Christopher Manhey on his Latin Grammy-winning Carla Morrison album and Dolby Atmos in Chile

Christopher Manhey – an independent researcher, award-winning composer and pioneer in the realm of immersive audio – reflects on winning two Latin Grammys for his work with Carla Morrison, how a unique Latin American strike tradition sparked his interest in immersive audio, and delves into what goes on at his facility, Omni Soundlab, a Genelec-equipped production and research studio in Chile.

Which projects did you win your Latin Grammy awards for, and where do you keep them?

The statues are in my studio! I won them for an album I recorded in Mexico for a Mexican artist called Carla Morrison. It's a funny story because we were a kind of collective that lived in the same neighbourhood in Mexico City. We were all emerging artists, and I knew how to record and to produce music. Most of them were artists, musicians, composers or songwriters. 

One of those people was Carla! It was a very collaborative project; it was literally recorded in our apartments. It was a very homemade album, and while we were recording it, we were joking around saying that we recorded it in the restroom, so ‘Let's go for the Grammys!’ 

One year after, Carla went super, super viral, although at that time we didn't have this viral concept. It was by word of mouth. Everyone started talking about her because she's so good, and then we got these emails, like, ‘Congratulations, you are nominated for this record: Best Alternative Record of the Year, Best Album of the Year, Best Song of the Year’ – four categories in total. My first impression was like, ‘What is this?’ Nobody on this team had a relationship with the academy or anything like that. Then we realised that Carla’s manager and her record label made the entry for the album. 

We were super surprised, because suddenly we had four nominations for the Latin Grammys, and we won two of those. Then we were nominated for the US Grammys with the same album. From that moment, for all of us involved in that project, doors started opening in the music industry. That was a pretty important moment where we moved from being very unknown people in the music industry to being ‘someone’. It was incredible because we were not thinking about it and there were legendary artists nominated in the same categories.

The Carla Morrison album was literally recorded in our apartments. It was a very homemade album.

You’re a pioneer in the realm of immersive audio. When did you first become interested in the possibilities that immersive audio presents?

It started with the strikes we had in Chile where most of the people went to the streets because we had a very tough time with our politics. In Latin American culture, there is a very characteristic sound we make when we go to the streets. It's called cacerolazo, and it comes from ‘casserole’, which is in a pan. So you hit a pan with a spoon. When I was participating in these strikes, I was listening to what was happening and trying to listen to how powerful the message through the sound was. 

There were thousands of people walking the streets, hitting pans with the spoons. I remember I started reflecting on how important and how powerful sound can be, and it’s just a pan! I remember that exact moment that I started realising. I closed my eyes to listen, and started listening to sounds all around me in 360 degrees. I realised the world was not stereo. It took me 30 years to realise that we listen in 360 degrees and not in a stereo!

What did you do from there?

By that time, I had already spent 10 years producing in the music industry. I was feeling like the format of producing and distributing music had become a bit saturated, especially with the digital era. I was thinking, ‘How can we give our audiences and ourselves as creators experiences where we are all involved in the artistic experience? How can we convey the inspiration of the narrative, but through space – not just having this unidirectional message which is commonly seen in music when the artist is on the stage, and then the audience is in front?’ 

Inspired by this thought, I started looking for new technologies to try to develop these kinds of concepts. That's when I started studying audio from a new perspective. I made some studies on soundscape and acoustic ecology to go a little bit more deeply into how we classify sounds.

In Latin American culture, there is a very characteristic sound we make when we go to the streets called cacerolazo.

You’re the founder of Omni Soundlab, a production and research studio and venue that serves as a hub for exploring the possibilities of immersive audio. Why did you decide to create this space and what goes on there?

Omni Soundlab has three lines of development. We have Dolby Atmos production for the music industry where we are working directly with artists, independent and major labels and distributors. We love to produce music catalogues – back catalogues or new singles. We offer this service to everyone who wants their music in this immersive format. Then the second line is we are not just a studio, but also a venue, or a sound gallery. 

The recording studio has [traditionally] been a very closed space, and I've been realising that there are so many people that love music, but they would like to understand how music is made and to have access to the place that music is created. 

We decided to implement this concept and to present a new vision on what these creative spaces could be, so we have a space where we can host up to 40 people. We also have been hosting some events for clients like Universal Music, where we had the pleasure to be the home for the release of the latest Beatles song, Now And Then.

How has Dolby Atmos taken off in Chile?

We are proudly the official partners for the Dolby Institute in Chile, so we are able to certify professionals in Dolby Atmos. This is our educational aspect of the studio. We can produce music, we can research and we can produce events, but now we can also teach and spread the word about this emerging technology. In the beginning, Atmos in Chile was a bit slower, then everyone started talking about Atmos. 

We still don't have cars [with integrated Atmos] here. In Chile, people are very interested in developing this concept. Now, everyone is talking about Atmos.

In the beginning, Atmos in Chile was a bit slower, then everyone started talking about it.

What are your views on how Dolby Atmos could transform the live music experience?

It's thoroughly our thing! One of the things we like to do is to bring these experiences live. I really think that this will open many opportunities for artists to create new concepts. Of course, we have massive stadiums and I've been getting feedback from artists and audiences about how much they love this more intimate experience. This technology gives us the opportunity to have a different experience. 

You have amazing venues coming out in different parts of the world, and it's totally the thing we like to do. We have been producing many [immersive] things in different countries and there are many more venues and theatres adopting these concepts so they can implement this to their shows. I think we're just starting and as the massive adoption keeps growing, this will become more like a requirement for artists that want to play in this kind of format.

The studio has a 7.1.4 Genelec The Ones set up. When did you first experience Genelecs?

The first time I listened to Genelec speakers, I fell in love. As I've been travelling all over, I didn't have a studio in one place. I was always working and producing in different studios. When I opened Omni Soundlab, I didn't have a doubt that I would like to have a Genelec system. Genelec is probably one of the best companies in the world, and not just because of the sound or the story they have. I had the pleasure to travel to Finland. They invited me to Iisalmi where they have their headquarters. 

It was really nice to see how things were made and to understand their technology from the inside. I realised how much love they put into the production. The guys over there are really forward-thinking – and not just to sell more speakers. It's their philosophy that they really want to make things better. And you can hear that with their products; the Genelecs are just so good. The technology is for people like me and it's so smart.

It's almost like you can touch or you can see the different layers of sound moving through space with Genelecs.

How have you been using the monitors?

We've been doing live installations with Genelec. Last year, we had an event at a cultural center where we brought this Genelec 8351B SAM studio monitor to this industrial abandoned space – very Berlin style. The space was huge – very high, lots of reverberation and resonance and stuff – which I love for live installations because you need to understand how to collaborate with this architecture; you can not fight against it, you will lose, probably! 

Genelec’s GLM calibration system is the best tool ever. You can just place a microphone in the sweet spot or in an area, so if you want to calibrate to create a sweet spot, but in a bigger space, in just a few minutes, you will have your whole system calibrated. You record this information directly to your speakers, and voila! That kind of thing, for us, is just magic. 

Back in the day, you would take a few hours to do something like this, and now with just a few clicks, you are ready to go. I was pretty impressed. It's almost like you can touch or you can see the different layers of sound moving through space. I had the luck to compare some different immersive audio systems, but with Genelec, it’s like they have an emotional sound, and I really love that.