Throughout life, we all have moments that stand out to us – moments that have changed our view on things like our careers, our relationships, and our lives in general. They are moments that hold great meaning for us, though they seem insignificant to others. I had one of those moments this past weekend while watching Star Trek Into Darkness in Dolby Atmos. The movie was great – but it wasn’t life changing in itself. It was announced before the start of the show that the theatre is now designed to feature Dolby Atmos. The audiophile and sound professional in me experienced pure euphoria. Like all the other people in the crowd, I casually looked up to the ceiling to see two new rows of speakers. Externally I was calm, but the little voice in my head was screaming like a kid on Christmas morning “OH MY GOD THERE ARE SPEAKERS ON THE CEILING!” I was expecting to do my normal routine – watch a new film, do a typical blog write up on the audio, but from that moment on my senses were on heightened alert. My audio world changed forever the moment I heard the title screen for Dolby Atmos as the logo showed on the screen.

I have mentioned Dolby Atmos in a few of my previous blogs, so I don’t want to focus too much on that in this one, but I will admit the mix for Start Trek Into Darkness should only be listened to in Dolby Atmos. It is the kind of film for which Dolby developed Atmos in the first place.

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Star Trek Into Darkness is the 2nd film in the JJ Trek franchise, meaning it was directed by JJ Abrams (Lost, Mission Impossible III), and is much better than the first Star Trek Film he did in 2009. The sound team is assembled with Sound Designer and Re-Recording Mixer Will Files (Brave, The Incredibles) and Re-Recording Mixer Andy Nelson (Saving Private Ryan, Avatar). The film was mixed in San Francisco at Skywalker Sound and, of course, mixed in the life-changing Dolby Atmos.

Sound Design of Start Trek Into Darkness

The newest Star Trek film has over 1500 different SFX added to its mix. A lot of those sounds are designed by the legendary Ben Burtt, though I have not been able to confirm whether or not he worked on this Star Trek film. In case you don’t know who he is, Burtt designed the voice of ET and has worked on a few “small” films, such as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones saga.

In a recent interview I saw with him, Burtt talks about the aspects of the sound design he did for Star Trek and what he does to achieve it. Most of the work he did went into creating the weapon sounds. For example, one weapon sound he created was actually a dog bark slightly synthesized mixed with the sound of a small rocket launch.

Star Trek Into Darkness – Ship Weapon Sound Design
Star Trek Into Darkness – Ship Weapon Sound Design

Some other sounds he designed included the bubbling lava which was dry ice tossed into a stream, and the sound of the doors opening on the enterprise was small pieces of styrofoam squealing in a vacuum tube.

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A Score in Dolby Atmos

Watching this film in Dolby Atmos was great for the unique SFX this film had and really helped make it feel like you were in this world, but the thing that stood out for me the most was the score.

The music was done by Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Lost), and was recorded at the Sony Scoring Stage in Culver City, California. It also features the original Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage and Gene Roddenberry. Giacchino made the score stand out by creating new themes for this film rather than rehashing music from the 2009 Start Trek.

I have been to a fair amount of classical concerts from my years of concert band in high school, and I remember those concert halls fondly. They were curved in a way to create natural reverb, with some of it bouncing from the ceiling. I felt like I was back in one of those concert halls while listening to the score of Star Trek Into Darkness in Dolby Atmos. The two rows of speakers on the ceilings allowed for some of the score to be sent to those speakers. It made the music sound bigger than I have ever heard it before, almost creating a “hug” of music while you watch the film.

Check out this SoundWorks Collection video profile with Music Conductor and Orchestrator Tim Simonec on scoring the music for Star Trek Into Darkness:

In a time where so many films are recreated, rehashed, and sometimes simply renamed, it is refreshing to hear a new sound. Dolby Atmos has irrevocably changed the theater experience. It gives engineers the ability to get even more creative when they immerse viewers into a world of fantasy – which elevates film to a whole new level. It’s no longer about trying to find a new story line or a fresh face as the lead – sound is becoming another main character and has its own draw. Simply put, if there is an option to see a film with Dolby Atmos, especially Star Trek, choose the Atmos every time.

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Blog Edited by Holly Foreman

Post Written by James Alire

An accomplished musician and consummate professional, James Alire brings education, passion, and a wide range of experiences to the sound table. He has functioned as an IT specialist, recording engineer, and sound mixer/ editor in many arenas. He lives in Chandler, AZ, where he is expanding his company, 5J Media, to include web design and audio/sound services for musicians and filmmakers. For quotes or to hire James for audio and web services contact 5J Media.