Inside Working Title Recording Studios: The Rise of Dolby Atmos

Working Title Recording Studios was founded by Forrest Lawrence who previously owned Studio Circle Recordings and was the house engineer at the now defunct Annex Recording Studios for 11 years. Assisted by Kenny Kaiser, FOH mixer for The Killers, the studio was transformed into a Dolby Atmos facility during the pandemic. The duo reflect on the rise of Dolby Atmos, working with The Killers, and how to approach immersive mixing.

What are you both working on today?

FL: I'm here at Working Title Recording Studios in San Mateo, California getting ready to start cutting up some podcasts, re-mixing some songs from the previous week and diving into some Atmos stuff for the next week.

KK: I'm in a hotel as we're in production rehearsals for The Killers for their delayed tour of Imploding The Mirage. We did the Atmos mix of their album, Pressure Machine, at our studio, so we had them in a couple of months ago. They're working on new stuff right now, so there's possibly going to be some more stuff hitting us pretty soon…

How did you both meet and start working together?

KK: We've known each other for 20 years. He used to have an old recording studio in the Bay area that was actually kind of legendary, called the Annex. We were big fans of the hardcore scene in the Bay Area – that metal scene and punk scene. 

He was in a band and I was in a band, and our bands played with each other at shows. We've had a longstanding relationship of working on other projects and coming in and tracking stuff at the old studio. When Forrest moved to this studio I still kept in contact with him. I would come over and help out whenever I could. Then the pandemic hit and I was like, ‘Hey, man. I'm bored. Help me out’. Forrest said, 'Perfect. Let's do this!’

FL: Ken has travelled the world 50 times with 50 bands at this point, and I've had 50,000 artists come walking through a studio door at some point. 

Basically, since the pandemic started, we're now tag-teaming this, so if he's got a session he needs to bring in, the studio is ready to go, or if he's out on the road he can toss it to me – so we've got the home base covered.

When did you decide to create Working Title Recording Studios?

FL: I was at Annex for about 11 years and unfortunately, the building got acquired by a little company called Facebook, so that had me bouncing around some studios in San Francisco, which are no longer in existence. 

I bounced around until I found this facility that was mostly completed in San Mateo. I went in there and said, ‘Hey, if I can finish this place up, I'll run my business through this spot’. I cut a deal with the guy who owned the building who had kind of given up on it because he didn't know what to do with it, and finished it up. 

I've been cleaning it up ever since, and that's now coming up on about 10 years as well. So now it's really where I wanted it to be, and thanks to Ken for helping to put some lipstick on that pig!

Artists now know they can have an Atmos mix of their album, so why not live as well? Kenny Kaiser

When did you start with The Killers, and what are the technical challenges that come with working at FOH when touring with them?

KK: Since their Battle Born album. The guys are cool – everyone in that band is super rad and down to earth. The big challenge with touring in general is trying to make it sound the same every single day. 

The Killers do festivals (no acoustics), to arenas (heavy acoustics), to the UK stadiums (extreme acoustics), to clubs (shitty acoustics), so it's trying to get the same sound everywhere you go.

It's been so long since actually doing a tour, so we’re focusing on logistics and getting everything together and getting back in the swing of things. They released two albums during the pandemic and they haven't really played them live! So they're trying to figure out what songs work, and are getting ready for the UK stadium run pretty soon.

What key things have you learnt along the way about working in studios?

FL: You've got to learn to work with different types of producers – some want to be hands on, some want to be hands off. You’ve got to work with talent – some thrive with direction, some despise direction. 

As an engineer, you're in the middle of it. It's not necessarily your baby, but you're the one who's taking care of it at the time. You’ve got to do what's going to serve the project and everyone involved as best as possible, because it will leave the studio and will have a life of its own. But at the time you're the one who has to facilitate things moving forward.

Also, if there is no producer and you have to step in as the producer, be prepared to take the brunt of the direction from the higher ups if they don't like it, and then remind them that they should have hired a producer or paid you more! That's a good lesson.

KK: Also, knowing where to spend your money is important. We've had that conversation a bunch, too.

FL: Totally, yes. You have to weigh things up like, ‘I want this piece of gear, but am I really going to use it a lot? Are clients going to want to use it a lot? What is its depreciation value? Where are we going to put it?’ 

