Svante Forsbäck on mixing Rammstein’s ‘Zeit’ in Dolby Atmos: "With that band bigger is always better”

Two-time Grammy nominated mix and mastering engineer – and owner of Chartmakers studio just outside of Helsinki – Svante Forsbäck, delves into the art of mastering and explains how he mixed and mastered Rammstein’s new album, Zeit in Dolby Atmos.

You upgraded your studio to Dolby Atmos recently. How does mastering for Atmos differ from mastering for stereo?

It's totally different because with Atmos, you can't use the basic tools and the basic principles that we always use in mastering. With Atmos, you don't have the two channel master bus that we do all the processing with. 

One Atmos master can be 20, 50 or 100 channels because of the objects, so we have had to find new techniques to process so many channels at the same time. 

Also, a lot of the good stuff coming out during normal stereo mastering is when you push your analogue chain and you drive your gear quite hot, then when you combine all your gear at the end, you get this really nice ‘glue’ and some small distortion, which sounds really analogue and soft and nice. But you can’t do that with Atmos because of the format.

Atmos is really good for mixing and mastering engineers because we had to find new ways of making sound, sound good. Also Atmos has a tight level specification. For example, an Atmos master has to be -18 LUFS, and that's pretty low compared to normal stereo masters that are usually around 10dB louder. If you send a master to Apple which is louder, it will be rejected.

So there's actually no way you can really achieve this level of normalisation, which I think is really good, actually, because it makes music breathe and is very dynamic. It's still a learning process for everybody and I'm really glad that the format is here and we have the platforms to stream those.

The hardest thing is to know when you shouldn't do anything. It takes some guts to send back a master file which sounds almost exactly the same as the mix.

You mastered and mixed Rammstein’s 2022 album, Zeit in Dolby Atmos. How did you approach the Atmos mix and mastering process?

It wasn't easy! Rammstein works very well in stereo, because you really need the glue and the punch so that everything is really tied in together, so when you are kind of tearing that apart and doing some surrounds of that, it's not easy to keep the good parts in stereo and then add some immersive surrounds at the same time.

It took a while for me to get it to work; of course I had to keep the basic drums and bass guitar at the front, but then you could really get some nice flavours with some extra guitars, keyboards and choirs and stuff like that from the surround channels. 

I think it turned out really well. It still sounds like Rammstein, but just bigger and of course with that band, bigger is always better.

If you talk about industrial heavy metal, it's maybe not what you would think would be great for Atmos.

Rammstein have got a very distinctive sound and are renowned for being one of the first bands to emerge within the Neue Deutsche Härte genre. Would you say the new album is the typical Rammstein sound?

The typical Rammstein sound for many people is Du hast, but of course it has become more modern. I think [Zeit] is quite typical [of their sound]. It's interesting because if you talk about industrial heavy metal, it's maybe not what you would think would be great for Atmos. But it turned out really well. 

The interesting thing with this project was that they actually did this screening in movie theatres all around the world one day before the album was released – it was a Dolby Atmos experience. 

That was a really brilliant use of the Atmos format – to actually present it in movie theatres. It’s a great way to show it to people that can't normally experience it, because there's not a lot of people who actually have 13 speakers at home!

It still sounds like Rammstein, but just bigger and of course with that band, bigger is always better.

Given your job as a mastering engineer and mixer, what is your view of the way Spotify compresses tracks, and therefore strips out the finer details of a mix?

I think the level of normalisation on the streaming platforms has helped because now we can’t actually hide behind loud masters, because the level normalisation will turn it down. When the tracks are played you can really hear which tracks are good mixes and have good mastering, so I think that's helped in that it makes people more more conscious about good sound.

I think Spotify – especially if you're a premium subscriber, is not bad at all – I think it sounds so so. And the degradation, especially if it's a good master, I think for the moment, it's nothing to worry about because it actually doesn't change the dynamics and it doesn't limit or compress.

we can’t hide behind loud masters with streaming because the level normalisation will turn it down.

Does your mixing and mastering process have to adapt to compensate for these compression issues on certain streaming services?

What we tend to do, almost automatically, is we compensate a little bit for the loss of some resolution in the high frequencies at the mastering stage, because there's a small degradation. 

When it's played on Spotify, it gets a bit more dull and a bit darker, and you lose a little stereo image. If I have done two masters, and one is wider than the other, then I usually choose the wider one, because I know it's gonna be a bit more narrow when played on Spotify.

Mastering engineers often say that the goal isn’t necessarily to make anything sound different, and that’s the part people find hardest to understand about mastering. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I think that's the hardest thing in mastering. I think that's what a lot of new mastering engineers do wrong – they tend to do way too many changes to the mixes. The hardest thing is to know when you shouldn't do anything. It takes some guts to send back a master file which sounds almost exactly the same as the mix.

It's really hard to know when you're done or, as I said, to know when you shouldn't really do anything – especially with some bigger bands and major mixing engineers, you really have to listen carefully to the mixes and analyse what they're looking for.

It makes life so much easier to have Genelec's GLM software taking care of everything.

Perfect mastering is of course down to technique and skills, and the tech you’re using is crucial in this process. What technology in your studio is essential for your work?

I use the Genelec 8331As from The Ones series. It's a really good-sounding speaker. Their GLM software is great for delays and phasing using the DSP functionality. It turns out really nicely and it makes life so much easier to have the GLM software taking care of all of that. 

The DSP auto-tuning is a really good thing, and I mainly use that for getting the distance and the phasing right, and then I actually like to do a lot of calibration manually. I also like the auto calibration though – I do a separate preset for manual calibration. They’re really great speakers for doing Atmos work. They’re fantastic.

What is it about the Genelecs that suits your mastering; particularly your Atmos work?

The Ones are really transparent and the low mids and the highs are very revealing. The stereo imaging is something that I think that they changed with The Ones – something they did with the treble on the mids blends together in a much nicer way now than they did before. It feels right from the beginning.