VAN NUYS, CALIFORNIA — Just off the freeway in the Valley is the Sound City Complex, a horseshoe-shaped building in the middle of an industrial zone. The site once featured the famed Sound City recording studios where everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Nirvana to Johnny Cash made some of the world’s famous records. Across the parking lot is another studio, but it’s devoted to something entirely different.
I’m here at the invitation of Will Kennedy and Mike Wallace, a couple of audio alchemists whose current job is turning stereo mixes into something bigger and grander. Why have just two channels of audio when you can have 13?
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The main room of the studio is covered in carpets on the floor and walls. A small console sits near the middle, surrounded by a tall metal structure that holds four speakers at the top pointing down at the floor. The console, which features little more than a keyboard and a couple of monitors, is totally surrounded by more speakers. Everything operates from a wild computer interface. This is where Will and Matt work on Dolby ATMOS and Spatial Audio versions of songs.
“Listen to this,” says Will, poking at the keyboard. “We completely dismantled Love Shack by The B52’s and rebuilt it into an ATMOS mix. I know you’ve heard it a million times, but just listen.”
The song starts — and it sounds nothing like I expected. Fred Schneider’s lead vocal comes from somewhere in the centre. The close harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson are clean and slightly to the left. The bassline has a definition that I’d never noticed before. A guitar line, buried in the stereo mix suddenly appears and adds melodic heft to the midrange. And it turns out that the party sounds that we hear in various places in the song actually run through the entire song. With sound coming at all angles, I felt completely immersed in the music. It was … wild.
“That’s something, huh?” Mike is smiling. “Now try this.” He puts on an ATMOS version of Faith No More’s Epic, a song Mike knows very well because he produced the original for the band back in 1989.
The guitar assault is spectacular, eclipsed only by the bassline, which reveals itself to be more intricate and heavy than the standard stereo mix allowed. Vocals come from all directions. It’s like I’m in the studio with the arranged around me. I’m enveloped in music from all directions.
Will and Matt take me through more of their work. A 20-year-old Jason Mraz song. An impossibly tight group playing modern big-band music. A track metal band with layers and layers of guitars and vocals completely engulfs the listener in waves of glorious noise. When the last note dies out, I can only sit there in amazement. I’ve become a believer.
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Before today, I’d been very skeptical about this new technology. Why try to improve on songs that are already classics? Wouldn’t this be like trying to make the Mona Lisa more high-res? Aren’t you messing with the artists’ original vision? Are you creating new standards for this music when we’ve been fine with what we’ve had all these years? And who can afford a home audio system with 13 speakers, all specifically arranged and powered by amps that require their own modular reactor?
Detractors will point to the failure of quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s. Super Audio CDs and DVD-Audio didn’t work, either. Yeah, there are some great 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, and beyond mixes of classic albums available in box sets that sound great on a home theatre, but those are for obsessives and audiophiles. What makes anyone think that this latest attempt to bring extra high fidelity to the masses is going to work? (Sony also has something called 360 Reality Audio which follows different specs. I’m told Sony is struggling to get this adopted by the industry.)
Will is patient with me. “If you look at the size of these files, they’re huge. That B-52’s file is more than two gigabytes. Compare that to around 70 megabytes for the original .wav of song and maybe eight megs for an MP3 version. That’s because this file contains lots and lots of information, including metadata that will allow the file to be ‘folded down’ into both a 5.1 mix and a stereo mix. In fact, what we’re really going for is an immersive listening experience on headphones. Any headphones — although like with anything, the better the hardware, the better the software — the music — will sound.”
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Headphones, it turns out, are the main target of those promoting the new technology. In fact, you may have already experienced Spatial Audio if you’ve got Apple Music or have downloaded specially encoded songs from iTunes. Instead of “oh, that sound is coming from the left and those sounds are coming from the right,” Spatial Audio tracks suck you in a little deeper. I still haven’t found a recording that brings the sound forward so it seems to be coming from in front (headphone listening often gives you the send that much of the music is coming from behind), but it’s certainly an improvement.
Another advantage? The ATMOS standards demand far less compression on the finish files. The amount of dynamic range that’s preserved in the recording is insane. Unlike “loudness wars” casualties like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication and St. Anger from Metallica — two albums I find unlistenable because they’re compressed to the point of distortion — these ATMOS mixes breathe to the point where you can hear the space between the notes. It is utterly three-dimensional, just like when you see a live concert. The music seems to come from everywhere all at once.
Glancing at the folder filled with mixes in progress, I see some very big names, including a couple with unreleased albums that are in the process of getting ATMOS-ized. Those were off-limits to me, of course.
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Will ATMOS and Spatial Audio become the new standard? Maybe, especially since so many people consume music through headphones. Will they notice after two decades of listening to horrible MP3-quality audio? Will they even care?
Skeptics will say that this is just an attempt to get us to buy more audio gear. Yes, it is, but we haven’t had a mainstream revolution in audio fidelity since the compact disc. Others point out that the people with an interest in these new mixes are driven by profit. Of course, they are! That’s how it works. And unless I’m mistaken, creating new mixes like these also means you’re creating new master recordings, thereby resetting the countdown clock on copyright back to zero. That means these songs will stay out of the public domain longer.
And there are more applications beyond music. We’re heading into the era of the metaverse. Entirely immersive 3D sound is going to be a big deal. Maybe, just maybe, this is the new tech we’ve been waiting for.
On the drive back to Hollywood, I couldn’t get that B-52’s mix out of my head. It left me with such a good feeling that didn’t even mind the bump-and-grind on the 405.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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