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With credits ranging from artists like Jawbreaker and Hole to New Radicals and Reverend Horton Heat, it’s safe to say that Michael James has quite a diverse production portfolio. Within the last few years, James has become an early adopter and vocal proponent of Dolby Atmos and has even mixed tracks by Sammy Hagar as well as his own release, Shelter In Place.
Recently, we sat down with James to talk about immersive audio and how it influences his workflow, his mixing philosophy, and more.
What initially got you interested in Dolby Atmos?
It started with 5.1 for me. I loved mixing for DVD-A. I wanted to hear mixes with texture in the back that complimented all of the frontal energy. I felt like I figured it out, but eventually, it died off, so I sold off two rooms' worth of surround monitoring. Now I have just one room, set up for both stereo and immersive mixing. When I heard early on about the Atmos platform, I sent an email to Ceri Thomas (formerly of Dolby, now at Apple) and asked a few questions—he helped me get started and put me in touch with the right people. Apple, Sony and Dolby all started pumping money into the platform, so I think Atmos is here to stay.
Having come from 5.1, I assumed it was just going to be the same, plus some extra vertical speakers. Ceri kept telling me “No, it’s a lot more than that.” One day, the penny dropped and I realized it’s not a 12-channel system, it’s a virtual soundstage that just happens to be played back very well using 12 speakers. It folds down, even to stereo, pretty well. Atmos scales to sound good even on consumer-level soundbars.
You’ve developed decades of strong credits, mostly in stereo format. With that in mind, what initially changed workflow-wise when you started to mix in Atmos format?
It changed the way I think about the overall production of an album. There was a period from about 2002 to maybe 2019 where all I was doing was mixing—it was rare for me to produce. Atmos is what got me excited about producing again because suddenly I had space to add parts that could enhance the emotional experience for the listener. It’s so much fun to build a musical arrangement from the ground up with immersion in mind!
From a technical standpoint, I adopted an in-the-box workflow specifically for Atmos. The stereo mix is outside the box in the analog domain, but after I print a variety of stems, I create a new ITB Pro Tools session for the Atmos mix. All of my buss processing is baked into the stems. It’s the only way for me to accommodate the layers of people who may want revisions after I’ve reset the analog patchbay.
How would you say that Atmos mixing differs from surround sound mixes?
First thing is that it removes a lot of the stress that we used to have in 5.1. We used to have to do our own decorrelation—when you’re moving things between multiple speakers in 5.1, things can get phasey, so you decorrelate to help combat the phenomenon. Atmos somehow compensates for that, which is huge. Now you can put things where you want them, with precise spatial accuracy. This makes the speakers disappear so that only the music exists.
There’s also so much more sonic room, so you can let things sound full and natural without having to limit everything so much—you can let things breathe more. Each instrument gets its own piece of real estate, so to speak.
Let’s talk about a few of your favorite mixing tools—what gear do you always find yourself turning to?
First and foremost would definitely have to be my Dangerous monitor controllers. I had the factory spec them for a 12-channel system. It’s basically three of the SR model which give four more outputs each, and then I have an extra two outputs for the stereo setup. I love all their stuff though—my Dangerous converters are wicked-good. I admittedly have a lot of their stuff here: compressors, BAX EQs, LIASON, 2-BUS+’s, etc.
As far as outboard goes, it pretty much all comes down to Manley, Dangerous, and whatever Paul Wolff (formerly of API) is working on, whether it’s these Tonelux modules or the Fix Audio stuff he does now. I’m really nuts for the [Manley] ELOPs, and I use them as a tracking compressor all the time. They’re great on everything. For the most part, the outboard gear is for my submix busses, as well as the stereo premaster bus. I have a ton of channels of conversion, between my Dangerous stuff and my Lynx converters—Dangerous being my absolute favorite. My Lynx Auroras are used for inserts, and they sound great, too. I get a lot of mileage from Empirical Labs DerrEsser. I’ve got a good stack of Avalon stuff (discrete Class A AD series, not VT) around here that I reach for often too, just to name a few others.
When it comes to plugins, I’m a huge fan of Soundtoys. I also have really come to like the oekSound plugins, especially Soothe2. My other go-to's in the plugin world are Liquid Sonics 7th Heaven, MDW EQ, Apogee FX Rack and Leapwing Audio RootOne.
How has that changed within the Atmos environment? What gear pieces have really been crucial for you when working in the Atmos format?
As mentioned earlier, because the work I’m doing really needs to be able to be recalled, I’m printing stems with my outboard stuff with the HDX playback engine, and then switching to Dolby Audio Bridge and staying inside the box for the Atmos mixes.
I have a specific plugin reverb buss I’m using to glue things together into the same space in Atmos mixes. It’s got a really short RT60, so you’re mainly just feeling, not necessarily hearing, reflections with it. I don’t want to hear the glue, but it helps hold things together without trying to use buss compression like you would in the stereo world. I’m using LiquidSonics’ Seventh Heaven reverb plugin for this, and I send most of the elements of a mix into it, just at very subtle levels. That plugin is essentially a substitute for a Bricasti M7.
Let’s talk about your monitoring in your space. What are you working with? How do those choices help you shape mixes?
