Achtung Baby in Dolby Atmos at Zoo Station
Original Story by Aaron J Sams / Jesse Alexander (2024-01-26)
Although the U2 shows at Sphere start again tonight, its a new remaster of Achtung Baby that has fans talking. Due to be released today, January 26, both Apple Music and Amazon Music released the album early. Other streaming services will be releasing the album today. Yesterday, Zoo Station in Las Vegas offered a preview event of the new mix of the album in the Dolby Atmos theatre that is part of the U2 exhibition at the Venetian.
On hand for the event was award-winning Recording Engineer, Chris Jenkins, who worked on the project to bring about this new version of Achtung Baby. Jenkins won Oscars in sound categories for the films Out of Africa, The Last of the Mohicans, Mad Max: Fury Road and was nominated for both Dick Tracy and Wanted. It was Jenkins who did sound for the film Pavarotti as well, which includes a performance of “Miss Sarajevo” by Bono, The Edge and Brian Eno. Jenkins was joined for the presentation by Christine Thomas and Curt Behlmer from Dolby Digital. Thomas is the head of Music Industry Relations at Dolby, and Behlmer in in charge of Content Solutions and Industry Relations.
The event opened with the Dolby Atmos version of “Atomic City” playing over the Zoo Station speakers. 48 speakers arranged all around the room and even above the audience allows for an immersive experience. Sounds appear to be coming from in front of you, behind you, even overhead as the song plays. To date U2 have released “Your Song Saved My Life”, “Atomic City” and the album Songs of Surrender in Dolby Atmos at the time of release. Achtung Baby is the first album of the back catalog to be remastered in this new format.
After “Atomic City” the guests took the stage, to offer up some explanation of the new format and how the remaster was done, prior to playthrough of the album. Chris Jenkins spoke first, saying he started on the journey with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s with no release plan, no theatres ready to go to play it. He started working with Bono and The Edge five years earlier, “dipping our toe into it”. He shared the “did 40 songs as a test, we loved that, it was very subtle”. (The Songs of Surrender album was the first full length project the band did with Dolby Atmos.) Jenkins calls Achtung Baby the “most complicated, broken album done by u2…the most unusual sounding album, really lends itself to immersive audio.”
Jenkins also talks about how the process works. He shares that instead of sound just coming from left and right of you, and in front of you, “it places you, hopefully, right in the middle of the band.” The Achtung Baby album itself took some time. Jenkins shared it “took us 18 months, I’m not proud of that, we did it in five different studios around the world between Ireland, France, England, New York and Los Angeles. It was a super great journey.” Edge had visited the Zoo Station cinema that morning to see the setup and to talk to the team presenting. Jenkins also shared that the release was a world premiere, and that no one else had ever heard it. The Atmos release was supposed to be today, but for some reason, came out early on Apple Music and Amazon Music. So the Vegas event was planned as a premiere, but the audio did come out earlier.
Kurt and Christine from Dolby spoke next. Kurt shared that the “main difference is you’re not constrained by speaker locations. You can actually place the audio wherever you want in this immersive 3D space.” He explained that the technology is an object based audio, you create a sound element, and then you choose where to place it within the environment, in front of the listener, to one side, behind, above, or even having it moved around the listener. “It’s a whole different way of using a blank canvas to create a listening experience.” He shared that his first visit to Zoo Station was when it was still an empty department store, and had been involved in the project since the start. Christine spoke about some stats, and how it launched in theatres over 11 years ago, and is now installed in over 7000 theatres, and available in over 16 music services. (Suggesting more services are going to join in.) She shares the process is “about empowering the creative, and who better to reveal that opportunity than U2?”
Chris Jenkins returned to introduce the album listening session. “We don’t do any of this without the artist being involved. It’s not like a fax machine, where you can say take my album and give me Atmos or immersive, we really want people to be more engaged. And Edge and Bono especially spent lots of time, and worked on it. We’re super proud of it.”
During questions taken from fans at the presentation, additional information was shared. The Sphere mixes of Achtung Baby songs came to be because of the Dolby Atmos process. They came from work with the individual recording stems of the album. Dolby Atmos worked with original engineers and producers where they could, pulling from the original recording tapes where they could, as well as existing stems from the original recording sessions. It sounds like they uncovered some of the original tapes from the recording sessions that had been thought lost. And the important question everyone wants to know? Yes, they have confirmed that Achtung Baby is only the first album being done in the process, and they will be working on more releases from U2 going forward. No information was given on what album would be done next. Also of note, the presentation was broken into an A-Side and B-Side, and they mentioned having to switch hard drives in between sides, suggesting this was a completely uncompressed version of the audio for the Zoo Station presentation.
A second opportunity to hear these tracks at Zoo Station has been announced for today. Details were emailed via U2.Com yesterday to subscribers, as was done for the first presentation.
How do you listen to items in Dolby Atmos? Dolby does have a guide available which may help some of you answer these questions. At this time it appears the U2 album is available for streaming only, which will require a subscription to one of these services. Apple Music, Amazon Music, and starting today, Tidal all should have the album available in Dolby Atmos. Most of these services do offer a thirty day trial for new users, so if just interested in trying things out look for one of these offers (but remember to unsubscribe before the end of your trial.) And when you are on these services and you search for Achtung Baby you typically won’t see notification of an “Atmos Version” until you are playing the tracks on an Atmos enabled device.
Although the preferred options for Atmos will give you immersive audio and the 3D effects, these tracks can still be listened to without fancy headphones or surround sound systems. And even as a stereo mix you can hear some of the changes made throughout the recording, and how they’ve shifted emphasis on certain items.
The new mix has sounds coming at the listener from different directions, instead of just two stereo channels right and left. As such listeners are likely to hear new elements that may have previously been buried in the mix as they reach your ears in a different manner. There’s also been different choices made in the editing itself. One listener points out the chorus in “Ultra Violet” has been tweaked to more resemble how they play the song live, with Edge’s vocal starting earlier, and Bono’s sounds moved to the background. The acoustic guitar in “One” is brought to the forefront in the new mix of the song. Edge’s vocals in “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” are higher in volume in the mix. The guitar becomes the star in “Acrobat”. Overall the sound is crisp and clean, and it does bring attention to many parts that were buried in the past.
A big thank you is due to Jesse Alexander, for his help with this article, and other pieces around the site as Sphere 2024 launches in Las Vegas. We’ll be bringing a lot of coverage your way over the next couple of days and are excited for these last 15 shows U2 will play at the venue. Yesterday we updated our merchandise article, we’ll update again as the merch booths open today. For all of our coverage you can visit our Show Archive for the Sphere shows.