Chris Lord-Alge on Dolby Atmos mixing: "I'll be the ‘out of the box’ guy"

Since getting his start in the studio world in the ‘80s, Chris Lord-Alge has gone on to engineer and mix for artists including James Brown, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Green Day, U2, and many, many more. In 2008 he acquired his own studio, MIX LA and, unsurprisingly for one of the most proficient mixers of our time (with his own Waves Audio plugin range to boot), boasts the very best studio gear available. Recently, he took the plunge into immersive audio and upgraded MIX LA’s Studio A for Dolby Atmos work, facilitated by an interface and converter infrastructure based on Focusrite RedNet components. Here, he explains his unconventional approach to Atmos mixing.

You’ve always got multiple projects on the go; what are you working on at the moment?

I'll be mixing some Harry Styles in the truck for Coachella, I'm currently working on a Demi Lovato single, I've just wrapped up Halestorm’s new album in Atmos, and I’m doing some live Eagles stuff. It's all kinds of stuff – anything from Dolly Parton to frickin heavy metal, to In Flames. 

The door keeps revolving and more stuff keeps coming in, so we can't complain! Most of the time I have a current number one somewhere on a chart; there's no rest for the wicked, let's put it that way.

Why did you finally decide to upgrade to an Atmos setup?

If people are starting to serve the Impossible Burger on their menu, well guess what? You better add it also. You can't just say, ‘I'm not going to do it because I don't believe in it’. No, I'm gonna install it. 

I'm gonna get the best rig in here and I’m going to get all my friends who know about it to hook me up. The biggest names in Atmos helped me to put it together. I'm all set up for it.

Bands like Muse, Pink Floyd and Roger Waters – that's all built for Atmos, but pop records? I don't know.

Despite seeing the potential in the format, what are your current reservations about Dolby Atmos music?

I focus on stereo; Atmos is a side dish as far as I'm concerned. The problem with Atmos is that the artist still doesn't hear it the way I hear it in my room, and the translation on Apple still isn't worked out. Hopefully in the future we can solve that problem, but as of right now, it's kind of a grey area. 

I've heard so many really bad Atmos mixes, and it's horrible that the artist doesn't have any say in it. The big problem with Atmos is that no matter what, no one gets to hear it how [I] hear it. People are finding their way with it, and I've heard some really cool [Atmos mixes], I've heard some very gimmicky ones and I've heard some that ruin the song. So I'm hoping not to be one of the guys that ruins a song! 

Certain music is really cool in Atmos and certain music gets unglued. Bands like Muse, Pink Floyd and Roger Waters – that's all built for Atmos, but pop records? I don't know. 

I really think that the artist needs to be involved, because it's their music. In a perfect world, the artists show up to hear the Atmos mixes in the room that it was mixed in and then hear the fold-down in a pair of headphones so they can hear the compromise as to what's going out on iTunes.

Despite your reservations, you still went ahead with the studio upgrade, so you must foresee it’s a wise investment?

I think that any engineer that wants to focus on the future needs to address new formats and make the plunge financially to at least be able to monitor it properly. Then listen to some Atmos stuff, get to know the renderer and get someone to tune your speakers properly – then you have a great playing field to learn from. 

It's not an exact science, it’s a lot of experimenting. You have a lot of places to put stuff; you can jam your socks and underwear into 13 different drawers now!

Stereo improved over the years and all sound improves over the years, so we'll see what happens. The best thing about Atmos is that it brings people into listening more. It pulls people away from listening to MP3s on a phone and gets them to consider listening to stuff that's more three dimensional. That brings attention to the sound of music rather than it becoming a disposable piece of art.

I've heard some really cool Atmos mixes, I've heard some very gimmicky ones and I've heard some that ruin the song.

Your Dante-networked RedNet setup helps interconnect two Avid Pro Tools workstations and a new 9.1.4 Ocean Way Audio speaker system with a SSL SL4064E mixing console. Why did you invest in a Focusrite RedNet system to complete your Atmos studio setup?

The simple fact of it is, I've tried every interface and I know what they all sound like. It's impossible to beat RedNet because of the Dante connectivity; to me, that's the only way to go. 

My friend, Phil Wagner was the president of Focusrite, and I helped in some of the sonics in these converters. I know all the gear, so it was a no-brainer to get on board with Focusrite and solve the problem. The RedNet and the Dante connectivity lets you connect perfectly and I can go between rooms now with it – because I have multiple rooms – so I can connect them all.

As we understand it, your Pro Tools HDX rig (operating at 96 kHz/48-bit) feeds a pair of RedNet HD32R 32-channel HD Dante network bridges. Using Dante Controller, you select the tracks for distribution over the Dante network through three RedNet A16R MkII 16-channel analogue interfaces and into the mixing desk, at which point your stereo mix from the console is then routed back through one of the A16R MkII units and a HD32R HD Bridge and is captured in the Pro Tools computer. Meanwhile, a second Pro Tools system is dedicated solely to mixing in Dolby Atmos, which is natively 48 kHz/24-bit; why the separation?

