What difference does Dolby Atmos make? Simon Todkill talks immersive audio

Simon Todkill, chief engineer at Miloco Studios, has spoken to Headliner about the company’s move into immersive audio, the impact of Dolby Atmos mixes and how the studios’ high-spec capabilities are “taking the artist’s vision further”.

A Grammy-nominated engineer, Todkill boasts a CV that is as stellar as it is eclectic. To date he has worked with an array of artists that includes the likes of Tion Wayne, Post Malone. The Horrors, the Lighthouse Family, Ghetts, Paloma Faith and many more. He has also worked on numerous TV and film projects over the course of his career, from which he has built a reputation not only as a revered master of his craft, but as something of an expert in surround sound mixes. This particular skillset, he says, is one that he has proved especially useful in recent months, with Miloco’s flagship mix room, The Red Room, undergoing a major overhaul to become one of the UK’s leading Dolby Atmos mixing rooms.

Based around an ATC speaker system in 7.1.4 configuration, with a Grace Designs M908 controller and Augspurger Duo-15” monitors with dual 18” subs, The Red Room officially became the UK’s first ATC-based Dolby Atmos mixing room this summer.

Meanwhile, its neighbouring room, The Bridge, also underwent a full refurb in order provide Dolby Atmos mixing, featuring a hybrid monitoring system of Genelec 8050APMs and Augspurger subs.

Over the past six months, Todkill has embarked on a variety of immersive audio projects across these high-end studios, enabling him to discover first-hand the true impact Dolby Atmos mixes can have on a record and the role such technology can play in evolving the vision of the artist. 

But what does the future hold for the format? The recent adoption of Atmos mixes by Apple Music and Amazon Music HD – as well as Tidal before them – would suggest that the uptake is on the rise, while the announcement that Dolby Atmos technology will now be available in top of the range Mercedes cars also points towards a growing appetite for a more premium listening experience.

So how long until Atmos mixes become the new standard? Headliner caught up with Todkill to talk Miloco Studios and all things immersive audio…

When did Miloco decide to take the plunge into immersive audio and Atmos mixing?

With immersive audio it’s become a serious thing for us over the last year or so, but particularly the past six months. We’ve been talking about what we wanted to do, as well as whether or not we even should be moving into immersive audio. But with the advancements we’ve seen with Apple Music and Amazon Music coming onboard, it was a no brainer to dive straight in.

As someone who was in surround sound before immersive audio with 5.1 and 7.1 mixing – things that would never translate to the general listener – it’s great to see those issues solved with high-quality streaming services providing Atmos for music fans. It’s accessible not just in a 7.1.4 or 5.1.2 set up, you can get it on your headphones or a sound bar. So, we started doing that about six months ago when we refurbished our flagship mix room, The Red Room, which was the first commercial ATC Atmos system in the country. Since then, we’ve gone straight on to fitting out The Bridge studio next door, which has an amazing new Genelec system.

What can you tell us about that Genelec system?

We wanted something that would complement The Red Room because the ATC room sounds phenomenal. The bottom end in there is the tightest bottom end I’ve heard in any studio. The Bridge is a slightly smaller room and we wanted something that could offer that same incredible bottom end, so we’re still using dual 15” Augspurger monitors as subs, but we also wanted a different sound to the Red Room, something that would work in a smaller space, and the Genelecs are perfect for that. It gives us the ability to have a larger session running in The Red Room and myself or another engineer can be working next door in The Bridge. This means we can double our output and take on all the projects we want.

You said you had discussions about whether to pursue the immersive route. What was it that tipped the balance for you?

Our goal is to take an artist’s vision and make it the best it can be, so the fans can enjoy it. So, 5.1 was great but you can’t listen to it on the tube, you can’t listen to it while you’re out running. Our discussions were around who is really listening to it? No one was really streaming it other than Tidal, but the acceleration really happened when Amazon HD and Apple Music announced they were going to do it. All of a sudden, a lot of people can really hear what we’re doing. It’s a tool for us to take an artist’s vision further. We want to get in there early and master the format so we can be delivering great quality mixes up with the best of them.

It's a tool to take the artist's vision further. Simon Todkill, chief engineer, Miloco Studios

Has there been a notable uptake for immersive audio? What has the response been like since the refurb?

Unanimously when people hear it in our rooms, they absolutely love it. Binaurally it’s 50-50 and that comes down to a number of factors; primarily, it’s about whether or not the mix was done well in the first place. The goal at the moment is making sure the Atmos mix is consistent with the stereo mix, that you’re not missing the intention of what was probably the approved version. It’s a different experience. But it’s getting better all the time. Someone recently said ‘the technology is currently the worst it’s ever going to be, and it’s already really good’!

