Gatwick Production Studios on taking Dolby Atmos from the studio to live arenas: “It’s a whole new ballgame”

Gatwick Production Studios is located just 8 minutes from Gatwick Airport. The jewel in the facility’s crown is its Treehouse studio – a certified Gold Class Genelec mix and mastering facility that Dolby called the highest spec room built in the UK to date.

Gatwick Production Studios’ owner and producer Brandon Knights, technical director and Atmos engineer Simon Ryder, and engineer and in-house producer Zach Smithson explain what makes their Dolby Atmos studio Gold Class, how Atmos has changed their workflow, and reveal their live arena immersive audio plans.

Dolby no longer require you to hit the guidelines because literally nobody ever did – until they visited us.

Treehouse studio is focussed mainly on Dolby Atmos mixing and mastering, with some stereo mastering and video post-production projects alongside. Was it designed from the ground up with Atmos in mind from the start?

SR: We literally built our mix and mastering suite from scratch. We didn't even have a room that we had to fit it into! I looked at Dolby's guide and the targets they wanted to achieve, and we literally designed the studio according to those parameters right from the very start.

Everything they list as the gold standard was something we absolutely had to do, from the acoustic treatment, to the frequency response of the room, the reverberation times, to the physical dimensions of the room and the SPL levels that we have to hit and sustain. We designed the room around our Genelec monitoring system and we actually altered the room dimensions to fit the speakers. So we're a very unique place.

Dolby still has those guidelines, but they no longer require you to actually hit them for them to sign off, because literally nobody ever did – until they visited us. Their jaws hit the deck.

ZS: It just shows when other people come in as well. It's a great looking studio and everything, but once the sound comes out those speakers, I just love seeing people's faces as they go, “Wow!” It's incredible.

BK: It's lovely to take original music and stems and do a beautiful Atmos mix, but it's also lovely to work with artists and get them down here to demonstrate the room so they can really appreciate what's involved. It can be very inspiring when you see the penny drop when you're playing it to someone who's never heard a system like this before. It can alter the way they compose music, and we're very much into that, and trying to help younger artists as well. We have a more personal approach to the whole creative process.

Everyone's learning and figuring out what we're doing with Atmos. It's not a science.

How have you adapted to immersive mixes?

ZS: It's definitely been a steep learning curve, even just getting back to having to do two mixes at once and going back and forth. But just having the client there gives us the green light to try different things and be a little bit less tied down to the stereo version that's already been done.

Sometimes you hear Atmos mixes on Apple Music and they're a little bit disappointing. Obviously, they're great mixes, but in terms of the possibility of the system, you're hoping for more. Everyone's learning and figuring out what we're doing with Atmos though. It's not a science.

We designed the room to fit the genelec monitors, as much as choosing their monitors to fit our studio.

Dolby's requirements for Atmos certification are notoriously high. Why did you choose Genelec monitors for your immersive studio?

SR: My background is I've been teaching phase alignments for many years. I very much wanted to stick with one manufacturer with a completely phased aligned product line that would work in unison with each other. So I needed to find a manufacturer who actually did that level of R&D on their products and had that as a philosophy because actually, you'd be surprised, very few do. That was the first step.

The second one was finding somebody who had a product line that ticked our parameters of frequency response. We decided very early on that we did not want to use bass management in the studio because everything below 80 Hz gets fed into the LFP sub, which of course creates a time smear. So suddenly, you've got the low end from your rear upper height speaker suddenly coming out of the sub in front of you and it creates a big timing error.

With the Genelecs we've managed to keep the distortion at full reference level – literally below 1% total harmonic distortion.

With the Genelecs we've managed to keep the distortion in the studio at full reference level – literally below 1% total harmonic distortion from the sub to literally all the way up. Our frequency response in that studio is crazy – it's 15 Hz all the way up to about 45 kHz and it's really flat. We came to Genelec because they'd really put the time and the effort and the R&D to get those distortion figures low enough for us. Also they had products that were physically small enough as well.

We’re using 8351s and W371A subs that drop to 25 Hz. We're able to hit and exceed that frequency response criteria. Dolby says you should have a 40 Hz extension out of every single speaker, and we're measuring something like 33 out of 100 speakers, it's pretty crazy – and with no level drop. You literally get to hear everything, exactly where it should be, in perfect phase if you're linking between speakers – there's no dips, there's no issues as you pan from one speaker to another.

We chose Genelec and then worked the room dimensions with their product line as well. We designed the room to fit their monitors, as much as choosing their monitors to fit our studio.

We're sound system people really. it will be lovely to come full circle and do immersive mixing on a huge scale.

What are your thoughts on the future of immersive mixes in a live arena setting?

SR: More and more companies are looking at the commercial side, which is a little sideline of ours for immersive experiences – being able to compose with spatial, immersive, Dolby Atmos, (or whatever you want to call it!) is a whole new ballgame.

Suddenly all the PA manufacturers are now releasing their own immersive technologies that will either read Dolby Atmos files or will work alongside them in a similar manner. With our live backgrounds, we're very much starting to position ourselves to work with these PA firms on custom compositions, and working with their existing artists to fine tune what they do in an absolutely world class surround mix studio to bridge our two worlds. We've done the studio side, and we’re trying to bridge back into the live world as well.

BK: We're sound system people really. It's been a journey, but it will be lovely to come full circle and do immersive mixing on a huge scale. We're loving the content creation part because we've got one of the best Dolby Atmos mix studios – the room is something else.

To come full circle is what we'd love to be doing. The main plan is talking to these PA companies. I was just in a meeting with one of the leading manufacturers to be able to bring this whole thing live. Historically, whenever we've tried to do anything, or anyone else has tried to do anything, there's been no content to play on anything…

SR: Obviously Atmos is being pushed out on streaming services and you've got all the synchronisation possibilities for film because suddenly they're already in Atmos so they don't have to have it remix it to make it work in their movie – they can literally just take it straight off the shelf and put it straight into the film soundtrack. So the ability to then push that out into live…. suddenly, artists actually have somewhere somewhere to go with it. Basically, they've actually got a financial return for their effort.

being able to compose with Dolby Atmos is a whole new ballgame.

BK: The top three PA companies have developed their own systems, and I'm very happy to say from the meeting we just had, our Atmos mix dropped in fairly seamlessly with this one particular brand’s processes.

We want to be experimenting with a 3,000 capacity Big Top in the spring, and we've got an area to do that. Imagine a big name DJ and during his hour-long set, three of the tracks are mixed immersively, and there's the system there to support that. That's the way it's going, and the PA companies obviously realise this because Atmos works with their systems, so it's very exciting.

We've got the studio now, and that was another big incentive because no one had any content before. Being in the sound system business for all these years, we're really good friends with some well known DJs, producers and artists, and now they've got a place where we can take existing tracks or new tracks. We're spending quite a lot of time and researching that at the moment.

For the full podcast discussion, listen below.