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While Dolby Atmos has been an established format in the world of film for more than a decade already, its role in the music industry is still being defined.
So far, Apple Music has led the way in adopting Atmos as a music format, with Tidal and Amazon Music following suit while others (including Spotify) still only support stereo playback. As a result, many mixing engineers have gone all-in on the format, upgrading their rooms with immersive speaker arrays, while others wait to see if it catches on before making an investment.
One major factor preventing many in the music industry from embracing Atmos is a lack of understanding about the format itself, as well as the possibilities and pitfalls it can present in music. In addition to the heightened immersion it provides, Atmos comes with a non-trivial learning curve and even raises some philosophical questions about how best to use the medium. Is it a completely new art form that requires a brand-new approach to mixing, or simply an extension of the soundstage we can use to expand our mixing? How can we use this format to the fullest without going too far and sounding gimmicky? While we can’t answer all those questions definitively, we can look to the film and TV industry for inspiration.
This article will present some strategies for mixing music gleaned from the world of audio post, including how to use the soundfield effectively, focus the listener’s attention, and ensure your mixes sound just as good in stereo and binaural.
But first, a caveat: as with any creative pursuit, there are no rules to mixing in Atmos. This article is intended to give you a starting point for creating good mixes. Use these guidelines to get started, but remember to be bold, try new things, and put your own spin on every mix you do.
Like any shiny new technology, Dolby Atmos tempts the user to experiment with all of the possibilities and push the boundaries of the format. Want to put your lead vocal overhead? Float a guitar track around the listener? Pan the drums from in a circle? With Dolby Atmos, you can do all of this and more—but should you? As a cautionary tale, consider the early years of commercial stereophonic records. From The Beatles’ infamously unbalanced stereo remixes to the manic side-to-side panning of guitar solos and reverbed vocals by artists like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, it took more than a few attempts to figure out what sounded good in stereo.
When it comes to mixing in Atmos, take a tip from film mixers and use the soundstage strategically to focus the listeners’ attention. In film and TV, most of the important events happen on screen, and anything on screen is typically heard in the left, center, and right channels. The center channel is usually filled with dialogue, Foley, and other mono sound effects, while left and right are used for stereo sound effects, music, and some dialogue. By keeping the most important information (speech, music, and key sound effects) up front, mixers can direct your attention just like a cinematographer can draw your eye to different parts of the screen using framing and focus.
Drawing focus like this can be equally powerful in a music mix, except instead of being constrained by a screen, the entire 180-degree arc in front of you can be considered the “front” of your mix. One way to create a wide but focused mix is to position lead vocals, basses, and important percussion front-and-center, then use the left and right for instruments that carry the main melody or chords, such as guitars and keyboards.
This will give your mix a solid anchor while leaving lots of space on the sides, rear, and above to pan other interesting but less critical tracks. In fact, anchoring your mix like this can make panning other instruments in different directions even more effective. The most interesting music subverts expectations, so take advantage of the opportunity to surprise the listener with creative sounds in unexpected places.
While focus is important, don’t miss out on the opportunity to use the entire sonic canvas. In dense arrangements, Atmos gives you the freedom to build the mix around you, enveloping the listener in all kinds of ear candy while ensuring each instrument gets its own space. Even if you choose to focus your mix in the LCR channels, there are plenty of ways to fill the rest of the soundstage with interesting content.
Stereo synths and keyboards can easily fill up the rear speakers, overhead drum mics can sit a little higher in the front, backup vocals can occupy the top rear, and double-tracked overdubs are a natural choice for the left and right side speakers. In addition to creating a sense of immersion, this approach can help reduce muddiness and masking in mixes with high track counts.
Even if your mix doesn’t have many elements, you can still make great use of the extended soundstage. Take another example from film, where even the simplest scenes can take advantage of Atmos to enhance the emotion. Imagine a courtroom scene with an attorney’s passionate closing argument echoing off the wood-paneled walls and ceiling or a melancholy shot of a character under a bus stop while raindrops patter all around and overhead. Both of these examples focus on just one sound, but spatial audio allows that sound to envelop the audience completely, providing just as much immersion as more elaborate scenes.
There are many ways to achieve the same effect in a music mix, and reverb is the obvious go-to. Thanks to the rise of spatial audio, 3D reverbs like Stratus 3D and Inspirata are becoming more and more common. These powerful reverb engines generate sound reflections from all directions, placing your tracks within a convincing virtual space.
In fact, spatial reverb shines in stripped-down arrangements where it can magnify the sound of just a few instruments and vocals. In busier arrangements, strategically panned stereo reverbs can provide a similar effect without muddying the mix. It’s also very effective to pan room mics opposite of dry tracks, or send one track to multiple staggered delays placed around the soundfield.