I have a stereo setup and an Atmos setup, and they're completely separate. A lot of guys will try to do this all under one roof. That doesn't work for me; I want to have one computer that's 100% the multitrack for the stereo mixes. 

The second rig is 100% digital and it's 128 tracks at 48k, which is the standard for Atmos. You have to have the special Dante RedNet card to make all the digital work, but they’re completely separate. When you go from one to the other, it keeps the setup really clean.

It's impossible to beat RedNet because of the Dante connectivity; to me, that's the only way to go.

Your Atmos mixing technique is unique in that you don’t do it in the box: your immersive mixes are made from stems that are created with vintage outboard gear, mixed on your SSL console in stereo, and then input into a computer with the Dolby renderer. Why do you take this approach rather than do it all in the box?

I personally think if you're going to do it, do it right. So you have to do the original stereo mix first and then once you've created that, then make the parts for Atmos. You can take the original multitrack and go right into Pro Tools and do it, but I prefer to make the original stereo version and then focus on making the Atmos spread out of that.

Making any mix requires having a really good toolbox of sound-creation devices: plugins, outboard gear – whether it's from the ‘60s, or a brand new plugin you got yesterday.

As for using the analogue workstation to get the sound with the plugins and the outboard stuff, the whole combination of new and old creates the best final result. I can't mimic that in Atmos, but what I can do is mix a song with stereo and be very happy with that.

Then I run what I think is enough passes of stems to cover what I would need in Atmos. Every track is different though; once I'm done with the mix we'll create some new tracks and then notate what tracks we’re soloing – so we’re literally just soloing certain tracks on the console – and we just keep printing and keep printing.

How does this method give you the ‘right’ sound?

It’s going through the console and through the mix bus, so everything's getting the right sound. When you open it in Atmos, even if you just panned it all left and right, it actually sounds a bit more open because you're subdividing; your bus compressors are now only getting one thing at a time so there's less compression overall to the mix, but the sonics are all there. 

Whatever you built in to make it have the sound you want is there, so then it's all about how to pan this around and making some level adjustments here and there, because you're going from two to 13 speakers. I create the Atmos deliverable stems and import it into the other computer with the Dolby renderer, which becomes my second playback system, and go from there. 

If I have someone else working on that mix, I send them those stems and see what they come up with. We print stems on every mix. For Atmos, I print another half a dozen or more to cover the things I look for in an Atmos mix, like if I want something to be separate. Then it still resembles the mix.

Most people are just mixing in the box; I'll be the ‘out of the box’ guy.

This sounds fairly time consuming?

It’s all time consuming [laughs]. It's hard for anything else to be an SSL SL4064E with automation and total recall – it's not gonna happen. That's the best, simplest system for mixing, recalling and ease of operation. 

With Atmos, because it's in its infancy, the renderer software can't rewind and play – it’s limited. I'm sure as they add upgraded versions of the software it'll get better and better, but it's still in its infancy. 

By keeping the system separate it just works so much easier, and it’s seamless. You use your stereo to create what you need for the Atmos mix, or you can mix Atmos from scratch. Everyone's gonna have their own shortcut, so it’s whatever works. 

I prefer to make all the stems and then when you put them in the Atmos rig, no matter what you do, it sounds like the same mix. That to me is the key.

You’re renowned for your stereo mixes; how did you find it adapting to working in Atmos?

I personally believe the stereo mix is the mix that will be remembered and the Atmos mix is the new flavour, so I'm not making immersive be the thing I focus on first, and then the stereo be the fold down of that. 

Of course, if you wanted to be 100% efficient with your time, you would do the Atmos mix and then the stereo would be the default out of that, and then all the versions are printed at once. Well, you know what? I don't care about that. I care about the stereo mix being perfect and great and exciting, and the Atmos being something we do after the fact. 

And if people say, ‘Well, Chris, you're wrong’. Well, then look at the 27,000 stereos I've done that you haven't, and how about, I just don't care? I don't care what you think about it. My opinion is my opinion and I've been at this longer, but that's not being arrogant, I'd just rather be smart about it.

If people say, ‘Well, Chris, you're wrong’. Well, then look at the 27,000 stereos I've done that you haven't, and how about, I just don't care?

How do you mean?

You're really only as good as the weakest link in your chain. So, if I'm not an expert in Atmos, why would I take a chance mixing it? I'm not going to just jump in there and say, ‘I'm CLA, I can figure this out. It's gonna be great’. 

I work with the best Atmos mixers there are to help me, because I've done 27,000 stereo mixes and a couple 100 in Atmos, so I'm gonna rely on learning from the best. I want to learn from other people that are really good at it, hear some things, let them do it and see what they come up with. 

I'm willing to make that investment. Then when I hear it back in my system, I'm like, ‘Okay, well this is what it sounds like when the best Atmos mixer in the world does something for me from my stems; this is how they translate it’, and then I get a very good bearing on what I have to do. I think that is the smartest approach. 

It's all subjective, and it'll get faster and faster. Most people are just mixing in the box; I'll be the ‘out of the box’ guy.

Listen to the full interview below: