albums in mono – today almost everything that exists is stereo due to the CD editions of the 1990s -. Stereo sound has continued to be used for decades and places the viewer at a point in the center of the sound reproduction. It's an immersive experience, because you can hear a channel in any position between the left and right sides, even though it's always horizontal.
Later, immersive sound systems ( surround ) introduced the ability to surround the viewer from different sound sources with several speakers distributed in a room and with one more speaker for bass. In 2012, it was again a Disney (Pixar) film, Brave, that debuted a new Dolby immersive sound system called Atmos, capable of distributing sound sources throughout the room. Today, more than a decade later, there are hundreds of films that use it.
In 2017, Abbey Road Studios built a Dolby Atmos and IMAX audio mixing stage for cinematic sound post-production with films such as Tim Burton's live-action Dumbo, Bohemian Rhapsody and Downton Abbey. Last year, the London studios produced the sound of Tá r , in which Cate Blanchett plays an orchestra conductor. There is no better way to feel in the middle of one.
Surround sound also arrived a few years ago in phones, first in the high end, and in headphones. Today, much of the music that is created and also much that already existed is adapted to this technique, which considers each sound source as an object that can be placed in a three-dimensional matrix so that the viewer feels it that way during playback .
Among streaming music platforms, Apple Music launched the Spatial Audio system in 2020. This is Dolby Atmos with a layer of technology added by the apple company that anchors the playback point of view and the sound is not only surround, but remains fixed so that when the user turns his head, the sound source remains, virtually, in the same place.
Playback can be done through a multi-speaker system, which increases the quality of the effect, but also with a single pair or with headphones. If they are compatible with Spatial Audio, the feeling that the sound is somewhere around the viewer is real.
The three-dimensional distribution changes the way sound is perceived. Many tracks in the Apple Music library are already recorded with this system, while others are being converted to Spatial Audio, even though they are labeled as Dolby Atmos in the playback app. Some of the best experiences take place with titles that have always been heard in stereo and now switch to distributing the channels in three dimensions.
In addition to Apple Music, the Tidal and Amazon Music platforms use the Sony 360 Reality Audio standard. It is a different codec than Dolby, with the same kind of effect. You need an app and compatible headphones or speakers. The same goes for another standard for spatially distributed sound called DTS:X.
Three-dimensional sound is within the reach of any musician. You only need a computer and a program to place each sound source at a point in space. Podcasts and audiobooks are also beginning to use this technology, because it not only provides great sound quality, but also becomes a narrative element that enriches the recording.
Filmmaker Sam Mendes has directed one about Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, and thinks that “I have never heard such a cinematic audio production before. It's cinema for the ears."
Netflix is preparing a documentary series about the world of Formula 1 that will have Dolby Atmos sound. It is very spectacular. It is not the same to hear a car passing from one point to another horizontally, through the stereo, as to perceive it as on the circuit, and even to hear a car fly during an accident. In football, the Bundesliga and the Premier League are already broadcast with Dolby Atmos sound through the Sky channel. It's the closest thing to being in a stadium from your living room, using a system that distributes 62 microphones throughout the stands and pitch.
The technological deployment pursues the goal of exciting the viewer by imitating the way it feels in the real world.