Rob Burrell on Dolby Atmos & 'kind of' mixing Bono: "I've always been in this for the long game"

Rob Burrell listens to Christmas songs all year round, but don’t hold that against him – he’s engineered and/or mixed four Grammy Award winning and 14 Grammy nominated albums, so he’s more than earned the right to feel festive all year round.

Burrell knew he wanted to be a professional singer when he was just five years old, and pursued that passion all the way up to college where he was a vocal performance major. A self confessed “tech nerd,” he began to mess around with production, which piqued the interest of one of his professors.

“He invited me to go to a vocal session that he was producing for a record he was making, so I went with him that night,” he recalls, smiling at the memory. 

“It will always stick in my mind: I walked into Acme Recording Studio in New York and was greeted by platinum albums from Whitney Houston, The Spin Doctors – Pocket Full of Kryptonite was blowing up the radio at the time – and I was completely enamoured. 

"I'd never been in a studio in my life. I grew up in a little paper mill town in Maine, so I really had no idea! I realised that night that a blend of musicality and technology is what you need to achieve feeling, emotion and texture on a record. Everything changed for me; after 19 years of wanting to be a singer, I said, ‘I'm going to be a producer’.”

His first Platinum Album came from the first assisting gig he landed (and all while he was still in school), and the first Grammy win arrived in 2000 for his part in a Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir record. 

While that achievement (not to mention subsequent Grammy wins alongside multiple Platinum, Gold and Billboard 200 charting albums) certainly flagged him as one to watch, he shares that it made some assume he was too busy to take on new work.

“One of my favourite Hollywood sound designers who won an Oscar said someone said to him, ‘Your phone must be blowing up,’ and he said, ‘Actually, nobody's calling me for anything because people assume that if you have won an Oscar, you're either too expensive or too busy!’ 

"Thankfully, that wasn't the case with me, but I would call my career a slow burn,” he considers.

“I like that because I've always been in this for the long game; I wanted it to be a lifelong career. I've seen a few people skyrocket to the top in popularity in terms of volume of work, and I've seen them burn out from exhaustion because they were the flavour of the month. But then all of a sudden, what they bring to the table is not as exciting to people and they move on to someone else. 

"I've positioned myself by working in very diverse genres, and by learning and honing my craft continually, and it's been a steady flow of work – enough to support a family – and I enjoy what I do,” he smiles. “I don't want to ever retire. Once a musician, always a musician; this is what I was made to do.”

I don't want tech to inform my musical soul. I want tech to help me interpret my musical soul and desires.

The number of artists he has worked with is impressive, and includes working with Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, and he says, “kind of” mixing for Bono.

“I did a Christmas record with an artist named Michael W. Smith, who I've made many records with in my career,” he explains. 

“It was a collaboration with a lot of different artists, and Michael is good friends with Bono. He approached him, but a vocal duet was not on the table for a lot of business reasons, so what Michael and Bono talked about was, what if Michael writes a beautiful underscore and Bono recites a traditional Irish Christmas poem over the top of it? 

"Bono did it and I got to mix it. So I have mixed Bono's voice, but it's not him singing on a record,” he clarifies, laughing – adding that an added bonus for him was being a part of a Christmas record.

“I listen to Christmas music all year round,” he grins. “Christmas records have altered my career and I love Christmas music. There's just something about it. I'm kind of like a kid at Christmas every day when I wake up. 

"I just truly love music and love what I do, but Christmas music…” he trails off, “it's the nostalgia, it's the production…everything about it just floors me. So yeah, it is not uncommon for a little Nat King Cole to pop on my speakers some morning in May, just because!”

When he’s not listening to festive tunes, you’ll mostly find Burrell in the studio working on mix projects for independent artists.

There is so much talent out there, and yet, they don't have the budgets that labels have,” he sighs. “Being able to know how to milk a small budget and get every penny out of it was a skill I had to learn very quickly. 

"I work with independent artists all over the world; once I mixed a duet with a very well known Spanish artist, and I have to admit, at the time I didn't know that he carried the clout that he did. I just met him at the recording, he loved the mix and said, ‘Hey, I'm mixing a record; will you do it?’ So I mixed my first record in Spanish and he was really big in that market. 

"I started getting calls from South America, Latin America; I've got clients in Brazil, clients coming in from Spain and Portugal, and all of a sudden, it became global! It was all from that one artist, and to this day I'm working for people all over the globe. It just doesn't stop and I'm so grateful for that.”

A blend of musicality and technology is what you need to achieve feeling, emotion and texture on a record.

Burrell has spent 28 years as a professional engineer, and has the home studio to prove it. His Dolby Atmos room is in the basement of his house – “I am pretty pleased with the space and also the commute, since it's a flight of stairs” – and says this is his favourite-sounding home studio he’s ever had.

“I was able to begin my career in the heyday of the music business when there was a lot of money and everything was commercial studios – home studios were very rare,” he points out.

