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Dolby Atmos’ Spicy Pepper Theatrical Listening Session

Dolby Atmos’ Spicy Pepper Theatrical Listening Session…Mark Smotroff has one more Sgt. Pepper flashback…


So, some of you may have heard about — and perhaps you may have actually been there to hear — the recent one-off listening event sponsored by Dolby Atmos and Universal Music celebrating The Beatles’ 50th Anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Held at select theaters nationwide, free passes were distributed via the Internet (you had to register) for an exclusive playback session featuring the whole album newly mixed into Dolby Atmos multi-channel surround sound. 

AR-BeatlesDolbyAtmos225.jpgYes, you read that right. A listening session. A free listening session. In a high-end, state-of-the-art, Dolby Atmos-equipped movie theater. Apart from an introductory video, there were no visuals presented with the music. Just the full album presented start-to-finish in a very comfortable theater environment with the lights turned down low.  

If you weren’t even aware that Sgt. Pepper has been remixed into surround sound (and fabulous new stereo!), you might want to catch up by reading my prior reviews (a three part series) on the recently issue boxed set. You can easily click through to the reviews via links I have embedded here for the first part (on the 5.1 surround sound mix) and here for part two (which discusses the stereo).  Both versions of the new remix of Sgt. Pepper present exciting new ways to experience one of the most influential recordings and overall pop art statements of the 1960s. Click here for part three which wraps up the rest of the boxed set. 

That said, the Dolby Atmos remix is a whole different thing and was very much the icing on the cake for this 50th Anniversary reissue series as far as pure Beatle joy and wonderment goes. And, as of now, this theatrical presentation was the only way thus far for the public to hear this particular new mix.

Now, I realize that some of you will be wondering : what exactly is Dolby Atmos?  In short, this new multi-speaker sound presentation system is a next generation immersive listening experience technology, delivering sound not only in front of you and from the sides and behind your, but also from above. Since this was possibly my first conscious experience hearing an Atmos system, I’ll rely on information from the Dolby website to help describe it further. The official press release issued in conjunction with this Sgt. Pepper event reports:  “Dolby Atmos delivers moving audio — sound that can be precisely placed and moved anywhere in three-dimensional space, including overhead. It brings entertainment alive all around the audience in a powerfully immersive and emotive experience.”  The Dolby Atmos Wiki page offers more in depth information. Consider, for example, that the first generation “Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor” supports “up to 128 discrete audio tracks and up to 64 unique speaker feeds.”  

That’s a whole lot of potential audio information coming at us, folks!! 

Now, I will admit I wasn’t planning on formally reviewing this event. And, frankly, I’d be hard pressed to call this article a formal review for numerous reasons. Its more of a fairly objective, simplistic listening report on what went on and what we — I went with some friends — seemed to hear….  

With caveats…

AR-.jpgNotably, its important to mention that we weren’t in any sort of “sweet spot” ideal seating situation. Arriving a bit over an hour early to wait in line, we were far from front of the queue. So by the time we got in, the best seats we could find were more or less in the center but up closer to the screen in the 2nd or 3rd row — people must have been waiting for hours there to get in! Thus, our perspective of the surround material would on one hand be somewhat skewed — very front-channels heavy. On the other hand, those seats were perhaps the ideal test of the Dolby Atmos system since — in theory — with a system like that, shouldn’t every seat in the house be perfect?  I’m not criticizing here, mind you. I’m “just sayin'” (as the kids say these days…).

Anyhow, hearing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band pumping through a big state-of-the-art theater sound system couldn’t really be a bad thing even if you were a door mouse listening while hunkered down in a corner underneath one of the seats in the back of the theater. 

It was an impressive presentation, no doubt.

After spending the first half of the show (aka most of Side One) allowing myself to relax and float downstream, I perked up around the time of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” to take some notes about what was I hearing, things that were a little different or perhaps similar to the 5.1 mix. 

And as far as I can tell, this was a whole new mix done for Dolby Atmos, not just a repurposing of the 5.1 mix that you can hear if you buy the boxed set.  For some more insights into the Dolby Atmos mix you can watch the video presentation they showed us before the listening session by clicking here (which will take you to Dolby’s website

]]>Here’s my run down of some of the songs songs and perspectives which jumped out at me during this playback:

AR-BeatlesDolbyAtmosVideoGrabStuder225.jpg“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” : Lennon’s vocals — when he sings “topping the bill” — sounded more noticeably multi-tracked and indeed like they were floating above us … 

“Within You, Without You” :  The cellos came out of the rear as did some of the sweeping harp sounds…

“When I’m 64” : The harmonies seemed to pop louder.  The metal clangs loomed larger than life in big stereo. Ringo’s cymbal work on the center of (probably) the ride cymbal was very nicely noticeable. 

“Lovely Rita” : The acoustic guitars were not as prominent as in the new 5.1 and stereo mixes. The harmonies seemed well balanced on both sides of room. I liked the trippy effects at the end…

“Good Morning, Good Morning” :  The Rooster crows were clearly heard from the rear… Ringo’s kick drum was not as distinct as in the 5.1 mix and seemed to get lost in the heavier bass sounds of the theater. While the animal sounds showed up in the rear channels, there seemed to be a somewhat different edit leading into the “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)” but that might just be my imagination and perspective based on where we were sitting… 

“A Day In The Life” : John Lennon’s voice flying around the theater was really pretty cool in Atmos!  Ringo’s tom tom fills did not seem quite as prominent as in the 5.1 mix… The orchestral build seemed to have deep sub woofer activity going on… There seemed to be some timing differences on how the orchestra came in at the end of the last chorus. It sounded like there was an earlier fade in from the reprise… But again, some of this perspective might have more to do with where we were seated vs. actual mix differences…

 

It was pretty clear that a splendid time was indeed had by all who came to this listening session, me and my friends included. T’was a fine day in the life for a whole bunch of Beatle fanatics in the US and Canada who got to hear a favorite album in an entirely new way.  

AR-BeatlesDolbyAtmos3DMixingVideoGrab225.jpgI must add that it would be really really fantastic if this sort of event was held for other albums.  I mean, I’ll bet there are a lot of Yes fans who haven’t heard Close to the Edge and Fragile and Tales From Topographic Oceans in 5.1 surround sound. How about XTC:  Skylarking in the theaters? Yes please!   

When you stop to think about it, this was a pretty amazing happening on several levels. The audience needs to be commended because everyone was there in reverence for the album and The Beatles, so there was no chatting or phones going off during the album.  Yes, you read that right. I experienced a public event with several hundred strangers sitting in one big darkened room facing the same direction, all just listening intently to music. What a fabulous concept!

Kudos must go out to Dolby … and its Atmos teams…  and The Beatles … and producer Giles Martin for making this a reality. 

I very much look forward to future Atmos listening experiences.

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