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Justin Gray, Dolby Atmos recording engineer in his Toronto studio, on Feb. 6.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A couple of years ago, after road-testing new songs in a series of residencies where she did immersive, limited-capacity shows in the round, the musician Leslie Feist sought to recreate a similar sense of intimacy on an album.

The result would be 2023′s Multitudes. And in service of Feist’s immersive vision, her manager, Robbie Lackritz, decided to offer more than just a simple stereo release. He made a mix of the album using Dolby Atmos – the latest offering from Dolby Laboratories, which has spent decades refining surround-sound technology. Forget just panning sounds left and right through stereo speakers: Atmos is at the forefront of the music industry’s accelerating push into “immersive” or “spatial” audio, allowing listeners to hear music as though it’s coming at them in three dimensions.

“We could place the listener in an environment where it feels like you’re right next to Leslie on stage, and the rest of the elements she had constructed around the live show are around the listener,” Lackritz says.

Dolby first launched Atmos about a dozen years ago for movie theatres, but in the past few years, musicians and record labels have been flocking to the new format. Though two stereo speakers sitting in front of you won’t give you much 3-D sound, with the right hardware and streaming service, Atmos can adapt to hardware such as over-ear headphones and earbuds, including many Apple AirPods. Amazon Music and Tidal were the first streaming services to adopt the format, and Apple highlighted Atmos as it began offering “spatial” immersive audio to listeners in 2021.

The California audio-tech company has very specific requirements for recording engineers when mixing the format – including a minimum of seven surround-sound speakers, four above, and a subwoofer system. But its chief selling point is that you don’t need the same expensive, costly setup to enjoy it.

“If that was what was required for a consumer, this is all just a giant, artistic adventure that will go nowhere,” says Justin Gray, a Toronto producer and engineer who’s worked on immersive mixes across many genres and formats, including a rerelease of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle for Atmos and a version of Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts in Sony’s competing immersive format, Sony360.

Instead, the costs are largely borne by the music industry itself: Engineers have to kit out studios, and musicians and labels need to pay those engineers for immersive mixes. And increasingly, the industry is willing to pay for those costs.

More than 90 per cent of Billboard’s top artists of 2023 had songs available in Atmos format, says John Couling, Dolby’s senior vice-president of entertainment. And he says more than 1,000 studios worldwide are now equipped to use it. “We’re starting to see records now where they imagined it from the beginning in Dolby Atmos,” Couling says.

After starting his Atmos adventure by remixing older releases for the format, Phil Hotz, the chief engineer of Universal Music Canada’s 80A Studios, says that “it’s now expanded with every stereo release we work on having an accompanying Atmos mix.”

Audible is releasing audiobooks with Atmos mixes – “to bring the audience deeper inside the story,” Canada country lead Georgia Knox says. Car companies such as Mercedes-Benz AG are kitting out vehicles optimized for the format.

Much like with any new technology – lest we forget the non-fungible token (NFT) boom of 2021 – long-time fans worry that the system will be gamed by those placing commerce above art. Cheaply made, bad-sounding Atmos mixes are already the subject of dismayed Reddit threads.

Still, the embrace of immersive audio has the potential to be as consequential as audio’s shift from mono to stereo midway through the 20th century.

Don Ross, a guitarist and composer on Prince Edward Island, has been obsessed with immersive sound since a childhood friend hooked him with a quadraphonic (four-channel) recording of organ music. He’s kept tabs on audio-tech developments throughout his career, watching as artists such as Pink Floyd began releasing surround-sound remixes of classic albums as technology progressed. Now he has an Atmos studio of his own.

Ross has used Atmos to recreate the sound of a symphony from the conductor’s perspective, and even with his solo-guitar recordings, filling the space in front of and above the listener and letting the rear channels flood with reverb and delay. “I don’t think this is a technology that will come and go,” he says.

The immersive market is still young. Dolby is widely understood as the leader, but competitors are emerging, including Sony’s 360 Reality Audio – as well as Google and Samsung’s fast-developing Immersive Audio Model and Formats. Things could change quickly if – likely when – the untapped giants of streaming embrace immersive audio. “Whoever gets to YouTube or Spotify has a great opportunity,” Gray says.

For artists such as singer-songwriter Selina Martin, there’s little sense in waiting. A few years ago, she’d set out to process life’s newfound uncertainties with a new album. She’d decamped to France in 2017, “high-tailed it back to Canada” as the COVID-19 pandemic began, then had to figure out how to record an album in a physically distanced world. “The themes of the album were about being between here or there – about not having your feet on the ground,” she says.

She wrote an album during the pandemic, and, as an homage to her unmoored feelings, titled it Time Spent Swimming. During sessions with her assistant producer and audio engineer, Toronto’s Alex Gamble, Martin asked if he could somehow convey the feeling of the music “swimming” around listeners’ heads.

Gamble had recently become interested in immersive audio mixing, and he began using Atmos to tinker with Martin’s recordings. Heard through the format, key moments on 2022′s Time Spent Swimming really do sound like swimming, with waves of audio lapping around the listener’s head.

Gamble started offering Atmos mixing services to more of his clients, and now mixes three or four songs a week in the format. He describes immersive audio as a two-pronged opportunity: It can make music feel more “real” – making you feel like you’re in the room, surrounded by musicians – or “surreal,” like the swimming audio Selina Martin sought out.

Or as Gray, a Juno-winning artist in his own right, puts it: “This is an art form unto itself.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that more than 90 per cent of Billboard’s most-listened-to songs of 2023 were available in Atmos format. More than 90 per cent of Billboard’s top artists of 2023 had songs available in the format. This version has been updated.

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