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The launch of Spatial Audio support for Apple Music is a massive leap forward for the quality of music streaming services, but it may surprise you to know that not every Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio mix in Apple’s catalog has been created specifically for Apple Music.
Apple added Spatial Audio and Lossless Music to its streaming service last month, giving every Apple Music subscriber access to significantly higher-quality tracks at no additional charge. However, while the entire Apple Music library is slated to get the lossless audio treatment, Spatial Audio is expected to be slightly more exclusive.
This makes sense, of course, since full quality lossless audio tracks are already available for almost everything on Apple Music — it’s merely that Apple had only been making compressed 256kbps versions available previously.
In the case of Spatial Audio, however, tracks have to be remastered specifically in Dolby Atmos to be available in Spatial Audio at all. For Apple Music users to get the best experience, however, these tracks need to be mastered in a way that’s appropriate for the target listening environment.
Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio
In the case of Apple Music, it turns out that much of the content that’s available in Spatial Audio wasn’t a result of any specific push by Apple to get those tracks re-mastered. Instead, Apple has simply taken previously remastered Dolby Atmos versions and put them on Apple Music — and not all of those masters were intended to provide a great personal listening experience.
This is why you can hear quite a contrast between Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio tracks from different artists and producers on Apple Music.
In fact, according to Giles Martin, the producer behind the Beatles’ 50th Anniversary Dolby Atmos Remixes, none of his remixes were ever intended to be heard on personal listening devices like headphones or even smaller speakers.
Remastered for Theatres
Instead, Martin tells Rolling Stone, his Atmos remasters of classics like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were made to be listened to in large theatres, and as a result, they sound a bit off when heard through Apple Music’s new Spatial Audio.
Fortunately, in the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Martin — who is the son of the album’s original producer, George Martin — plans to fix this.
Sgt. Pepper’s, how it’s being presented right now, I’m actually going to change it. It doesn’t sound quite right to me. It’s out in Apple Music right now. But I’m gonna replace it. It’s good. But it’s not right. Sgt. Pepper’s was, I think, the first album ever mixed in Dolby Atmos. And we did that as a theatrical presentation. I liked the idea of the Beatles being the first to do something. It’s cool that they can still be the first to do something. So Sgt. Pepper’s is a theatrical mix that’s then being converted into a smaller medium.Giles Martin, Beatles producer
According to Martin, the problem is that the album was mastered in “cinema” Dolby Atmos, rather than “near-field” Dolby Atmos, which results in it sounding “a bit bright” and “a bit digital” when listening to it on Apple Music.
‘I’m Gonna Replace It’
Martin plans to go back to the original theatrical mix and remaster it into a more appropriate format for personal listening, replacing the version that’s available on Apple Music right now.
I’m gonna go back to the theatrical mix and make it into what’s called near-field Dolby Atmos, as opposed to the cinema Dolby Atmos. It’s a bit bright. It’s a bit digital. But again, I’m gonna replace it, so that’s cool.Giles Martin, Beatles producer
While Abbey Road was also remastered for Dolby Atmos, the problem seems to be most prominent with Sgt. Pepper’s. Martin explains this to Rolling Stone by noting that it’s a “much better-functioning Atmos mix because it’s much closer to the stereo mix, sonically,” while Sgt. Pepper’s is a “little floaty” due to a lack of bass and weight behind it.
It’s also worth noting that Abbey Road was remastered two years after Sgt. Pepper’s, since both were done for the 50th anniversaries of each album. The methods and technologies for Dolby Atmos remastering would have evolved during that time.
What’s actually quite interesting is that Sgt. Pepper’s was originally released in an era when stereo recordings were as leading-edge as Dolby Atmos versions are today. As NPR highlighted in a 2017 interview with Martin, most folks didn’t even have two-speaker systems in their homes, and albums were offered in both mono and stereo.
In fact, 1967 — the year that Sgt. Pepper’s was released — was the rough turning point when stereo albums actually began to outsell their mono counterparts, at least in the US. However, it would still be a few years before producers would actually put any real effort into the stereo versions.
When George Martin mixed Sgt. Pepper’s, he spent three weeks mixing the mono version and three days mixing the stereo version. A few years later, mono records were hardly to be found, so the elder Martin’s 1967 stereo mix became most everyone’s de facto version.NPR
This was, in fact, the main reason why Giles Martin decided to revisit his father’s original work from 1967. It wasn’t so much that it sounded bad, but it was “really designed for mono” and that was where all the emphasis was.
Back in 1967, the stereo mixes were done largely as an afterthought, since everyone expected that the mono albums would be the more popular ones — and to be fair, neither the Beatles nor George Martin could have ever imagined that Sgt. Pepper’s would become the most famous album of all time, and we’d be listening to it on Apple Music in Spatial Audio more than 50 years later.