You really have to start thinking about what you're catering to; you don't want to get lost in trying to become a music store – you're not Guitar Center and you can't own all the gear, but you can own what's going to make your building and facility unique or efficient.

You can't own all the gear, but you can own what's going to make your building and facility unique or efficient. Forrest Lawrence

The studio now offers Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 mixing capabilities. Had you wanted to upgrade to an immersive set up for a while?

Yeah, it was a long time coming, and it was hard work. But it was worth it. It's picking up and it’s finally getting its wings.

FL: I have a friend who works at Dolby and he would tell us for years, ‘This is awesome. This is so cool. This is the way it's gonna be’. I kind of went, ‘Yeah, yeah; I've ridden the surround ride many times and have seen how cumbersome the production can be, how it doesn't translate to other formats easily, how it's tough to sell it to clients… I always felt surround was a tough sell. It's wildly fun, but it's also a lot of work because the formats were tricky to translate between each other.

But then I started to hear more and more about it. I started to see movie theatres adopting it, then TV and movie broadcasts – it was starting to rear its head. That's about the same time that Dolby started to make a push for getting this technology into studios – then you know people will start using it and hearing it. 

That's about the same time that all of a sudden we had some time on our hands. We really dug into it and realised that this is a game-changer. This actually makes the translating between rooms, facilities, playback setups, folding down mixes and expanding mixes a game-changer. 

That's when I went, ‘I can sell this to clients. I can do this work and not find myself tearing my hair out. This is the direction it's going to go. Let's get in early. Let's get in now’. Now we're one of the few places in the Bay area that has a fully functional Atmos room.

Focusrite put their flag down first in the ground with this Dante stuff. Kenny Kaiser

You invested in Martin Audio speakers to complete the studio's Atmos 7.1.4 setup along with a Focusrite RedNet A16R 16-channel analogue interface for Dante networks. Why?

FL: We basically made a giant shopping list of what we would need and then got those things!

KK: I've been touring with Martin Audio since the start of working with Selena Gomez, so I've known their boxes for over 10 years now. I love it. It's great stuff.  The spec that Dolby gives for Atmos was based on level (db) – not tonal. 

Not only do Martin Audio products sound great, but the amps are Dante-ready. They are some of the most flat/phase correct speakers on the market. Also, the amps being Dante-enabled it means less hardware and conversion, so it's more of a pure sound from the DAW to the speaker. 

The speaker configuration we have for the Atmos setup is a 7.1.4 Martin Audio system as follows: CDD 8s as main left and right, CDD6.5s for the centre, mid and rear surrounds, ACS-55T ceiling speakers as overheads and SX212 subs – all powered by Martin Audio iKON IK81 amps.

Usually all the time we're constrained by money, let's be honest. So we knew the protocol was either going to be MADI or Dante. I said, ‘Why don't we go Dante? Then we don't have to spend all the money on copper’.

As for the RedNet A16R, these do all of our conversion for our analogue gear into our DAW. It's a rad box. I have two out on tour right now with The Killers doing the same thing. They’re bulletproof and sound great.

I just absolutely love the A16R; I've never had an issue with it. When you’re touring, you're moving stuff in and out of venues and it goes in the back of trucks. If you've ever been over in the Midwest near Michigan or Virginia, the roads are terrible and the gear gets bumped around. 

I can't tell you how many analogue vintage pieces of gear break down, but I've never had an issue with those units, so that was the reason why I pushed towards that. Obviously, there are other manufacturers out there that are jumping on the bandwagon now, but Focusrite put their flag down first in the ground with this Dante stuff.

When we were looking at mic pres for the studio I mentioned to Forrest about Dante mic pres. Obviously we have analogue gear that we know and love and still want to use in the studio. That is where the A16Rs come into play, but we also wanted some Swiss Army knives that sound amazing and work really well for our new multi-room workflow.

FL: Focusrite has always been there, ever since I entered the audio game, and it was always the prized gear in any facility I went into. It was always the floater gear in a lot of studios, meaning gear that isn't assigned to one room that you would usually have in a rack, so it can move around. 

You would have so many people going, ‘I want to use that,’ and if you tied it into a room, then that room would just get tied up. So it was actually an easy sell when we were making that giant shopping list of what we wanted for our dream room to be. 

Ken was like, ‘Hey, I've been using this box. It's bulletproof. It gives us all the ins and outs we need’. I went, ‘No brainer: Focusrite, Let's do it!’

