David Kosten’s first commercial Atmos project was an immersive mix of one of the greatest albums of all time: Tubular Bells. No pressure...
With much to learn, and much to unlearn, most mix engineers would want to ease themselves into Atmos by taking on a few low‑key projects. That didn’t quite happen for David Kosten. Instead of an obscure indie EP or television soundtrack, he found himself charged with Atmosifying Mike Oldfield’s 1973 masterpiece, Tubular Bells.
Thanks to his work with artists like Keane and Bat For Lashes, as well as his own Faultline project, Kosten is a very well established producer, but he cheerfully admits to having no track record with Atmos. So how did he land such a high‑profile, high‑pressure debut gig? “I co‑produced and mixed Steven Wilson’s last record [The Future Bites], and I sat in on the Atmos mixing side of it. And that’s really where my Atmos journey began. I was sitting at Dolby HQ, watching this record go from two channels to a whole bunch of channels and loving it. And thinking, ‘Oh wow. Pretty much everything I’ve ever worked on would’ve benefited from working in this three‑dimensional format.’
“I think every artist would know from working with me that I’m obsessed with talking about three dimensions, and front‑to‑back perspectives. So I always talked in those terms, but Steven Wilson was actually physically doing it. For a long time, he had been saying, ‘David, you really should be making, at the very least, your own music in this format because it’s so well suited to it.’”
As part of the team behind The Future Bites, Kosten was then nominated for a Grammy Award for immersive sound. Nevertheless, he understood that he had a lot of work to do to get up to speed as an Atmos mixer. “The next step was putting the speakers in, which I did about a year ago, then getting my head down to learn it. And there’s a learning curve.
“It’s not as complex, technically, as I actually thought it might be. I understood that pretty quickly, and I’d already had enough background from talking to Steven. But what I needed to do was work intensely on a lot of tracks, so I truly understood how to present music spatially, coherently and enjoyably, without it coming across on speakers as a collection of disparate sounds. And I worked on things that are already produced, went back to old mixes and converted them to Atmos, did some dummy runs with my own stuff. And Caroline Hilton was unbelievably helpful and incredible with her time and knowledge. She really is the person who got me to this point where she would give me very honest feedback, and tell me when she didn’t think something was working, and really helped a lot.
“It’s pretty good being able to give your music to Steven and her and a few other people for them to critique and say, ‘You know what you’re doing now.’ And so by that point, I felt like I was ready probably for a low‑key first proper gig.
“So, then I got my low‑key first proper gig!”
Although Mike Oldfield himself remixed Tubular Bells in 5.1 back in the early 2000s, everyone agreed that the starting point for the Atmos mix should be the original stereo album. Kosten’s first and arguably biggest job, therefore, was to recreate the original stereo mixes as closely as possible, in order to generate stems that could be used for an Atmos presentation.
“My intention was that I wanted people to be hard pushed to tell that this wasn’t done in 1973. It would just happen to have a time machine and be able to put it into spatial. I wanted it to sound exactly like the 1973 version. No excuses. There is no decision in terms of panning or EQ or effect or anything that I made. Every single decision that I heard on those stereos had to be duplicated as exactly as I could first. So I was essentially trying to mirror what the guys did in 1973 before I did anything to do with Atmos.”
This, it turned out, was harder than it sounds, one reason being that important parts were simply missing from the surviving multitracks — among them the album’s titular tubular bells. Although there were several bell recordings on the multitrack, none of them was the part used on the original album mix. Where did the bells on the album itself actually come from? Had they been overdubbed during mixdown? Or did Mike Oldfield erase them from the multitrack later? We’ll probably never know, but it meant a lot of work for Kosten, who had to finesse that section of the stereo master into his multitrack.
“Weird things happen when you don’t realise that your record is going to be an iconic classic!” says David. “Maybe you’re a little bit more laissez‑faire with masters, and there’s no undo button on a two‑inch 16‑track. And he was literally filling every second of that tape.
“One of the things I was faced with early on, as well, was that there was no multitrack available for the end of Part Two, the Sailor’s Hornpipe. So I had to use the 5.1 from 2009 for the end section because there was no multitrack from it. But then, obviously, that needed to be edited in perfectly to match the originals.”