What is it about the Red Room and The Bridge that makes them so well suited to immersive mixing?

We’ve always been in a situation where you come and listen to music in one of these rooms and it’s an incredible reference environment to make the decisions the client deserves. That’s always been the case, whether stereo or Atmos. The rooms are tailored to that pristine, beautiful, reference environment.

How does mixing in Atmos change your role as an engineer?

Currently, as part of doing an Atmos mix, you’re effectively mixing three versions of the mix as part of the song. The Atmos mix, which is the room, the 7.1.4 or whatever monitoring environment you’re in, will be played back on any speaker system. The other mix would be the binaural mix, where we can make adjustments purely on a binaural level to make things feel closer, further away, and maybe add slight volume changes. Then Apple have this slightly different version of the binaural render, which doesn’t pay attention to any of the binaural metadata that we include as part of the mix; it bases its encoding purely off the Atmos mix, which happens in the speaker. So, we do reference checks to see how our music is translating on Apple’s systems. Then we find a happy balance between all three to make sure it hits home the way it should.

How long does it take to become proficient in this type of mixing? Is there a period of education that is required before embarking on an immersive project, or can any engineer turn their hand to it provided they have the right tech spec?

It’s a bit of both. For me and another engineer at Miloco, Matt Lawrence, we both have a history in surround sound, so the idea of balancing sounds coming from every which way is familiar to us. If you have a history in surround sound you’ll probably find the transition to Atmos easier, because that concept of balancing sound in different spots is something you’ll be more familiar with.

However, I do think that anyone can do it with the right environment and speakers. Obviously, there is a financial hurdle, in that you’ll need to buy at least 12 speakers, you’ll need to calibrate the room, there are limiting factors. But anybody who can afford the investment and will put the effort into learning a system can do it. And if you have a history in 5.1 or 7.1 you’ll be a few steps ahead.

How do you calibrate the rooms for immersive mixes?

Calibration was something we spent a lot of time going over in our rooms. We’ve had the Dolby Atmos approvals done, so Dolby has come and calibrated the room, then we’ll sit and listen and move things around to improve things. The Red Room has been calibrated five or six times now. It’ll be done once, then we’ll decide we want to move the monitors, get it calibrated again, and so on. These minor changes ensure everything is working exactly as it should and that the rooms are the greatest they can be.

In The Bridge we are doing a hybrid calibration. We are using the Genelec GLM onboard calibration for EQ across the speakers, but we are using an Augspurger sub, which means we can’t use the Genelec GLM for bass management, so we are running an Avid Matrix Studio, which does the output and monitor control, so within that it has calibration and a bass management system.

What are some of the standout projects you’ve worked on featuring immersive audio?

There are a few that I’m really excited about but can’t discuss as they aren’t released yet. But we’ve had a lot of fun. We just finished Tion Wayne’s record Green With Envy, we did 16 of the 17 songs on that album. That album was mixed by three or four engineers, so the big challenge was that you can’t approach each song the same way. With every song we had to start from scratch to achieve a consistent sound across the record. I think we did a great job in ensuring the artist’s vision comes across. When I listen to that album, I can turn the Atmos on and off and it feels like the songs stays the same, you just get the little extra jump with Atmos.

What does the future hold for Atmos and immersive mixing? Is this increasing uptake for the format going to establish it as the new standard any time soon?

If or when Spotify comes on board that will accelerate things, but stereo is still the master. The reality is that in Atmos, the most popular version people will hear is the binaural, which is a form of stereo. That will be the most popular form for a long time. I think it’ll be a slow burn. It’s not going to be everything Atmos overnight because until all releases are done in Atmos and all providers are streaming in Atmos, it won’t completely take over.

Universal Records are investing heavily in it, so that will be key. Of course, people will then hear an extra 10% on a record and that will be crucial. Atmos just gives artists more to give the listener.

Cost is prohibitive at the moment from an engineer and studio perspective. Some people and some studios just don’t have the ability to invest that much in the technology. As technology evolves, cost comes down, so it’s not a matter of if but when they can afford it. Technology has always driven the music industry and driven creativity, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with this. It’s becoming more accessible all the time.

Last week, Mercedes announced that it was equipping some of its cars with Dolby Atmos. Would this be the only way to put immersive mixes through the famous ‘car test’?

This means every studio needs to buy a garage and put a Mercedes in there! We’ve all done it, you take a mix to another environment and feel completely deflated that your mix sounds awful, then you make the changes to make it work. The more accessible this is to everyone the better it is. The feel of a song and mix is always going to be there, whether mono, stereo, immersive. I’ve watched people cry after hearing music in The Red Room – not because it’s an emotional song, but just because of the ability to amplify what an artist is trying to say with sound. It can be overwhelming.