For two years, Sylvia Massy spent over $100,000 upgrading his recording studio, The Oddio Shop in Ashland, Oregon, with numerous ceiling speakers, a “constellation of monitors”, a $10,000 recording interface called Antelope Galaxy 64 and premium German cables so it can mix tracks using the deeper, richer Dolby Atmos sound technology. “We opted for the best possible equipment,” she says. “Which was a little crazy. Big job.
Eighty percent of Massy’s customers, including Brazilian singer-songwriter Amon Tobin and Des Moines, Iowa-based King Bartlett & The Royal Band, now use the immersive surround sound audio format, which is available for streaming on Amazon Music and Apple Music (combined with an add-on format called Spatial Audio). This sound technology has been available for years from high-quality audio streaming services like TIDAL and in theaters, but it’s exploded since 2019: most of today’s hits, from “About Damn Time” from Lizzo to “Dua Lipa” by Jack Harlow. as well as classics like Wildflowers & All the Rest by Tom Petty and catalogs by Katy Perry, J. Cole, The Doors and others, are mixed or remixed in this way; the number of Amazon Music tracks mixed into immersive audio formats increased by more than 400% during this time.
For engineers and studios, this may just be the start. “I’m excited about the applications of this type of listening in clubs, cars and home systems,” says Massy. “For some of us studio owners, we’re not going to wait for this to spread.” At Larrabee studios in Los Angeles, producer-engineer Manny Marroquin has spent the past few years revamping its mixing room with a top-of-the-line Dolby Atmos system featuring nine carefully placed speakers around the room, five subwoofers and four overhead speakers, all hidden behind fabric to appear unobtrusive. “Apple opened the floodgates so we could all start experiencing it,” says Marroquin, who has worked with Bruno Mars, the Rolling Stones and many others. “The tidal wave is too big to ignore. You’re going to have to learn to swim.
TIDAL and Amazon Music first made tracks available through Spatial Audio three years ago, and last June Apple Music offered thousands of tracks mixed in the format — Apple and Amazon don’t charge extra for quality. superior audio, while TIDAL’s monthly cost for the immersive format is $20, compared to $10 for standard stereo. (Obviously, Spotify and YouTube remain stereo only.) Swirl tailApple’s senior vice president of software and Internet services, called the new technology — ideally heard through the company’s latest AirPods or a multi-speaker home theater system — “a real game-changer.”
“It evolves quite quickly”
The new formats have changed the way artists, engineers and studios work: in March 2020, according to Dolby, only 30 studios were equipped for mixing in Dolby Atmos, but today there are nearly 600, a 1900% increase. “A massive adoption rate,” says Christine ThomasDolby’s Senior Director of Music Partnerships.
Since Apple Music and Amazon Music announced almost simultaneously that they would offer immersive audio streaming to subscribers at no additional cost in May 2021, they have used the technology as their latest weapon in the streaming wars. Spotify obviously failed to roll out its own hi-fi streaming plans it promised last year; in January, the company said the program had been delayed with no new “schedule details to share”.
Meanwhile, whether or not high-quality audio attracts significant new subscribers, Apple and Amazon are delivering it to artists and fans with editorial playlists and marketing. (Companies have the added benefit of selling more Spatial Audio-equipped AirPods and Dolby Atmos-enabled home theater equipment.) This means that mixing for Atmos is increasingly in demand, and studios see it as an important new service – one they’re giving I don’t want to risk missing out on. Massy’s studio, which works with many independent musicians, charges around $350 per track for a “Mastering for Atmos” mix, usually on top of the initial $1,200 stereo mix. And major labels are big on new formats, sometimes bringing artists into their own studios, like Universal Music’s Abbey Road in London and Sony’s Battery in New York.
The new mixing process usually takes three hours, but it can take anywhere from 90 minutes to several days. For DIY producers, Pro Tools packs Dolby Atmos features into its latest software, and Logic offers a free plug-in. “It’s moving pretty fast,” says Michael Frey, President of Operations, Global Studios and Technology of Universal Music Group. “It is not materially more expensive.”
