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Sounds of the Future at London’s Grand Central Recording Studios

Dolby Atmos is leading a revolution in terms of the way sound is received and the way it enhances the visual. Raja Sehgal, director of sound engineering and Dolby Atmos specialist at London’s Grand Central Recording Studios, talks to Colby Ramsey about their new immersive mixing capabilities.

Upon entering Audio Lab 2 at Grand Central Recording Studios, it is not difficult to notice the room’s slightly unconventional design. Two layers of absorption panels adorn the walls to accommodate the gargantuan haul of Exigy custom monitors, 32 channels of which are used for Dolby Atmos projects, and 54 for the third-order Ambisonics (TOA) system.

The number of channels, of course, depends on the space. Dolby engineers look at the size of a room or cinema and apply an algorithm that calculates how many channels the room should have, with the spatial parameters of the Atmos mix moving correctly in accordance with how many speakers the system uses.

The strategic placement of the speakers themselves is calculated by Dolby using a set of angles that are required to match up with the mix position, as Dolby Atmos specialist Raja Sehgal explains. “They came in and took all the measurements, did lots of studio drawings and kept re-working it, working in tandem with our studio acousticians White Mark to get everything correct in accordance with the Grand Central ‘look.’”

Everything that creates noise—all the computers and back-end hardware—are located in a machine room to make the studio as quiet as possible. “It’s a feature-licensed studio, so it also has to meet the decibel levels specified by Dolby,” says Sehgal.

“Predominantly we’ve got the two studios in the lofts, which do stereo TV work and commercials, an ADR room for dramas and features, and three more rooms that are stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, but this room is where we do a lot of trailer mixing.”

Related: Atmos/VR Facility Audio Lab 2 Opens in London, Dec. 7, 2017

With regard to TV commercials, which is the majority of GCRS’ business, a big development recently has seen DCM—which distributes commercials in cinema—increasing its promotion of Dolby Atmos. “Cinemas in the UK have been slower than those in other parts of the world to start implementing the technology, but it’s taking off a lot better,” observes Sehgal. “Cinemas are being converted and new multiplexes are getting the upgrades. There’s enough Dolby Atmos screens just in central London now, so that’s made the option for commercials to be made in Dolby Atmos more viable, and the more screens that play it, the better.

“With regard to our TV work, doing the sound design in Dolby Atmos obviously gives you more flexibility. There’s a lot more you can do with it, a lot more channels, a lot more places you can put things creatively,” Sehgal continues. “We can be a lot more adventurous and we’ve had some fun with it. 5.1 does its job great but this just takes it to another level, with the Exigy speakers allowing for ultra smooth panning. Atmos just feels more immersive and louder because you’re in the middle of a much bigger sound field.”

What kinds of projects has Sehgal been working on recently? His first two Dolby Atmos trailers were for Aardman Studios projects, including the recently released Early Man.

“None of the big studios like Universal or Fox have really been doing any Dolby Atmos for film trailers, so it was quite a big thing that Aardman wanted to go ahead with it,” says Sehgal. “I’ve been speaking to the big studios one by one and pushing the format quite a bit, knowing that this studio was going to come online soon. Certain studios are starting to think that if a trailer warrants it, they should do it, especially because a lot of the trailers I mix are international; China and some others in the Far East are already ahead with Dolby Atmos, and even in Europe it is growing fast.”

GCRS has recently produced two commercials—one for Audi and another for Land Rover—that have been received well in cinemas. One good thing about the format, according to Sehgal, is that when it goes through the Dolby decoder, the signal is automatically switched to Atmos. “So if you do an Atmos mix and it goes to an Atmos cinema, it should play in Atmos—which has always been difficult to control with any other form of cinema,” he explains.

“Inevitably it takes longer to mix because you’ve got a lot more to play with. However, around a year and half ago it would’ve taken me twice as long to create the Atmos mix, whereas now it only takes slightly longer due to improved technologies and workflow.”

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Sehgal says that if a creative director comes in with a commercial and lots of musical stems, he feels he owes it to the client to experiment and put the same amount of effort into the mix to make the product as good as it can be. He believes that now that the trailer companies are doing the odd trailer each, a lot more of them will follow suit. “They’re putting it into the Odeon in Leicester Square—that’s going to be a big one,” remarks Sehgal. “Without the biggest prime site in the UK being Atmos, it’s very difficult to justify it.”

“There’s been a couple of projects where car manufacturers have come in to discuss the format with us; they’re all really excited about it because it really lends itself to these kind of commercials,” says Sehgal. “I can see the majority of content going Atmos in the not-so-distant future. A lot of new TVs have got Dolby Vision, so I expect now that Dolby Atmos will be incorporated, in alignment with the fact that not everyone’s going to rig their house up with speakers.

“There’s Blu-ray and some streaming services like Netflix supporting Dolby Atmos now, and Sky Sports has also done it with football in 4K, but terrestrial TV channels have still got a way to go.”

Atmos audio is mixed in essentially the same way as any other audio project, except here the software lets users place the individual elements in specific positions in a room, “which is great because it means you can adapt pre-existing stuff very easily into Atmos and there’s no special technique required to do it; it’s all done in the post production process,” says Sehgal.

“We’ve been experimenting with the format to show clients what we can do so that they get ideas, and write things with Dolby Atmos in mind because it makes things a bit more special. I think I’ve done 10 to 12 Atmos mixes in the six weeks the studio has been up and running, which is way more than we thought.”

Grand Central Recording Studios •

Dolby Atmos •

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of TVB Europe. Download the issue here.