The journey to SNAPSOUND's Dolby Atmos set-up took place over several months near the end of 2019. Zach teamed up with Vintage King's Chris Bolitho to select the gear for his room, including an Avid S6 control surface and monitors from Meyer Sound. For installation, Zach worked with Vintage King Technician Frank Verschuuren to complete the build of the control surface and implement the monitors.
We recently caught up with Zach to chat about all things Dolby Atmos and his decision to go the immersive audio route. Continue below to read our full interview and take a 3D walkthrough tour of SNAPSOUND's new room set-up.
What made you choose to outfit your facility for Dolby Atmos?
I had an incredible opportunity many years ago to mix a film with my colleague, Justin Davey, called Last Days in the Desert in Theatrical Atmos. At the time, it certainly struck us both as an incredibly powerful tool. The ability to create depth and immersion in such a cinematic way was thrilling to experiment with.
That said, I felt quite cynical about Atmos in the early days of the format. Home Entertainment Atmos hadn’t taken off yet and there weren’t many films (beyond major studio releases), which were being mixed, much less screened in Theatrical Atmos.
And most of my work is in the independent film and documentary space so I couldn’t see a practical reason to use the technology, nor could I genuinely convince filmmakers it was a worthwhile investment because we both knew the chances of anyone ever hearing their film in Atmos was slim to none.
Thankfully, my assumptions about the future of immersive sound were completely wrong.
Two big things changed. One, Dolby and Avid worked hard to make the tools and workflows simpler and easier to create mixes in Atmos. And two, Netflix (and later other platforms) began fully supporting and encouraging filmmakers to work in the format.
What equipment decisions did you have to make when outfitting the facility?
We were fortunate with our timing. Dolby was just in the early stages of supporting operating an RMU on a Mac Mini with Dante, which offered significant savings, a smaller footprint, and easier implementation than using Madi. So that was an easy and exciting decision to make. And with the Avid MTRX as the core hub for I/O, it was all amazingly simple to figure out how we are going to handle that side of things. That left monitoring as our primary challenge.
I’ve never been particularly picky about the kind of control surface I’m using with respect to my own creative process.
Many years ago, I started mixing using a Digidesign Control 24, and later upgraded to a C/24. It always seemed to do the trick for me creatively-speaking, and as a business owner, I found the value to be very hard to beat.
I think mixers who work on the S6 are smart to take advantage of its extensive configurability. The degree to which you can control almost anything right at the board is awesome, and I’m always so impressed by folks who are able to mix without referring to the Pro Tools interface. There really is something special about focusing on the image on screen and not on Pro Tools.
But that’s just not how I learned to mix, and as a result I don’t lean as heavily on the amazingly advanced features of the S6 as much. But I DO really love the faders. Having worked on D-Commands, D-Controls, S3, etc., I found the sensitivity and smoothness of the faders to be so special and, artistically-speaking, I connected with them on a level I had never experienced before.
I guess this all sounds a bit dramatic but I honestly found the physical connection from my creative intention to the output to be incredible and it truly affected the quality and speed of my mixes. It’s also just more enjoyable to mix on the S6, and maybe that’s a good enough reason!
For me, this was truly the most exciting aspect to upgrading our studio.
As I mentioned, we have four 5.1 nearfield studios, and all of them have had some manner of JBL speakers since the very beginning. We initially had 4328s and then upgraded a couple of years ago to 708s.
Initially, it seemed like we should simply stick with JBL. But I have always been obsessed with Meyer Sound. I’m really a huge fan of the work of Meyer Sound over the years and the quality of their loudspeakers has always blown me away.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to hear one of Will Files’ nearfield studios at Sony. The room was somewhat similar in size to our Studio A, and I just COULD NOT BELIEVE how incredibly BIG and CINEMATIC they sounded. It really changed my perspective on what a smaller studio could sound like.
And since I work on a lot of projects that go to festivals and are screened theatrically, I felt like the Meyer Acheron Designer had the effect of giving me the size I need in the front channels to emulate a theatrical experience in a smaller room, just enough so that for certain projects I might be able to avoid even needing to check our mixes in a theatrical stage. I figured if this could work, the amount I would save in stage rentals alone would pay for the speakers in a matter of months.
The surround monitors were perhaps an even more important decision to make given that they play a more integral role in Dolby Atmos, and the UP-4slims offered a couple of exciting features which, to my knowledge, no other manufacturer could offer.
First, the form factor and design of the speaker enclosure is really cool looking and it has a wow factor that I think some clients might appreciate.
Second, our facility is in a leased space and I didn’t want to make any further permanent changes to the space, so in-wall or in-ceiling installation would be very difficult to stomach… And I like the idea of being able to take these speakers with me more easily if we need to move our studio someday.
Third and most importantly, the UP-4slims are ridiculously powerful and detailed for a speaker of their size. They are really outrageous and easily met Dolby’s power requirements for a room of our studio’s size.
In all honesty, it already has. To be able to say that we can confidently work in the format has been a great advantage when speaking with clients who want their work to be screened in the best possible format on streaming platforms. The folks at Netflix, for instance, are pushing this format strongly and as a result, clients are starting to expect it.
My approach to this technology is to say, “This is the new standard” and whenever possible my preference is to work natively in the format from the very beginning, as though it’s really a non-issue similar to the way 5.1 has become versus mixing in stereo.
So, I love being able to approach new project opportunities with confidence and to say, “Yes, of course,” whenever we are asked if it’s possible for us to work in the format.
I can now make the case to clients with a genuine feeling that it will be worth their time and that we will have a great creative experience working in it, because it’s all become so much simpler and easier to work and deliver mixes in the format.
Tell us a little bit about the installation process. What was it like having Vintage King come in to help transform the space?
Well Vintage King made available one of the greatest, most talented people, Mr. Frank Verschuuren, and he has so much experience building and installing rooms like ours. His confidence really helped calm my anxieties (there were a lot of them with an investment like this) and he did an amazing job running the cable, installing the speakers, and getting our S6 up and running. I think we literally had the whole room up and running from soup to nuts in less then 12 hours. That really surprised me and it’s a testament to his talent and experience that he was able to make it happen.
Not so much tough decisions as much as just simply getting it done in time. We had booked our first H.E. Atmos mix before we had even built the room. That was quite stressful and thankfully Chris Bolitho at VK was very good about responding to my incessant timeline and shipping questions throughout the process. He was very understanding of the stress the whole thing placed me under and was quick to coordinate with the various suppliers to ensure that things were handled as quickly as possible.
As for installation itself, it was really just the difficulty of running cables in a studio with finished construction that worried me the most. We hit some snags (literally with studs in the wall etc.) that almost threw things off the tracks but Frank and I were ultimately able to figure it out and we got it done!