William Erb Tag

Ep. 18: Atmos Music Explored

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Diving deeper into the territory William Erb staked out in his Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies, we talk to Stefan Bock—founder, director, engineer, and producer at Munich’s MSM Studio Group and developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format—about the state of and potential for high-resolution immersive audio, and explore an eclectic group of titles—ranging from electronica to classical to jazz—released in the format.

 

Here are the highlights:

  1:29   How William came across Atmos music

  2:28   William introduces Stefan Bock

  3:00   Stefan’s early experiences with Atmos

            music

  4:17   Stefan describes the creation of the Pure

            Audio Blu-ray format

  6:24   Frank Doris talks about his experiences

            with Yello’s Point in Atmos

  8:03   Frank on how gimmicky DVD-Audio and

            SACD mixes gave surround music a bad

            reputation

  8:47   Dennis Burger on how he prefers Atmos

            for music instead of movies

10:14   Dennis on Yello’s Point

12:03   Dennis on the Big Phat Band’s Gordian

            Knot

12:47   We’ve become used to surround sound,

            so music now sounds more natural mixed

            that way

15:22   Stefan on how to determine the right

            approach to an Atmos mix

16:59   Frank on the Big Phat Band

ATMOS MUSIC DISCS REFERRED TO IN THE EPISODE

 

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band,
The Gordian Knot   

 

Kraftwerk, 3-D 

 

Morten Lindberg, Reflections             

 

Alessandro Quarta
Alessandro Quarta Plays Astor Piazzolla         

 

Yello, Point

Ep, 18 Atmos Music Explored

17:39   Atmos music works just as well with solo performers as with complex ensembles

18:53   William on the Big Phat Band

20:06   Stefan on Alessandro Quarta’s reaction to first working in Atmos

21:15   Stefan on his approach to the Big Phat Band recording

21:57   Does Atmos music represent a way of achieving the elusive goal of the “absolute sound”?

26:13   The ability of Atmos music to create an immediacy other formats can’t

30:15   Atmos mixes encourage you to focus on the albums instead of treating them as background music

31:51   Frank on Kraftwerk’s 3-D

33:41   Discs vs. streaming for delivering Atmos music

35:58   Encouraging people to use their Atmos systems for music listening as well as watching movies

37:30   How to get people to appreciate Atmos music on its owns terms and as not just another surround-sound

            music format?

40:13   Getting the acoustics of your room to dovetail with the acoustics of the recording

42:32   Accessing Atmos music on disc

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Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies

Atmos Music

click the image to enlarge

I recently came across an interview with Elliot Scheiner, a 5.1 surround mixing pioneer. He had some things to say about music in Dolby Atmos that caught my eye. For example:

There’s no way that anybody would consider 11 speakers so that leaves the listener with a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar or Echo smart speaker. . . .

 

Dolby Atmos is great in a theater. You get a perfect picture of what Atmos is. They can’t convince me, just yet, that it’s great for music.

 

[Interviewer:] Yeah, it’s not accessible to most people yet in a way they can actually enjoy.


You’re right.

Reading this was yet another reminder of the general lack of awareness about the many home theater and media room installations that already have everything in place for playing music in Atmos. If you have 11 speakers (or 15, or maybe even more) plus subwoofers in an Atmos layout, why wouldn’t you want to listen to music that is specifically mixed for your setup?

 

The good news is that not all recording engineers feel as lukewarm about music in Atmos as Elliot Scheiner. Take for example Stefan Bock and his team at MSM Studio Group, who began mixing in 5.1 in 1994 and in Auro 3D in 2012. Stefan embraced Atmos in 2015 and has never looked back. He is also the developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which was introduced in 2009 and remains pretty much the only game in town for lossless playback of musical recordings in immersive formats such as Atmos, Auro 3D, and DTS:X. Out of a total of roughly 250 to 300 Pure Audio Blu-ray titles, there are currently around 75 that include an Atmos mix, usually alongside high-resolution 5.1 and stereo mixes, and that number continues to grow.

 

When I contacted Stefan for this article, one of the first things he said to me was: “In my opinion, immersive 3D audio formats can be bigger for music than they have been for movies.” Now that I have had a chance to listen closely to some music that was recorded and mixed specifically for a 3D playback environment (as opposed to albums remixed in Atmos from existing recordings), I think Stefan may be on to something. 

