I'm not what you’d call a traditional raver. I don't wear fluorescent string vest tops or shutter shades, and I’ve never been to a festival. Plonk me down in the bowels of Ministry of Sound on a Friday night though, and I’ll be packed in amongst the crowd, glow sticks in hand, waiting for the next big trance drop.
I've whittled down my excursions over the years as I approach the ripe old age of 28. The days of getting lost in the underground maze of Fabric are behind me, and, thankfully, I’ll probably never have to endure the gaudy innards of Infernos in Clapham ever again. But I return to Ministry often, because apart from the fact that it’s small and manageable, its award-winning best-in-class sound system is genuinely amazing.
That’s why, when I was scheduled to see Sub Focus get down and dirty with the newly-installed Dolby Atmos sound system there, I was more than a little excited.
Atmos is a name you’re probably familiar with in the movie world. Debuting in back in 2012, the sound system technology brought a new dimension to cinema, thanks to its ability to simultaneously handle up to 128 separate audio tracks and 64 different speakers.
The upshot of those impressive numbers is a real sense of spacial awareness - arrows whizzing around you from all directions, explosions in one rear corner - the sort of thing that adds a genuinely immersive layer to a movie watching experience.
Naturally, Dolby’s attention has recently turned to using the Atmos technology for music, and Ministry is the prime candidate to form a test bed for the future of clubbing.
All about that bass
The 40 speakers spread out across the main room in Ministry already do an excellent job of making you think the apocalypse is nigh. Rib cage-shaking bass and crystal clear, deafeningly loud audio are the two things, for me, that make it an experience everyone should try at least once. And don’t even get me started on the laser system, with its hypnotising array of colours and patterns, providing another flavour for your already overloaded senses to take in.
The main room is the only room in any club in the world which has been kitted out with an Atmos sound system. The original 40 speakers have been bumped up to 60, interspersed in the rafters like hidden audio ninjas, waiting to pounce on your eardrums without a shred of mercy.
There are 22 channels at a DJ’s disposal, which provides plenty of opportunity for experimentation, but some work is required to take full advantage of the setup.
Once you’re familiar with the software, you can choose to mould an Atmos track in any way you see fit, causing vocals to flutter above the crowd like an omnipotent butterfly, or bashing the bass around from side to side, like a cataclysmic tennis match between two giants.
You can also isolate individual instruments and place them wherever you want to in a room, before bringing everything together into one massive room-filling climax.
It all sounds impressive on paper, but is it worth the training and work from artists beforehand to mix Atmos specific tracks?
Yes. Yes it is.
A state of trance
‘Sensory overload’ is the best way I can describe hearing Sub Focus’ Atmos set. It sounds like a negative description, but it isn't.
The way the tracks were mixed resulted in a feeling of immense space surrounding everyone on the main floor, with the ridiculous number of speakers encasing us all doing playing their part to tickle the senses.
The regular heart-thumping bass was present, but it was above me, where I could really feel the difference. The best way to describe it is to imagine that specific elements of a track are being pushed, pulled, and flung around the room, giving you a sense of direction and space which adds a new layer to the listening experience.
Any previous worries of it all being a gimmick were pretty much quashed in the first ten seconds, and I could happily listen to Atmos sets each week, if they were produced to the level and standard that I experienced.
The future of clubbing?
My main concern at this stage, is adoption and ease of use. To create his Atmos set, Sub Focus had to travel between the Dolby studios and Ministry, to test and tweak his Atmos tracks until he was happy with the final outcome. That sounds like a fair amount of time for a world-famous DJ to spend, and I’m worried that it may put others off.
He himself tells me that he’s hoping for more and more Atmos nights to be adopted, not only because he’s already made Atmos-specific tracks, but because it’s a genuine innovation that adds a whole new level of impressiveness for music fans. I have to say, I completely agree with him.
The next Dolby Atmos shows at Ministry of Sound in London will be on June 18th (house legend Francois K) and July 1st (Grammy-nominated EDM star Mat Zo).