We're one of the few places in the Bay area that has a fully functional Atmos room. Forrest Lawrence

KK: I told Forrest about these [Focusrite] MP8R mic pres too, and that we should put them in a roaming case. The beauty of it is we can put 16 channels in any room that we feel like for whatever session we are working on: 16 channels outside in the loading dock area, 16 channels in the front room, 16 channels across the street in the parking lot if we really wanted to. With no walking back and forth to adjust gain. Everything we need is on the computer with the RedNet controller.

I have one of those units in my system rack that I use for all my RTA mics - real-time analysing mics. I put up eight of these microphones in the room to see what the room’s doing. 

The one thing I noticed about the MP8R is it's clinical: what you put into that pre is what you’re actually hearing. It was one of those things where now that all three of our rooms are Dante-enabled, we can literally take that unit and move it wherever we need it. So we can go put it in the parking lot if we want to and track aeroplanes flying over, or whatever we need to do!

FL: The MP8Rs are a godsend because you can put them anywhere: they’re super clean, super low noise, and then the flexibility of it being Dante is I don't have to run a snake. For instance, if someone wants to put the drums in a weird spot in the back warehouse, I'm not leaving doors open and running giant 80-foot XLR snakes to and fro, and headphones back and forth for playback. Instead, it's 'boom! I set this thing down; I give it power; I put Dante into it; and I move the entire live room wherever I want it to be’.

What do you think the future of Atmos looks like for music and live mixing scenarios?

FL: At this point, I think people are still coming up to speed with it. We've had a couple of engineers come in just because they haven't heard it, and these are engineers who've been around for a million years! 

Everyone we've had come in is just blown away, and that's kind of the point. We’re putting ourselves on the map by saying, ‘Hey! If you want to do it, this is the place to do it’.

KK: And vice versa, going back to the live stuff. Dolby has made a very large push with facilities like Dolby Live at Park MGM in Vegas, which is rad. So now their live engineers have the option of doing a mix in Atmos as well. 

Artists now know they can have an Atmos mix of their album, so why not live as well? This is the continuous circle of arts, music, studio and live, and working out how to transfer that studio recording into a live element. It's getting tighter and tighter.

One guy started crying and left the room. He'd never heard music that well in his life. Forrest Lawrence

How do you as a FOH engineer feel about adapting to a new way of live mixing? Is it daunting?

KK: I'll take the punches as they come. Mike Tyson had that great quote: ‘Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth’. 

After the pandemic and after it pretty much completely decimated the live entertainment world, if an artist wants to take out an Atmos rig, and that hires an extra three or four people to come out and work and set up the system and work the tour, by all means let's do it. Let's get everyone back to work and start getting the ball rolling again.

FL: It also changes the game not only in terms of studio and live, but it's something to come back to in a romantic sense of, live went away for a while, and even studio went away for a while. 

After doing everything remotely, it’s bringing it back to the studio and going, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come into the studio; you’ve got to hear it here’. It's an amazing experience to hear it in person, and the same thing with live – it's a game-changer in terms of, we're not going to go back to stereo. It’s giving people a reason to see what they missed.

KK: We’ve got a couple of demo tracks that we play when we bring people in, and me and Forrest have a tally mark of how many people we actually made cry. 

If you have never experienced it, especially from an artist standpoint, you're gonna have to rewrite all your songs – it's crazy! It gives people goosebumps. Forrest played Elton John’s Rocket Man to some big, hairy metal dude and made him cry.

FL: That’s true. Sometimes there'll be a band working in the adjoining control room and the engineer will pop in and say the band wants to hear Atmos, so I’ll put on a quick dog and pony show for them. 

I had a band come in which was all long haired dudes covered in tattoos on their face, and I start playing Elton John. In theory, you would think, ‘This isn't gonna go well. This isn't metal’. But one guy started crying and left the room. He'd never heard music that well in his life. He'd never heard things that clear.

It just blew his mind, and that's the direction it's going in, because it's Dolby and they've got that reach. They've got that ability to get their chips into every TV, every car, every movie, theatre, phone, whatever it is, and so that reach is getting wider and wider. 

If I play something in Atmos for someone and then we switch back to doing something in stereo, they're sad! They're instantly dejected and bummed because it's like going back to black and white TV. It's starting to really take off and we're not going to go backwards. It's exciting to be at the front of it and using awesome gear like Focusrite’s to put it all together.