 

For starters, the added height channels in Atmos can definitely help to recreate spatial effects of reverberant and reflective spaces such as concert halls and churches with more fidelity than either stereo or 5.1 mixes. Atmos’ object-based audio, which frees artists and mixing engineers from being tied to specific surround channels, is also stimulating new approaches to music and therefore new listening experiences for consumers. Finally, there is the indefinable subjective response triggered when listening to a high-quality immersive music recording. Can Atmos do for music what Technicolor did for movies? The potential is there, but many hurdles must still be overcome before that potential can become reality. 

 

DIVING IN

For anyone who wants to experience how good 3D music can sound in their home, there are plenty of Pure Audio Blu-ray titles available in a variety of musical genres. To hear how a great Atmos recording can create a truly immersive soundstage where you can locate every instrument around you with jaw-dropping immediacy, listen to Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazzolla (the track “Jeanne Y Paul” was a particular highlight for me) or The Gordian Knot by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. To place yourself in the midst of an incredibly lush-sounding string ensemble, try Reflections by the Trondheim Soloists (shown in the photos and video below)For a crystal-clear and intimate performance by a jazz trio playing in a church, listen 

Stage layout and microphone array for recording a performance by the Trondheim Soloists on
2L’s immersive album Reflections.
(Session photos and diagram by Morten Lindberg, recording
producer and balance, mix, and mastering engineer.)

to the Hoff Ensemble’s Polarity. To experience the spaciousness of a cathedral, try either The Choir of King’s College Cambridge on 1615 Gabrieli in Venice or Konstantin Reymaier’s The New Organ. To appreciate how object-based mixing can add to electronic music, check out Yello’s Point. If you are looking for video to go along with your music, try either John Williams Live in Vienna for a rousing concert recorded with superb attention to detail or Max Cooper’s Emergence for a combination of electronic music and science-inspired animation that seems made for a home theater.

 

Although it was easy to play Pure Audio Blu-ray discs through my theater system, I did need to raise the levels of my surround and height channels to match the front LCR channel levels at my listening position to get a more balanced immersive effect. This kind of adjustment may be particularly relevant for those who are starting from a calibration set up for playing music in stereo or if the surrounds and heights have been de-emphasized since they are typically used only for effects in movies. If you want to go one step further and you have a Trinnov Altitude audio processor with the latest software installed, you can

open the Atmos Object Viewer while you’re listening to get real-time feedback on the approach taken to object-based mixing for any given recording.

 

While Atmos has been available as a music format for several years, the pace of new releases has so far been sluggish. This may be about to change, however, as more music 

labels, including Universal and Warner, have jumped on the Atmos bandwagon, bringing welcome reinforcements to the original trailblazers, such as Grammy-winning Norwegian immersive music pioneer 2L. As a result, the number of Atmos music studios is increasing, with Universal’s Capitol and Abbey Road studios joining independent immersive mastering specialists such as MSM Studio Group and the newly rebuilt Coast Mastering. Although it is still in the early days and the quality of the end product varies, with more recording-studio infrastructure coming online it is becoming easier for artists and labels to start building Atmos mixes into their release plans.

 

DISCS ARE THE BEST OPTION—FOR NOW

What if you want playback options other than physical media for listening to music in Atmos? Unfortunately, the pickings here are still very slim, and those options that do exist are likely to disappoint anyone who has invested in a high-end audio system.

 

For example, Tidal Atmos relies on the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec with a bitrate of 768 kbps. In contrast, Pure Audio Blu-ray employs the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec for Atmos, which I measured routinely delivering bitrates more than 10x higher when playing music from discs. The difference in sound quality between streaming and physical media is therefore much more pronounced for music in Atmos than for stereo recordings, which both Tidal and Qobuz can stream in high-res formats. Listening to Tidal Atmos tracks in my theater through an Apple TV felt like a tease. Once I raised the volume level 

(substantially higher than what is normally required for playing stereo tracks on Tidal), I could definitely hear the immersive mix, but I missed the vivid envelopment and the way I can pick out the crisp sound of each instrument when listening to a Pure Audio Blu-ray recording.

 

If there are currently no options for lossless streaming of Atmos music,

are there any straightforward solutions for downloading and playing lossless Atmos music files? For 2D surround music in 5.1, for example, it is relatively simple to download a FLAC file, add it to a Roon music library, and then use a Roon Ready processor such as the Trinnov Altitude to play it through a theater audio system. You can also use the processor decoders to upmix from 5.1 to Atmos or Auro 3D, but this doesn’t sound the same as playing a native 3D mix.

 

Downloading and playing Atmos music is a different story. First of all, Atmos content cannot be stored in a FLAC file because FLAC can’t carry the metadata with the location coordinates for the sound objects that are a core feature of Atmos mixes. There are a few Atmos albums downloadable in the MP4 file format, but these also use the same low-bitrate codec as Tidal Atmos so can’t match the sound quality of Pure Audio Blu-ray. Until a service like Roon supplies an elegant solution for lossless playback of Atmos music files through home AV systems, downloads are likely going to have only limited appeal.  

 

Sadly, Atmos support isn’t a priority for Roon, as evidenced by a reference in a Roon Knowledge Base article on multichannel support to “video/movie specific schemes that aren’t very relevant in an audio-only environment like Roon.” When I queried Roon about their plans, they confirmed that they’re likely to be more of a follower than a leader when it comes to enabling Atmos playback through Roon Ready devices. It’s therefore going to be up to another content-delivery platform to come up with a user-friendly solution for downloading and playing Atmos music. 

 

Since, for the time being, there are no viable options for either streaming or downloading lossless Atmos music, Pure Audio Blu-ray is in a privileged position for anyone who wants to experience how good an immersive 3D music mix can sound in a home theater or media room. Until Pure Audio brings a US distributor on board, the most reliable way to get your hands on these recordings is to go through the European Pure Audio Recordings online store. Some Pure Audio Blu-ray titles are also available on Amazon, but they may be mislabeled as Audio CDs.

 

Hopefully other Cineluxe readers will enjoy this novel listening experience as much as I have. After all, the more uptake there is for these types of recordings, the easier it will be to convince skeptics like Elliot Scheiner to take Dolby Atmos more seriously as a music format for the high-end home AV market.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

LED light panels and a PTZ camera concealed behind side panels and a NUC mini-computer
hidden 
beneath the screen allow the Minema home theater to be transformed into a state-of-the-art
video- and teleconferencing space

As a supplement to the “Inside the Minema” podcast episode, I thought it might be helpful to share some details of the conferencing system configuration in my home cinema (dubbed the “Minema” for Mini+Cinema), together with some lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for Cineluxe readers who may have similar objectives for making the most of their entertainment spaces, particularly given the increased demand for conferencing capabilities in the home as a result of the pandemic. There are no doubt other ways of achieving the same objectives, but I hope this overview can help inform discussions clients will have with their integrators about their own installations.

 

DESIGN APPROACH

One of the things I like about the overall design for the Minema is that none of the conference-room functionality is visible when you walk into the room. The conferencing equipment (e.g., the camera, mini-PC, and microphone) is either stored inside purpose-built cabinetry on the screen wall or mounted on the ceiling behind acoustically transparent fabric. LED lighting for videoconferencing is also hidden behind hinged doors on both sides of the screen. Other conference-room features, such as connectivity for laptops (projector display, ethernet, power), are built into small discreet cabinets tucked behind the seating armrests.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

click on the image to enlarge

VIDEO- AND TELECONFERENCING SYSTEM

The schematic above depicts the core elements of my videoconferencing and teleconferencing system. Here are some of the key design decisions reflected in the final layout:

 

Camera Location

In order to avoid problematic camera angles from above or below the screen, the camera is positioned in cabinetry to the right of the screen to get it more in line with the face height of anyone sitting in the theater seats. It is installed on a small custom-built shelf with an articulating arm so it can be stowed away when not in use. I use my Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor to shrink the projected video image onto the bottom right corner of the screen to make it easier for meeting

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

participants to look in the camera’s direction while watching the conferencing image on the screen. The Logitech Rally PTZ (pan/tilt/ zoom) camera is easy to control and the resolution is excellent even when zooming in on the faces of meeting participants in the center seats.

 

Use of Ceiling Microphone

The Shure MXA910 ceiling-array microphone (shown at left) came highly recommended by several conference-room integrators. I’ve found that it picks up everyone’s voices well regardless of where

they’re sitting, but by definition any ceiling microphone will struggle to compete with the quality of a headset microphone or other microphones that can be placed closer to someone when they’re speaking. The ceiling microphone is great for its wide coverage and its invisibility, so this was a compromise I was willing to make. 

 

One unintended benefit from an early design decision to use Wisdom line-source speakers for all seven horizontal channels in the Minema is that I have very little acoustic treatment in the ceiling. This left plenty of room in the area above the seats for the microphone (which is surprisingly large) and a WiFi access point. 

 

Location of Mini-PC (for videoconferencing codecs)

Although my conference-room integrator initially proposed putting an Intel NUC in the equipment rack, we ended up moving it to the screen wall to make for a much shorter cable run to the 4K camera, which requires a USB 3.1 connection. 

I primarily use the NUC with Zoom Rooms Conference Room software to host my meetings, which has the advantage that I can use the companion Zoom Rooms controller iOS app on the iPad Mini I use as the main Crestron controller for the theater. If I need to join a meeting hosted on another conferencing platform, it’s simple to exit the Zoom Rooms software on the NUC to do so.

 

The NUC is getting a lot of use beyond just conferencing since my personal computers are MacBooks and I need a Windows device to connect to some critical AV equipment (Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor, Biamp TesiraForté conferencing DSP, etc.). I’ve also found it very

handy to have a computer permanently connected to my theater AV system because so much movie and performing-arts content has migrated to the internet since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

Adding Teleconferencing

The Biamp TesiraForté DSP comes standard with VoIP and analog telephony ports, which made it possible to add a telephone line to my conferencing system. I now often use the Minema effectively as a giant speakerphone. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

1) It may not be easy to find integrators with conference-room expertise who are willing to work on a residential project

In 2019, when I was in the design phase for my installation, I found it extremely difficult to hire an integrator with conferencing expertise for a residential project. Hopefully the situation is different today since there are so many more people working from home, but the only way I was able to get a commercial integrator to agree to help me was by tapping some former work contacts. Once the commercial integrator came on board, they collaborated closely with my AV integrator to add the conferencing piece into the overall theater AV system.

 

These are the key capabilities the commercial integrator brought to the table:

 

Specifying the conferencing equipment (audio DSP, camera, microphone, mini-PC)

Providing guidelines for conference-room acoustic performance (easy to surpass with the original theater design specs) and lighting levels

Developing a signal-flow diagram for the conferencing system

Programming the audio DSP

“Tuning” the beamforming ceiling microphone

 

2) Typical commercial conference-room equipment specs may not work in a home theater setting

It didn’t take long after installing the conferencing system for me to realize I would need to swap out the NUC that was originally specified. Since the NUC is always on, I could hear its fan noise in the background when I was watching a movie or listening to music. Replacing it with a fanless model that is completely 

silent solved that problem. I also needed to tweak the NUC BIOS settings to turn off the front LED, which was visible through the fabric covers on the screen-wall cabinetry.

 

When I opened the box containing the Shure ceiling microphone, I realized I had another problem because it was bright white, not optimal for mounting behind black acoustically transparent ceiling fabric. Fortunately, Shure makes the same microphone in black, so that was an easy fix. 

 

One minor change that made a big difference was swapping out the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that were originally provided for a Logitech K830 illuminated living-room keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Using a mouse is simple when you’re sitting at a conference-room table but not so easy from theater seating. 

 

3) A commercial conferencing DSP may not be certified by some popular VoIP service providers

Although I am currently using the Biamp DSP with a Zoom Phone license, this has been challenging to set up since the Biamp isn’t a Zoom Phone-certified device. Biamp has certifications from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Mitel, and Skype for Business. I can use my Zoom Phone license seamlessly with the Zoom Rooms software, but since this would restrict me to using the VoIP line only when the NUC is selected as my video source, this isn’t an optimal solution either. Using the Biamp with an analog phone line may in some cases therefore be the simplest option for adding teleconferencing. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was very fortunate that my project was completed in February 2020, immediately before the lockdown. When I was in the planning stages, I couldn’t have anticipated how much we would use the conferencing functionality in the Minema. Now I can’t imagine living without it.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.