All About Atmos – a guide for MEs. Part 2

Seemingly out of nowhere, Atmos has become one of the most talked about formats. But if you haven’t worked in film audio, or have been burnt previously by investing in surround for audio, it can seem all a bit bewildering. 

In Part 1, we looked at Atmos Basics. In this part, we’re looking at what an ME can do with Atmos.


This is part 2. Click on the links to go straight to the other parts, or keep on reading 🙂

About Atmos -Part 1 : Atmos basics

  • What is it and how does it work?
  • Beds and objects
  • Atmos, 7.1, 5.1, Stereo and binaural
  • How do you master an Atmos mix?

About Atmos -Part 2 : What is the role of a ME in an Atmos mix?

  • Music or Video?
  • Stem mastering
  • ITB or Analogue chains
  • Back to school

About Atmos -Part 3 : Setting up an Atmos room

  • Rooms & Speakers
  • DAWs and other kit
  • Monitoring

About Atmos -Part 4 : Integrating a stereo room with Atmos

  • What to think about
  • Crookwood solutions

Part 2 : What is the role of an ME in an Atmos mix?

In part 1, we looked at the basics of an Atmos mix.  In this part, we look at what an ME should or could do with Atmos.  Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should!

Atmos muddies the water

Time was, there was a nice delineation between the roles of a recording, mixing and mastering engineers.  Their room design also reflected this, as well as the tools they used.

These lines have already started to merge, but Atmos basically joins mixing to mastering, because you can’t master an Atmos mix, like you can master a stereo mix.

This leaves a ME in a tricky position.  Do you:

  • Say no to Atmos and continue to just master Stereo, Vinyl etc?
  • Embrace Atmos and compete for film work too?
  • Work in a hybrid model, pre mastering stereo stems and possibly mixing stems in Atmos as well as doing trad mastering for stereo?

I think the best position is the last one, as it leaves you to move between camps as the world changes.

Music or Video?

Unless you want to work with other media, as a ME you’ll want to concentrate on music, as opposed to audio.  By all means you can master a stereo audio stem for a film, but otherwise this means that you won’t be working on:

  • Films
  • Broadcast
  • Post
  • Games
  • Installations
  • Live

Instead, you’ll be concentrating on recorded music. The key thing with music is that it exists solely in the ears of the recipient, and doesn’t rely on any video input via your eyes to reference it.  It has to exist and excite or move us all by itself.  And unless it’s experimental or trying to impress, it won’t have a lot/any active panning of audio sources in it – we want to either concentrate on the music, or have it as background, not be distracted by it.

YouTube

So, here’s an interesting variable – the music video.  In theory as these are designed to attract attention, and the primary focus is on the screen, with ears coming second.  However, played on a multimedia TV, or on a set of headphones, 3D manipulation of audio can add to the performance.  Will you be mastering this type of work?

Super stem mastering

Traditionally the artist would have recorded and mixed it, and you would have been presented with a stereo mix master for you to make the production master from.  Your stereo processing tools would work perfectly with the mix, and ultimately, you’d be tweaking an established mix and balance of instruments, applying an overall feel to the mix.

Stem mastering, added two further abilities:

  1. You could adjust the dynamics and EQ of each stem separately, without affecting another stem
  2. You’d be able to adjust the relative levels of each stem when re-mixing them back into a stereo master

Applying a ME’s work to Atmos, would require a process very similar to stem work.  The DAW lets you adjust the level, panning and apply any audio processing on a channel-by-channel basis.  The Atmos renderer doesn’t let you EQ or change the dynamics of each bed or object, or the Atmos mix as a whole – this has to be done at a stem bed/object level.

What does an ME do?

This then focuses on what value do you add?  Typically, a ME doesn’t mess with the balance or panning of a stereo mix, and I think the same applies to Atmos.  As a rule, you have no right to alter panning or relative levels of stems, beyond a dB or so.  However, you can:

  • Process and EQ stems to bring out the best in them
  • Edit stems and objects in the time domain to clean up messy reverbs and fades
  • De-click
  • Sparingly compress
  • Tweak relative levels after processing beds & objects to bring the balance back to the original intent
  • Tweak objects so that a speaker mix works well in binaural headphones
  • Adjust the material sent to the LFE to get the most accurate bass response

ITB or analogue chains

Atmos work lends itself to working entirely ITB, and quite a few ME’s work this way already.  The main attraction for this method is cost saving, both in terms of equipment outlay, and in terms of recording and automating chains being able to do efficient revisions.  Atmos work expands on this because there aren’t any analogue 6 or 8 channel EQs or dynamic processors available, although you could use a few external digital processors, even these have plug equivalents, and will cost a lot less.

Of course, saving money doesn’t mean better, and many ME’s will have invested in serious analogue stereo processing chains, complete with excellent converters, and specific monitoring systems.  You’ll want to keep using these for music processing, but using the Atmos system for delivery.  With the right kit, you can connect some of your excellent analogue processors to inserts and use them to selectively process beds and objects almost as easily as a ITB plug in.

Learning from the surround boys

It’s tempting, having spent all this money on extra speakers etc, to go a bit wild with a surround mix.  But the lessons that come from the folk who’ve been doing it for a bit is that less is more.

Specifically:

  • Don’t over compress or EQ
  • Leave plenty of headroom in each channel
  • Use the rears sparingly
  • Bleed the sound around speakers a bit more to make things more cohesive
  • Be aware of the phantom centre problems
  • Only effects move, dialog and music like to be anchored
  • The sweet spot is smaller, and you’ll hear different mixes depending where you sit in the room. This is a feature.

In most cases, you can use your excellent stereo chains to refine and process the sources.  In many cases, you’ll need to mono up anything you want to place as an object, as it will render better.  But again, you can use your stereo chain to perfect the sound of each instrument.  A lot of the techniques you used to create impact however can be better done by adding a small amount of ambience into the surround channels.

Back to School

Finally, don’t underestimate how much time it is going to take you to plan, setup, and learn how to master in Atmos.  This is not a trivial exercise, and you will be learning what works and what doesn’t on a genre by genre basis for years to come!

Summary

If you enter the Atmos world, you will have to learn new skills.  You’ll also have to retain your old stereo skills, as the way you process each format is different.

You’ll also have to be sure that this is the route you want to go down: as before there will be quite a few people competing with you completely ITB, and with poor monitor setups, while still claiming Atmos credentials.

However, there will be a growing demand for Atmos titles, and as an experienced ME, you will be able to do a better job than most.

Part 3 looks at the technical requirements, and Part 4 looks at how an ME can setup an Atmos room.