For artists, the financial benefit is higher placement on streaming playlists, which showcase the services’ high-definition audio. “We’re telling the artist to submit to Apple Music so they can get on Atmos playlists,” says Chris Johnson, manager of the Oddio store. “It’s a good boost, that’s for sure.” On Apple Music’s homepage, “Spatial Audio” is listed as a top category among rock and hip-hop, and most of Apple Music’s Global Top 100, from Kendrick Lamar to Morgan Wallen, is mixed this way. “A heap of [digital service providers] clearly believe that Spatial Audio adds value to the streaming service,” says a major record label executive. “We want to support that.”
Tracks remixed in Spatial Audio and similar formats have a depth not understandable in stereo recordings. Heard on Apple Music, the “hey, ho!” the chants of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” sound like they’re all over the room rather than coming from a central microphone; the synths of Bad Bunny’s “Moscow Mule” seem to call and respond to vocals like a symphony. Tony Gervino, Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of TIDAL, learned from the new remixed version of Roberta Flack’s 1973 classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song” that the percussive noises came from a gospel choir, as opposed to this which he assumed to be instruments. “If you can hear people recording it while they’re recording it, there’s an emotion that you really can’t replicate,” says Gervino, former editor of Billboard.
“It should definitely sound like ‘here’s my mix’ and ‘here’s my mix on steroids,'” adds Emilie Lazar, founder and chief engineer of New York studio The Lodge, who won a Grammy Award for working on Beck’s 2017 album Colors and has worked with Foo Fighters, Coldplay and others. “He should have an element of that experience, that movement and that excitement.”
The craze for immersive formats has spread from room to room in the studios. Joan Jett recently mixed her upcoming acoustic album in Dolby Atmos, as well as competing sound technology, Sony 360, at The Hit Factory/Germano Studios in New York, which has updated its Studio 1 for these formats over the past few years. years. When artists and other potential clients visited the studio while Jett and his team were recording earlier this year, the veteran rock star played the mixes and talked about them.
“It would energize the whole situation,” says studio owner and president Tony Germano. “Someone is going out and thinking about immersive audio in a whole new way.”
As new formats dominate studios, engineers and producers pitch artists directly.
Alex Solano, owner of Alex Pro Mix, emails potential customers urging him to improve their mixes. For the veteran engineer, Dolby Atmos and other formats are finally pushing back years of compressed audio files and poor sound quality. “The consumer has been used to listening to MP3s for two decades – that’s changed,” says Solano, adding that Dolby Atmos mixes and masters cost about one and a half times the stereo mix. “If music creators and producers don’t adapt to this technology, they will be left behind.”
“It looks awful”
The Spatial Audio format, which Apple Music pairs with Dolby Atmos for the surround sound experience on AirPods and high-end stereos, isn’t popular with all the top engineers. Ronan Chris Murphy, a producer and engineer who has worked with King Crimson and GWAR, has blogged and posted YouTube videos suggesting the new formats are reminiscent of stereo store tricks in which salespeople simply crank up the bass to entice consumers to buy new speakers. Referring to a beloved classic album, which he won’t name, he says, “When I turn on the headphones between the original mix and the Spatial Audio mix, it just sounds terrible.
“It might have sounded fantastic in a 17-point system in the studio,” he adds, “but drawdown” – listening to music recorded with many channels on a sound system with fewer channels – “feels like a bad demo tape.”
Murphy also criticizes Apple’s initial marketing, using phrases such as “Beyond Stereo”, while his own AB comparisons between stereo remasters and Spatial Audio mixes suggest something less than groundbreaking. He also complains that many of the new mixing engineers didn’t work with the original artists and producers who “may have enslaved them for three weeks”. Murphy says, “I don’t understand why the music industry doesn’t revolt against all of this.
Dolby senior vp of entertainment John Couling counters that the new formats inherently give recordings more depth and clarity, as major studio adopters such as producers No ID, FINNEAS and Bob Clearmountain have pointed out over the past two years. “You don’t have the conflict of guitar and vocals on top of each other anymore,” Couling says. “You can separate them.”
The most powerful evangelists for new formats, however, are the artists themselves. Sabrina Claudio, R&B singer-songwriter, recorded her latest album, Based on a feelingat the Larrabee studios in Marroquin with the idea of mixing the tracks in Dolby Atmos.
“When you sit in the middle of the room and close your eyes, you can hear the strings spinning in circles. It’s like you’re in a whirlwind that you can’t hear in your normal stereo headphones,” she says. “I lose myself even more in the music than in the past. It will change the industry.