Another great way to fill space is with the "Size" control located in the Atmos panner. When turned up, this control increases the spread of a sound to fill adjacent speakers, making it seem as if it’s coming from a larger source, like a giant, screen-filling spaceship in a sci-fi movie. When cranked all the way up, the track will emanate from all speakers equally and surrounding the listener. In music, this is great for bass tracks, kick drums, and anything that anchors the mix and doesn’t need to be featured in the center. Be careful using this technique with high-frequency information, though, as it may result in comb filtering at the listening position.
One of the best things about Dolby Atmos is the way it conveys motion. In a stereo mix, you can only pan in one dimension (side to side). Reverb helps give the illusion of another dimension (front to back), but even used together, these techniques can only approximate two-dimensional movement. Even in 5.1 and 7.1 surround formats used for film and TV, motion can only be represented in two dimensions with low spatial resolution.
Because Dolby Atmos uses virtual audio objects to encode panning in three dimensions, it can render motion accurately on speaker arrays of all sizes. Binaural rendering produces a convincing spatial effect in headphones, while a proprietary fold-down algorithm helps retain some of the spatialization even in stereo.
Object-based audio has made it possible for film and TV mixers to create truly visceral motion, such as planes flying overhead, bullets whizzing by, and traffic rushing past the camera – and it can do the same in your mixes. Subtle movement throughout the song can work well for tracks that are fairly static-sounding, such as a mellow synth pad that rotates slowly overhead or a repetitive melody that moves in a predictable pattern each bar.
You can also automate individual position changes during the song, such as moving a guitar track to the front for a solo or swapping instrument panning in the verse and chorus. By adjusting the curves between automation points, you can tailor the dynamics of the motion to your liking. Or, you can simply perform and record panning automation live just like riding a fader. The possibilities for motion are endless, but don’t forget to make sure it always serves the song.
One of the most important factors in mixing is how your work translates to different playback systems. Although most professional mixers have tuned their speakers and rooms to produce a relatively flat frequency response, there’s always some amount of guesswork when it comes to how the result will sound through hi-fi speakers, car stereos, portable speakers, headphones, earbuds and so on. In the world of film, however, Dolby has established standards for theater sound systems and guidelines for mixing facilities to ensure proper translation between mix stages and theaters.
To ensure the best translation possible on the music side, Dolby has created an official Dolby Atmos Music Room Configuration guide. Refer to this guide when setting up your Atmos mixing room to make sure your speaker placement, levels, and frequency response curve are consistent with Dolby’s standards. While not a requirement, this will ensure that your mixing levels, panning, and EQ translate as well as possible to consumer speakers and real-world environments. Dolby also offers calibration services for professional studios to make sure everything is set up to spec.
Another important aspect of compatibility is translation between different speaker configurations. While film and TV have historically required separate stereo and surround mixes or sonically compromised “fold-downs” and “up-mixes,” Dolby Atmos’ object-based system allows spatial mixes to be rendered specifically for each playback system. With spatial audio capabilities popping up in more and more consumer devices—from AirPods to smart speaker arrays and Atmos-equipped soundbars—it’s more important than ever to make sure your mixes translate to a wide variety of listening setups.
While Dolby recommends a 7.1.4 or 9.1.4 monitor configuration for good spatial resolution when mixing, your audience will rarely (if ever) hear your work this way, so it’s critical to reference your mixes in different formats and on different systems. Place extra emphasis on referencing in stereo and binaural, as these are the ways your audience is most likely to hear your mix.
One note about binaural rendering: Dolby Atmos allows you to set distance values of Near, Mid, Far, or Off for each object and bed, which provide more detailed spatialization in headphones. These settings can help create immersion, but be warned—Apple uses their own binaural rendering instead of Dolby’s, so your mix will sound different on Apple products and services. For maximum compatibility, make sure your mix sounds good in headphones with and without the binaural settings.
Feeling inspired to start your next (or first) Atmos mix? Use these tips as a starting point for a solid mix, but don’t forget to break the rules once in a while and try something adventurous. If you’re feeling daunted by learning a new format, think of Atmos as an extension of the soundstage—take advantage of that extra space, but don’t throw out everything you’ve already learned about mixing. Many of your skills will transfer, including the most important factor: taste. Just remember to take a step back once in a while and make sure your decisions always serve the song and aren’t driven by the excitement of a new format.
If you’ve just made the decision to outfit your studio for Dolby Atmos mixing, check out Vintage King’s Immersive Audio section, including our Dolby Atmos buyer’s guide, immersive monitoring bundles, how-to articles, and client stories.