I really like these PSI Audio speakers I’m using all throughout the room—these smaller ones are the A14M’s. I have the A25M’s that are bigger, too, for when I’m working in stereo. They’re killer, and so flat. I don’t hear the crossovers, I just hear music. When I’m working in Atmos, I completely switch to the A14M’s so that everything is uniform. They’re loud enough for Atmos spec, and I’m telling you, they’re such honest monitors. With previous monitors, I’ve at times felt like I’m having to struggle with the monitors to get an honest representation of my mix, and with these, it’s just seamless for me.
What are some of your initial priorities when approaching a mix, and how has that changed from stereo format to Atmos?
Creatively, Atmos changed the way that I think about the production of an album. Technically, the big change was that I had to go inside the box when I get to the Atmos mixing stage. To be able to crank out the Atmos stuff and be able to recall based on notes from clients, it was a necessity. People will want reprints from time to time, so it would be very time-consuming to go back and print things in the analog domain again each time. It definitely makes my mixes take less time. When I’m mixing Atmos now, everything is pre-printed through all my buss processing—but ultimately these mixes are in the box.
Do you have a few records you turn to as sort of a “golden reference?” What are some of the best-sounding records, in your opinion?
One that immediately comes to mind is Peace Beyond Passion by Me’shell Ndegeocello. The track “The Way” from that record shows you how much low-end you can get away with if you don’t clutter the mix with a crowded arrangement. A couple of Crowded House records that Bob Clearmountain mixed—Woodface and Temple of Low Men. “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan as well. The track “Pulp Culture” from Aliens Ate My Buick by Thomas Dolby, mixed by Bill Bottrell, is one of the most impressive mixes I’ve ever heard. Those are all tracks that I could play in a new room to reliably tell me how the room sounded.
You specifically have a number of Atmos releases coming up—what can you tell us about those mixes, and the challenges they presented?
The biggest challenge right now on a lot of these Atmos mixes is that I may not have a lot to work with in terms of the arrangement. If it’s a rock band that’s super straightforward, that wants all the power up front, how am I going to take advantage of the immersive format? There are not a lot of overdubs and ear candy to work with like you have on big pop songs where there’d be layers and layers of synths and sound design.
Sammy Hagar’s “2120” is an example of a simple, powerful rock record that could sound disjointed if panned without attention to the vibe of the stereo mix. Jaimeson Durr and I had to be careful because we knew that Universal would approve the mix on headphones, so we needed to keep the Atmos mix competitive with the stereo master.
Mix engineers new to the immersive game often make the mistake of getting creative, and adding redundant content to the center and LFE channels, as well as to reverbs intended to glue the immersive mix. When the artist and label listen on their AirPods Max, they always compare the loud stereo master to the -18 LUFS Atmos mix. You do not want your Atmos mix to have tubby low-end or “reverb soup” unless you want to get fired. It needs to sound the same, but more spacious. You want the client to say, “OMG, this is so awesome that I can never go back to stereo!”
I can also tell you that I reactivated my label, Alternator Records, and now it’s Atmos-centric. It’s primarily a single-only label. It’s great because by releasing Spatial Audio singles with newer artists, they can make it onto playlists without having to compete with quite as many other artists. I think it helps shine a light on new artists. We’ve got a pretty wide stylistic range, from Oakland hip-hop to Detroit gospel, and all kinds of things in between.
Do you feel like one format is more impactful than the other?
I think Atmos is by far more impactful if you’re doing it tastefully and building productions with Atmos in mind from the start. I feel like it can be distracting in the wrong applications, where some of the mixes are done as an afterthought to the stereo mixes. When you do it right, Atmos mixes tell a much larger story. So, I think you have to go into the production knowing you want to take advantage of the immersive format, rather than just reaching for it later on.
What would you say is the first thing that you notice in a great Atmos mix?
The speakers just disappear. It feels like I’m in the room, not having things pushed at me. Conversely, the worst thing I hear sometimes in Atmos mixes is excessive reverb and unfocused or overcooked low end.
I know that you often emphasize mixing things differently to fit each project. That said, if you had to describe the sound you’re known for achieving, how would you characterize that?
I can tell you the feedback that I’ve gotten from others. Some artists hire me for vocals, while others are drawn to the drums and bass. But if you ask me, I prioritize telling stories, even at the expense of impressing my engineer friends. Fortunately, I like clarity because it reveals nuanced details, and I dislike distractions that focus my attention on the wrong stuff. Let's get a great vocal sound first before we cram too many other things in there. My best guess is that I’m known for striking a balance of storytelling and detail, to find the soul of the song.
Are there any current Atmos releases you use as references for great mixes?
Dave Way’s Atmos Mix of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” sounds fantastic. For the most part, however, I don’t think people have it figured out just yet. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m really happy with how my own album, Shelter In Place, turned out in Atmos. It sounds like the stereo masters, but more spacious and revealing. The best reference for an Atmos mix is not another Atmos mix, but instead the stereo mix/master of the same song. I suppose that any Atmos mix that feels like it puts me “inside” the stereo mix, could be a good reference.
Are there any other projects you're excited about coming out this year?
2023 is looking to become quite an active year for my label, Alternator Records. I've worked on a number of new releases across the spectrum, including R&B, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, and Singer-Songwriter records.
Up first is a record from Nate Hendrix (ft. Chloe Jean x Michael James), out 02/24/2023. We'll also be releasing records from Colin Keenan on 03/24/2023, and Jeremy Sutherland on 04/21/2023.
Also, keep an eye out for midyear releases from New York rapper Fashionstaytrending, Arizona beat maker Touchtone_DSG, and a Director’s Cut re-issue of James’ own 2021 album, Shelter In Place.
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