How to sharpen your Dolby Atmos mixing skills

As music and audio technology evolves and production processes grow ever more diverse, it's essential to ensure your studio skills remain fresh. Here, OLLO Audio CEO Rok Gulič sits down with Berklee College of Music’s John Escobar and acclaimed engineer and producer Matteo Marciano to talk best practice production techniques, immersive mixing in Dolby Atmos and how to make sure your studio skills are future-ready…

Rok Gulič: Is immersive audio more than just surround sound?

Matteo Marciano: It really is. Imagine if you were to mix either a soundtrack or a song in a small dub stage. You would have 7.1 or 5.1. These are still very well used but the problem was always about how you would move audio and how accurate your mix would be after you move from a smaller scale dub stage to a movie theatre. If you are moving objects from a channel-based point from speaker to speaker, you have to think about how well that panning will work on a larger system. Moving from channel-based to object-based audio, it is now possible to mix things from a different perspective. It puts the listener at the centre of what’s happening, almost with a 360-degrees platform. It allows people to listen to music in completely different ways, and we as mixers can be more creative.

We can pick and choose where we want sounds to be. The great thing is how Atmos allows us to translate these mixes into different systems. So, it’s easy to downsize from a 9.1.6 to a 5.1 to a stereo, and you can then decode that into binaural applications. In many ways, immersive sound is doing what Blu-ray did for visual content. The industry has helped people understand that they can have better audio. And with platforms like Tidal and Apple Music, the industry is educating people on how to fully enjoy music and sound.

RG: What’s the difference between Dolby Atmos, object-based audio and binaural or ambisonic recording?

John Escobar: With mixing in general, people think of there being two different approaches, either recreating or creating a mix. You’re either recreating the exact moment a musical performance took place, or you’re overdubbing and creating a world that didn’t exist physically at the moment of performance. Binaural and Atmos downmixing versus capturing ambisonics is that same idea. When capturing ambisonics you are capturing the actual acoustics and physicality of what is happening at that moment.

In capturing those directions, you’re already dealing with the phase correlations of the object, the phasing alignment of the reflective surface around you. We now have a bit more control of that in Dolby Atmos. Using the Atmos render in binaural mode, I have the plugin to object-by-object decide how much or how little binauralised spacialisation I want to add. There’s so much room for creativity.

RG: What do you need to consider before making a decision on whether to make a project an Atmos project or an ambisonic project?

MM: The first consideration is about where the main platforms are going. If you think of Netflix and Amazon, they are all moving towards an Atmos format. Atmos is starting to take on more importance in the industry, so I would prefer to do an Atmos mix and have a 5.1 mix that I could recreate afterwards. With Atmos, if you have a powerful enough system, you can start working in Atmos from your home, then you can always take that project to a larger scale studio if the project requires a larger scale mix.

RG: Where do headphones sit in this scenario. How can they be best utilised when mixing immersive audio?

JE: Dolby Atmos is becoming the standard and that’s because it enables you to recreate a speaker setting but also allows you to start an Atmos mix in headphones. Then you can come into a room and check it in a full speaker system. A lot of times I prefer to do it that way around, starting in headphones because most consumers will be using a headphones-based system. So my mix has to translate to that format. That’s one of the reasons Dolby is becoming so predominant. It’s accessible to more people and everyone has a set of headphones these days, and most people have a device of some kind that has the power to utilise Atmos.

You can watch the full conversation between Gulič, Escobar and Marciano in full below.

You can also check out Headliner's guide to the best plugin bundles on the market here.