Dolby Atmos has been used extensively in cinema - it’s part of the Dolby Cinema spec, of course - but it’s been rising up in the home thanks to support from Apple, Amazon, Netflix and more alongside a growing amount of Atmos-capable surround sound setups and soundbars. But Atmos is also increasingly it’s being used for live events to bring us a better sound experience within our homes.
This has primarily been used for live football from BT Sport and Sky Sports up to now. But live music is also an area that Sky has been experimenting with. Broadcasting live – or near live for compliance reasons – presents some unique challenges, not least when your subject is a festival that’s completely erected and torn down in a matter of days.
For the last couple of years, Sky has used Dolby Atmos for the Isle of Wight festival, complementing its 4K UHD pictures on Sky Q. We popped along to the Saturday of this year’s event and dipped in and out of the broadcast trucks to find out exactly how Sky and Dolby put together the broadcasts which went out near-live on Sky Arts. There's also a mass of performances currently available on demand, too.
“There’s a kind of special atmosphere that you have an event like this, bringing that into people's homes,” says Dolby’s senior director of commercial partners and standards Jason Power. “The best thing is if you can actually get here but if you can't get here and enjoy the energy in the area then with Dolby Atmos we can help capture that feeling.”
Sat next to him for our chat in a tent backstage at the festival was Sky’s head of technical innovation Kevin McCue. He gave us some deep insight into how Sky and Dolby worked on the first broadcast last year, what they learned for this year and how they place mics to guarantee the best broadcast for all.
“From a technical perspective, the technical production that goes on here is kind of similar to regular outside broadcasts are put together,” says McCue as we chat in the backstage media tent.
“[This is] a very fast changing environment. [Broadcasting from a] football stadium is actually very different. The process is very different. The environment is very different. At a football stadium, a lot of it is pre-rigged. You might have a slightly acoustic characteristic, but for the most part, it's predictable.”
Things aren’t quite simple broadcasting from a park on the edge of a small town. The Isle of Wight festival isn’t exactly in the middle of a country vale like Glastonbury – it’s a short walk from Newport town centre – but it isn’t an environment Sky does live broadcasts from week in, week out. As you might expect, there's plenty of redundancy built into the process - there are two satellite trucks, for example, in case of an issue with the uplink.
“There are two approaches to doing music, live and post-produced,” muses McCue. The live and post-produced environments are very different. For post-produced stuff, you can tweak to make it more immersive. But in a live environment, you’re more limited because you can’t cheat. If the crowd is dead, the crowd is dead, you can’t cheat that on a camera. If it looks small, it is small.”
McCue believes that Sky learnt a lot from last year’s broadcast. Preparing for last year “was more of a paper exercise,” he says. “So we tried some things, we had a rough idea of how we wanted to approach it. We took quite a literal approach to where we put microphones and what we thought we [should] try and capture. We got an immersive experience to a certain extent… but while we tried to have this wash of crowd that’s above, this year we’ve actually taken the approach of pointing out little clusters of people in the crowd [so it sounds different]. I hope this year’s festival sound more immersive because what the whole structure of what we’re trying to do [has changed in terms of] the whole strategy of mic placement.”
“I think we're running about 16 audience mics for this. Historically you’d get away with three-a-side, maybe one in the middle. What we’re trying to do is if you have something in the 5.1 plane, an audience mic, that does not exist in the higher plane. Nothing in that plane is allowed to be up there and nothing that’s up there is allowed to be down there – if you have something that’s in both your brain goes ‘not interested’ – that’s not immersive anymore.”
McCue says that Sky’s broadcasts aren’t just targeting people with expensive Atmos setups, but also people with soundbars, Atmos or otherwise. “We’re trying to create an experience for the most and obviously Atmos in the UK will be a growing thing, but most [people will experience it] through soundbars that are trying to do beamforming or bouncing or whatever they're trying to achieve inside a room. What we’re trying to do is try and give the soundbar experience a fair crack at giving an immersive experience by making things a lot spikier, a lot sharper.”
Does Dolby see the soundbar market as having a big impact for Atmos? It sure does. “[The] audience [wants] to have a better, bigger, more realistic sound experience,“ says Dolby’s Power. ”But people want various [types of setup] for different amounts of money. We want to make Atmos accessible at every price point”.
Those with a more comprehensive AV setup won’t lose out. “We’re trying to find the medium”, says McCue firmly. “Actually, they’ll get the exact experience that we're monitoring in the truck, both the music truck and the presentation truck. So we’re saying that this is what we want in that environment but we are aware that if we sharpen things up they will have a better chance to get clear of the soundbar.”
The production team doesn’t change the audio mix for on-demand services after simply because they don’t get chance to, unless there’s something wrong with the audio. The artists pick the tracks they’re happy to go on demand.
For 5.1 customers there’s a Dolby Digital-based mix and for Atmos customers, there’s a parallel Dolby HD+ set of technology. At the moment it hits your set-top box, that’s where the choice is made.
What about next year? Are there more things that the team would like to do? “We have suspicions of things that we that we think that we'd like to try,” says McCue. “But again, it's a lot of pressure to try to get [everything right] from a sound check of one song and get it to sound perfect on the telly straight away.”