Sgt. Pepper Meets Dolby Atmos

If you're a Beatlemaniac, by now you've heard all about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps you've even read our interview with producer Giles Martin. What remains to be said about this milestone about a milestone? How about Sgt. Pepper in Dolby Atmos?

That's what I got to hear at New York's AMC Empire 25 just off Times Square. It was one of several such events sponsored by Apple Records and the Universal Music Group. Similar ones took place in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, DC, Las Vegas, Skokie (IL), Clinton Township (MI), and Sugar Land (TX). Said the online invitation: "THE BEATLES invite you to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. Hear the iconic album in its entirety now mixed in DOLBY ATMOS by Giles Martin. DOLBY ATMOS transports you into the story with breathtaking, moving audio that fills the cinema and flows all around you. This is your only chance to hear this incredible new mix." And the price was right: free! All I had to do was RSVP to a website. How could I pass up an offer like that?

Let's skim through the "why this, why now" part quickly. There were two reasons why Sgt. Pepper merited a new stereo mix for its 50th anniversary. One is that the original stereo mix, though capably executed by engineer Geoff Emerick, was not the one the Beatles themselves personally labored over. They gave their attention to the mono mix because they thought most people would hear it that way. That was true in 1967, but not for long. The new mix honors the intentions of the original mono mix, with subtle details directly authorized by the band, and follows today's stereo mixing practices by keeping most of the rhythm section and lead vocals in the center while using the stereo spread for guitars and backing vocals. The other argument for a fresh mix is that the Beatles had access to four-track recording but more than four tracks worth of ambition, so they repeatedly bounced one four-track tape to another, adding more tracks each time, but degrading the earliest tracks with multiple generations of analog copying. The rhythm tracks suffered the most, which is why the new mix is said to sound so much punchier. Fortunately none of the original tapes was discarded, so it was possible to import everything into a digital mixing platform and give it a proper mix for the first time ever.

Oh, and one more thing. The Deluxe Edition includes not only the new high-resolution stereo mix but also the album's first surround mix. The Blu-ray disc includes surround soundtracks in Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio while the DVD includes lower-resolution DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. However, the theatrical event stepped up the excitement with a second surround mix in Dolby Atmos. For those of you who were attracted to this blog because of the Beatles angle but don't know much about surround sound, Dolby Atmos improves on previous generations of surround technologies in two ways. It adds height channels, turning the flat plane generated by the floor speakers into a 360-degree bubble. It is also an object-oriented system that encodes each sonic element discretely, enabling the playback system to assess your speaker setup and route things to the ideal positions, essentially creating a new mix on the fly, just for you. With all those original instrumental parts newly digitized and ripe for manipulation, and Dolby Atmos just having become available in movies and home gear, this was the ideal time to give Sgt. Pepper the full Atmos treatment. All that was running through my mind as I arrived at the theater on West 42nd Street.

In movies, conflict is vital. Without it the story can't move forward. Maybe that's why so many 50th anniversary essays on Sgt. Pepper, however well intentioned, are such dull reads. For a little controversy you have to look back to Richard Goldstein's famous pan in The New York Times, in which he liked the album to a spoiled child, criticizing its "obsession with production, coupled with a surprising shoddiness in composition." The plot recently thickened when Goldstein, who went on to become one of the finest political essayists of his generation, revealed that one of his speakers had been out of whack. More recently Alexis Petridis of The Guardian knocked the album for being "as much about rock star detachment and ennui as it is about peace and love, from George Harrison and his ghastly-sounding friends congratulating themselves for being much more enlightened than everyone John Lennon, cocooned and adrift in his Weybridge mansion, alternately cursing the suburbs and his own stoned indolence—'everyone you see is full of life'..." Even George Martin famously complained that substituting the singles "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" would have made the album stronger. I'll go out on a limb and say that Sgt. Pepper is my fifth favorite Beatles album, an undeniable masterpiece, but not as much of as a radical growth spurt as Rubber Soul or Revolver, or as fractiously fascinating as The White Album, or as perfect a final statement as Abbey Road. I also freely admit that much of my own early music criticism was marred by a self-serving desire to demonstrate the superiority of my own judgment over the art of the artists and there are reviews still living on the internet that I wish I could erase. Does all that make the story more exciting?

