For the last two years Sylvia Massy has spent more than $100,000 to upgrade their recording studio The Oddio Shop in Ashland, Oregon with numerous speakers in the ceiling, a “constellation of monitors”, a $10,000 recording interface called the Antelope Galaxy 64 and German High -Upgrading end cables can mix tracks with deeper, richer Dolby Atmos sound technology. “We went for the best gear we could get,” she says. “Which was a bit crazy. Big job.”
Eighty percent of Massy’s customers, including Brazilian singer-songwriter Amon Tobin and Iowa’s Des Moines, 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). comes with a complementary format called Spatial Audio). This sound technology has been available on high-quality audio streaming services like TIDAL and in cinemas for years, but has seen massive growth since 2019: Most of today’s hits, from Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” to Jack Harlow’s “Dua Lipa”, plus 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 in immersive audio formats has grown by over 400% in that time.
For engineers and studios, this may just be the beginning. “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 it to catch on.” At Larrabee Studios in Los Angeles, producer and engineer Manny Marroquin has spent the last few years outfitting its mixing room with a high-end Dolby Atmos system, with nine speakers carefully spaced around the room, five subwoofers and four overhead speakers, all hidden behind fabric to be unobtrusive , to remodel. “Apple opened the floodgates so we could all start experimenting with it,” says Marroquin, who has worked with Bruno Mars, the Rolling Stones and many others. “The tidal wave is too big to ignore. You will have to learn to swim.”
TIDAL and Amazon Music first made tracks available via Spatial Audio three years ago, and last June Apple Music offered thousands of tracks mixed in this format – Apple and Amazon charge no extra for the higher quality audio, while TIDAL does the Monthly cost for the immersive format is $20, compared to $10 for standard stereo. (Noticeably, Spotify and YouTube remain in stereo only.) Eddie CueApple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and 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’s developing pretty fast”
The new formats have changed the way artists, engineers and studios work: In March 2020, according to Dolby, just 30 studios were equipped for mixing in Dolby Atmos, today there are almost 600 – an increase of 1,900%. “A massive adoption rate,” he says Christina ThomasDolby’s Senior Director of Music Partnerships.
Since Apple Music and Amazon Music announced almost simultaneously that they will be offering 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 has noticeably failed to launch its own HiFi streaming plans promised last year; In January, the company said the program had been delayed, with no new “time details being announced.”
Whether or not high-quality audio attracts a significant number of new subscribers, Apple and Amazon are bringing it to artists and fans alike with editorial playlists and marketing. (The companies have the added bonus of selling more Spatial Audio-equipped AirPods and Dolby Atmos-friendly home theater devices.) That means mixing for Atmos is growing in demand, and studios are seeing it as an important new service — one that they’re offering to me don’t want to risk missing out. Massy’s studio, which works with many independent musicians, charges around $350 per track for a “Mastering for Atmos” mix, typically on top of the initial $1,200 stereo mix. And big labels are embracing the new formats, sometimes taking artists to their own studios, like Universal Music’s Abbey Road in London and Sony’s Battery in New York.
The new mixing process generally takes three hours, but can range from 90 minutes to several days. For DIY producers, Pro Tools is building Dolby Atmos capabilities into its latest software, and Logic is offering a free plug-in. “It’s developing pretty quickly,” he says Michael Frey, President of Operations, Global Studios and Technology for Universal Music Group. “It’s not significantly more expensive.”
For artists, the financial benefit comes from more prominent placement in streaming playlists that highlight the services’ high-definition audio. “We tell the artist to apply to Apple Music so they can be included in the Atmos playlists,” he says Chris Johnson, manager of the Oddio shop. “It sure is a good boost.” Apple Music’s homepage lists “Spatial Audio” as a top category between rock and hip-hop, and most of Apple Music’s global top 100, from Kendrick Lamar to Morgan Wallen, are mixed in this way. “A heap [digital service providers] clearly believe that spatial audio will add value to the streaming service,” says a major label executive. “We want to support that.”
