Apple rolled out Spatial Audio to Apple Music late Monday night, and I have… thoughts.
Firstly, let’s backtrack. For those who don’t know what Spatial Audio is, it’s Apple’s new feature in Apple Music that’s a step up from stereo, and Apple is calling ‘The next generation of sound’. A big statement. It uses Dolby Atmos to make you feel like you’re in the middle of what you’re listening to. To put it simply, stereo is two speakers on either side. Spatial Audio is surround sound.
Music that, crucially, has been remixed to support this - you can’t just convert a stereo file - will sound more immersive, with a lot better separation of instruments and vocals. Like you’re in the middle of the music.
Except, is this a good thing? And does it even work well?
That’s where it gets a bit sticky.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Spatial Audio in Apple Music since Monday, and it’s apparent that, while this is an excellent way of listening to music, it isn’t always done well and sometimes, really isn’t needed.
starting with the good
Some music definitely does sound better with Spatial Audio. Classical music, on the whole, sounds fantastic. Most of what I’ve listened to in that area benefits from instrument separation and placement. Which you’d expect; classical music is mostly with orchestras. When you see it live, it’s coming straight from the instruments to your ears. No amps or speakers. This recreates that sense well.
I’m not heavily into dance music, but it seems to work well here too. The sound engineers go nuts with the mix, placing drum beats and sound effects all over the place, which works brilliantly. One excellent test track to try is ‘Boom’ by Tiesto.
There are also some great mixes of older tracks. ’I Want You Back’ by The Jackson Five separates the strings and guitar, making you feel like you’re in a disco hall in the early ‘70s. ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross brings a tremendous live, clear sound to the kick-drum and makes Diana’s voice sing through. ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye is also featured in the demo by Zane Lowe, and you can tell they’ve put a lot of effort into taking what was originally a mono track and taking it to Spatial Audio. It sounds beautiful.
There are also a few tracks that, while not wildly different, add just a little bit of finesse to them. One favourite of mine is Glass Animals’ ‘Heat Waves’, which adds a nice little bit of depth but doesn’t go overboard.
you look like Buddy Holly, but you don’t sound like him
The first track I listened to was ‘Buddy Holly’ by Weezer as it was the first I recognised that I liked and knew well. Not a good start. The guitars in the original are raw and rough, and LOUD. The Spatial Audio version pulls them right back and leaves them muffled. Even worse is the drums, which are also muffled and, at one point (around 1:15), even completely disappear!
Several bands from around that era have remixes, like Sum 41 and Blink 182, and they, on the whole, sound worse. ‘Get Free’ by The Vines loses all it’s throat-screaming, guitar screeching power too. This may have something to do with the way the lo-fi feel they were initially mixed at which I’ll talk about later.
On some tracks, the vocals seem placed further away, which is just weird. ‘exile’ by Taylor Swift pulls the intimate sounding vocals and places them several feet away, the same with Bon Iver, who adds even more reverb.
One of the most bizarre ones is ‘Alex Chilton’ by The Replacements. It decides that it wants the cymbals overpowering everything else, then changes its mind during the chorus and decides that the cowbell is the best instrument the world and practically shoves it down your eardrums.
just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should
Which comes to the big issue at hand here. Do these songs even benefit from Spatial Audio? Well, the answer is definitely not yes or no. It depends on the track. The most obvious to me is ‘Buddy Holly’ from Weezer’s first album. At the beginning, Weezer were a rough but melodic band and always preferred making the guitars louder than the vocals, even drowning them out. I don’t know who mixed this track, but it seems to go directly against that philosophy which seems bizarre. Giving it that more expansive sound sounds wrong.
Something like Boom by Tiesto is at the other end of the scale. It’s a huge track with a lot of effects and drums going on. The sound engineer on this used the philosophy ‘go nuts,’ and it works really well, mainly because the gimmick fits perfectly with the crazy, fun style of the track.
There are many other songs where it’s very effective. ‘I’m Coming Out’ is a wonderful example and sounds LIVE. A lot of The Weeknd’s work is great too, as well as a couple of Lady Gaga tracks. They are thoughtfully mixed and enhance the tracks.
In the end, it seems to come down to two things:
- Will this track benefit from Spatial Audio?
- Can a good job be done on it?
Unfortunately, if point one is ‘yes’, there’s no guarantee that point two is ‘yes’, which leaves us in a Russian roulette situation.
If this is not a short term gimmick from Apple (and from their talk, it isn’t) and the Spatial Audio library gets more extensive, are we going to have to keep switching this feature off and on while we listen? Are we going to have to do it mid-album? (Already some albums have a mixed bag of success) Are we going to have to create playlists with tracks to be played in Spatial Audio and some to not?
This all remains to be seen, but I hope we can see an improvement in consistency. When it works, it’s incredible. When it doesn’t well “I don’t care about that!”*.
*that’s a Weezer lyric. 😊