The program began with a pep talk from Bill Flanagan, who runs SiriusXM's Beatles Channel. He lightheartedly likened Dolby Atmos to "some kind of secret CIA project." Pretaped presentations from Dolby's Nathaniel Kunkel and producer Giles (son of producer George) Martin gave more sober accounts of what the audience was about to witness. Martin demonstrated what distinguishes mono, stereo, and Atmos surround by playing a recording of a tamboura, the Indian stringed instrument whose metallic snarl gives three Sgt. Pepper tracks their air of psychedelic mystery. In mono, it was reproduced by the theater's center speaker alone. In stereo, it was reproduced by the left and right speakers, panned to and fro between them. But in Atmos, it was panned around the soundfield at every conceivable angle. This lesson was not just Surround 101. It cut to the heart of the aesthetics of the Sgt. Pepper remix and surround for music in general.

There are two ways to mix music in surround. One is what I would call a natural mix. It attempts to reproduce the acoustics of a concert hall. That means everything significant is kept on one side of an invisible proscenium, onstage as it were, and on the other side is ambience, recording or simulating what you'd hear in the audience, mainly reflections and applause. A natural mix is ideal for classical music—no, I do not want the bassoons behind my left ear, thank you very much—but arguably too limiting for other kinds of music, especially those pieced together in the studio. The other kind of mix, and the one employed in the new Sgt. Pepper, is what I call a dreamscape mix. Briefly: anything goes. Any element may fly in any direction. This is a far riskier strategy. But it is the ideal one for an album like Sgt. Pepper, which has never been anything but a dreamscape, whether mixed in mono, stereo, or surround. That tamboura recording that Giles Martin played us was almost certainly recorded in mono, then panned between two speakers in stereo and panned among many speakers in surround. It became, in short, a tiny little dreamscape unto itself. Employ dozens of such elements on a grand scale and you have the dreamscape of Sgt. Pepper in surround sound. As I've mentioned before, it kept the drums, bass, and lead vocals front and center. From that solid foundation, it then took flight into the Dolby Atmos surround bubble.

So it was a dreamscape. But was it a great dreamscape? At first I struggled to decide. My seat was closer to the back than the front and somewhat left of center. That made it hard to assess the use of the three channels across the front. I'm not sure how linear the theater may have been; it had a hard midrange, probably optimized for movie dialogue, and there seemed to be a disconnect between the throbbing low bass and the rest. However, I had a visceral sense of being in a large and solidly constructed bubble where events were beyond my control, bending my sense of reality out of shape. My aesthetics became just as unhinged, because songs I'd always thought of as flimsy little geegaws suddenly grabbed me by the throat. "Good Morning Good Morning" went from suburban dyspepsia to savage beat-down. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was a carnival hallucination, like being trapped on a merry-go-round spinning just a little too fast for comfort. These two songs would not be on anyone's list of top ten (or even top fifty) favorite Beatle songs and they are two of my chief complaints about Sgt. Pepper. Yet with scale, they acquired power, becoming almost equal peers of greater Lennon songs like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Of course Sgt. Pepper was McCartney's idea for a concept album, his distinctively English humor balanced Lennon's flights of imagination, and his songs played just as brilliantly in the big bubble. I've always kept "She's Leaving Home" at a distance because kids leaving home has been an emotional subject in my family. But this was the first time it broke through my defenses and made me cry.

So there was the surround. And there was the scale. And finally, there was the audience, listening together in the dark. I had underestimated how deeply the communal listening experience would affect me. But from the moment when the lights went down, the fake audience noise swirled, and the title track began pounding acidically, it became apparent that the reactions of other people heightened my own. There were audible gasps throughout the album, with an especially large one after the first of the two orchestral crescendos in "A Day in the Life." Ironically, fake audience noises sporadically pervade the album, but now I was getting two overlapping sets of them, shifting the dreamscape into a higher gear. When the second orchestral crescendo sounded, those familiar with the original stereo mix began to applaud, because that's where the album ended for them. But other listeners familiar with the original mono mix knew that a final snippet of Beatle-approved spoken-word was etched into the outer groove, and we held our applause until it stopped. Then we all just sat there, stunned.

It's safe to say the Dolby Atmos mix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band brought the audience exhilaration and delight. Unfortunately the 5.1-channel surround mix included on the Blu-ray disc of the Deluxe Edition—currently selling for $127 on Amazon—is not the state-of-the-art Atmos mix we heard that night. And there are currently no plans for a home release, according to my contact at Dolby Labs. For my own part, I am satisfied, for the moment, with the beautifully remastered original analog mix in The Beatles in Mono vinyl box set. But if the Atmos mix were to become available on a single Blu-ray disc at a reasonable price, I would buy it. There would be plenty of room left on the disc for the new high-res stereo mix, the original stereo and mono mixes, and the extras (perhaps in lower resolution) included on the four CDs of the Deluxe Edition. So how the Atmos mix would translate at home, on a smaller scale, will have to remain an unanswered question for now.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.