Tracks remixed in spatial audio and similar formats have a depth that is unintelligible in stereo recordings. Heard on Apple Music, the “Hey, ho!” chants on the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” sound as if they’re in the whole room, rather than coming from a central mic; The synthesizers in Bad Bunny’s “Moscow Mule” seem to call out the vocals and respond to them like a symphony. Tony Gervino, Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of TIDAL, learned from the remixed version of Roberta Flack’s 1973 classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song” that percussion sounds came from a gospel choir, as opposed to what he thought were instruments. “When you can hear people recording it as they’re recording it, there’s emotion that you really can’t reproduce,” says Gervino, a former Top Editor at billboard.
“It definitely should sound like ‘Here’s my mix’ and ‘Here’s my mix on steroids,'” he adds Emily Lazar, founder and chief mastering engineer of New York studio The Lodge, who won a Grammy Award for work on Beck’s 2017 album Colors and has worked with Foo Fighters, Coldplay and others. “It should have an element of that experience and movement and excitement.”
The enthusiasm for the immersive formats has spread from room to room in the studios. Joan Jett recently mixed her forthcoming acoustic album in Dolby Atmos as well as a competing sound technology, Sony 360, at The Hit Factory/Germano Studios in New York, who have upgraded their Studio 1 for these formats in recent years. Earlier this year, when artists and other potential clients toured the studio while Jett and her team recorded, the veteran rock star played the mixes and addressed them.
“It would heat up the whole situation,” says Tony Germano, the studio’s owner and president. “Someone goes out and thinks about immersive audio in a whole new way.”
As new formats dominate studios, engineers and producers introduce artists head-on.
Alex Solano, owner of Alex Pro Mix, emails potential clients to hire him to enhance their mixes. For the seasoned engineer, Dolby Atmos and the other formats are finally pushing against years of compressed audio files and poor sound quality. “Consumers have become accustomed to listening to MP3s over the past two decades—that’s changed,” Solano says, adding that Dolby Atmos mixes and masters cost about a half times the stereo mix. “If music creators and producers don’t adapt to this technology, they will be left behind.”
“It just sounds awful”
The spatial audio format that Apple Music pairs with Dolby Atmos for the surround-sound experience on AirPods and high-end stereos isn’t popular with all 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 gimmicks where vendors simply crank up the bass to capture the Encourage consumers to buy new speakers. Referring to a well-loved classic he doesn’t want to name, he says, “If I put headphones on between the original mix and the spatial audio mix, it just sounds awful.
“It might have sounded fantastic in a 17-point system in the studio,” he adds, “but fapping down” – listening to music recorded with many channels on an audio system with fewer channels – “sounds like a bad one demo tape.”
Murphy also criticizes Apple’s early marketing, using phrases like “Beyond Stereo” when his own AB comparisons between stereo remasters and spatial audio mixes suggest something less than revolutionary. He also complains that many of the new mix engineers didn’t work with the original artists and producers, who “worked on them for maybe three weeks.” Says Murphy, “I don’t understand why the music industry doesn’t rebel against all of this.”
Dolby senior vp entertainment John Couling counters that the new formats inherently add depth and clarity to recordings, as top studio adopters like producers No ID, FINNEAS and Bob Clearmountain have pointed out over the past year or two. “You don’t have the conflict between guitar and vocals anymore,” says Couling. “You can separate them.”
However, the strongest evangelists for the new formats are the artists themselves. Sabrina Claudio, an R&B singer-songwriter, recorded her latest album, Based on a feelingat Marroquins Larrabee Studios with the idea of mixing the tracks in Dolby Atmos.
“If you sit in the middle of the room and close your eyes, you can hear the strings circling in circles. It feels like you’re in a whirlwind that you can’t hear in your regular stereo headphones,” she says. “I get lost in music even more than I used to. It will change the industry.”