“Working in million dollar control rooms every day was the norm, which helped me be very well informed of what a great-sounding control room should sound like.”

He converted the room to Atmos three years ago after years of keeping his eye on the rapid progress the format was making.

My setup has been a surround setup since the early 2000s, and when I heard about Dolby Atmos for cinema back in 2013, I was chomping at the bit to figure out how I could put this in my studio; I knew this is going to be next level. When Dolby released that possibility, I knew I had to be a part of it.

“I have always used technology to enhance the musical experience,” he continues, on a roll now. 

“I don't want tech to inform my musical soul. I want tech to help me interpret my musical soul and desires, so it's very important that that technology melts away and lets me create great art. I really do believe that Atmos is here to stay; I think that this is going to be the norm moving forward,” he says, suddenly remembering an artist that visited his studio recently that had never experienced Atmos before.

“He had heard about it, but that was it. He listened to his first mix that I had done and he turned around and his jaw was just open. He said, ‘I am literally sitting here making my next record in my head with this in mind’.”

It is not uncommon for a little Nat King Cole to pop on my speakers in May, just because!

Burrell knows a thing or two about the best kit for his studio space, and helping his Atmos mixes sound pristine is an arsenal of Focusrite gear, including a Red 16Line Thunderbolt interface with a RedNet R1 desktop remote to control it, an A16R AD/DA converter, a RedNet X2P desktop interface, and a RedNet AM2 monitor and headphone amplifier, all connected to a single Audio-over-IP network via Dante. In terms of mic pres, he’s always got his ISA 828 MkII and ISA Ones handy, which also connect to the Dante network via digital option cards.

“Focusrite has had my heart from the beginning of my career,” he enthuses. 

“Every engineer has their preferences – they're crayons in the Crayola box of 128, but as a kid, I had three or four colours that were my favourites! Focusrite has always helped me better achieve the sound that was in my head. To me, Focusrite sounds like a record – the way it polishes and shapes, tonally is what's always captivated me.

“My experience with Focusrite goes back literally 28 years, and you'll have to pry them from my cold dead hands,” he adds, chuckling.

“Prior to the Atmos upgrade, I didn't have any Dante gear, but Atmos was exactly the time to do that, so I got the 16Line interface to test on my Pro Tools rig. A couple of things happened immediately: one is I was floored by how great it sounded – both on the D/As for playback and the converters for recording. 

"It was just absolutely stellar-sounding. That was a wonderful treat to put my ears on it and hear it that way. The other thing was how elegantly, smoothly and solidly it integrated with Pro Tools – zero issues as far as communication and set up.”

Being able to know how to milk a small budget and get every penny out of it was a skill I had to learn very quickly.

He immediately knew that it would become the Dante hub for his new Atmos room, reiterating that he is most creative when the technology doesn’t obstruct the creative process:

“As much as I love gear, my requirement is that I can absolutely forget that it exists,” he nods.

“I don't want it to draw attention to itself. When I'm in the zone creating, I don't want to be taken out of it. These Focusrite interfaces are an important part of that success to allow me to be able to fluidly create with sonic excellence with all the flexibility I need, but never get in my way and distract me. That was the genesis of it.

“From there I added the AM2 headphone box and the X2P, and I use that for all kinds of different things within my studio. It's always set up as a headphone box for myself or clients, but I can easily do a quick capture if I have to. I can use it for an alternate control room volume for a separate set of speakers, so I can move it into another room if someone wants to work and listen. 

"It has great flexibility, and so much of that is because of the Dante network in that, if you can dream it up, you can pull it off. The A16R was to further expand on the 16Line; it gives me an additional 16 analogue ins and outs that allows me to connect outboard analogue gear and it allows me to hook up my summing mixer for when I'm mixing in stereo and in Atmos. 

"It's all digital, all in the box. I still use analogue summing and equipment on mixes when I feel necessary though, so that allows me to have everything up and ready to go at all times.”

Focusrite interfaces allow me to fluidly create with sonic excellence with all the flexibility I need, but never get in my way and distract me.

He finishes with a final shoutout to his Focusrite preamps, which he takes everywhere when he’s working.

“I've got an ISA 828 MkII and two ISA Ones, which go with me wherever I go whenever I’m tracking,” he nods. “I don't track much at my studio anymore, I prefer to go out for that and let this be the mix place. 

"I've had cases where sometimes a consistent sonic stamp across everything on a record can be great, and then there's other times when it can shoot you in the foot because that character and stamp kind of builds up across all these tracks. Then maybe you have to figure out how to remove a little bit of that character if it's a little heavy handed. 

"My experience with Focusrite is that you can just keep adding more and more of its sound to elements and they never get in the way of each other. Everything stays clear and uncluttered, and it's just kind of posh-sounding, honestly.

“I like big, expensive-sounding records,” he considers. “To me that's part of the hugeness of making a record; I like things that are very clear and open, top to bottom and front to back, and the Focusrite units help me get there, unequivocally. That is my love affair with them!”