You are here

Mixing Atmos: Greg Wells

Creating Real-world Dolby Atmos Content By Sam Inglis
Published March 2022

Mixing Atmos: Greg Wells

We talk to the people who are creating real‑world Atmos content, starting with Canadian super‑producer Greg Wells.

Greg Wells is one of the world’s busiest songwriters and producers, with a stellar catalogue that includes names such as Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Westlife, Twenty One Pilots, Katy Perry, Mika, Pink, Rufus Wainwright and many more. He is both an enthusiastic convert to spatial audio and an early adopter of Apple’s Logic as a platform for Atmos mixing.

To Greg, however, the notion of ‘immersive audio’ doesn’t just connote a particular technical format. It describes the basic goal of music production, whether it’s in mono, stereo or surround.

“I am very much a musician who has spilled over into getting very fascinated with the capture of music in a recording studio. I was always trying to capture that feeling of what it feels like to be in a band, or an orchestra, or even just accompanying a singer, or an instrumental soloist, because that’s a very immersive feeling. When you’re in a live venue, even if it’s just a rehearsal room, it’s immersive. It’s coming from everywhere. It’s bouncing off the floor, it’s visual, it’s the vibe you’re getting from the audience and what the audience is feeling from the performers. It’s not just sound waves, it’s all kinds of stuff flying around. And I don’t have names for all of that information.

“As a musician and as a fan of music, but also as a music maker, Atmos is the closest I have felt to listening to recorded music where it feels like I’m in a situation like that, where I don’t feel like a lot of the data’s missing. If you close your eyes and you listen to a great Atmos mix, there’s just nothing like it.

“I want people to close their eyes and feel like they’re in a dream state when they’re listening to music. That’s my ultimate goal. That’s what my favourite records do to me as a listener. For me, it’s about transcending the entire experience. I don’t want anyone to even notice the speakers. I don’t want anyone to even think about the physicality of there’s a kick drum, or there’s a whatever, or they used that microphone, or that we’re in B flat. I just want you to feel a thing.”

Stem Service

Greg Wells’ journey into Atmos mixing has been guided by two factors. Although he’s a long‑term Pro Tools user and still does his stereo mixes in Pro Tools, the streamlined Atmos implementation in Logic aligns with his musician’s intuitions. Coincidentally, the need to transfer projects between the two environments is not an issue, because industry trends mean he’s already creating the necessary stems for other reasons.

“All record companies around the world were basically saying, ‘You’ve got to make your stuff work on TikTok.’ And so most artists I was working with would say, ‘Can I have stems for my songs so I can do my own little 15‑second versions of different things and create little social media clips?’ And they’re great at it. Record labels quite often will hire third‑party companies whose only job is to check that the result of all the stems being played together sounds like the final mix. And if it doesn’t sound like the final mix, they will withhold my producer payment.

“I always print stems when I’m doing a mix now. It’s built into my mix template. Once everyone’s decided, ‘OK, we got the final mix,’ then I just arm a bunch of different audio tracks that I’ve got ready to go. I’ve got main mix, TV mix, instrumental mix, vocal up, vocal down, and then every possible stem you could ever want: kick stem, snare stem, tom stem, five different guitar stems, all kinds of stuff. I hit Record once, and every stem is printed and every alternate mix is printed in one shot.”

Greg Wells: I don’t want to be distracted by Atmos. I just want you to get lost in the experience.

Beyond The Bus

The transition to ‘stem world’ also prepared Wells for one of the challenges facing mix engineers who make the move from stereo to Atmos. Like many people, he was accustomed to getting the sound he wanted in stereo by processing the mix bus, but found that stem‑based mixing required a different approach.

The Greatest Showman was the first movie I ever worked on, and in film‑land, there’s no mix bus. It’s a bunch of individual buses. It took me a lot of undoing of different habits, but then I realised I actually like the sound of the final results better than when I ran everything through a mix bus. And this is a guy who’s made a plug‑in for the mix bus saying this! So, now I will use that plug‑in [Greg Wells MixCentric from Waves] on the individual buses.

“And there is some stuff you can do, not with objects, but with beds. The beds are 7.1 and there are some compressors that will go across all of that, and you can do some parallel stuff that’ll affect all the beds. But to me, it’s kind of like all bets are off, because it’s so different. This is not a stereo mix. It’s not coming from this contained place of two speakers.

“I find that I can use the same kind of treatment on certain elements. If it’s something really kind of propulsive and big energetically, I would probably want that coming from the front speakers anyway, because in most Atmos systems, the most powerful speakers are the front speakers. I would not trust that most systems around the world have satellite speakers that can deliver that same kind of oomph. So, I would process that in the same way that I would process the stereo mix. There’s all kinds of stuff you can take from that school of stereo mixing and apply it to what you’re doing in Atmos.”

In other words, making the transition to Atmos needn’t involve jettisoning all of the habits you’ve learned mixing in stereo. And likewise, just because Atmos provides the mix engineer with the ability to move sounds around constantly doesn’t mean you have to use it. “I think using it would be a mistake most of the time,” agrees Wells, and cites as an example his mix of Eric Whitacre’s composition Deep Field. “That would sound insane if I had the choir or the orchestra moving around the room, or in some bizarre positioning. I just want it to feel like we were in an amazing symphonic hall experiencing that, and that’s all I did. I think only one thing moved during that entire 23‑minute piece. Other than that, everything was static. And I have no problem with that. Yes, I have the power to make things pan all over the place, but it would over egg the pudding, as you might say.

“I’ve heard a lot of very distracting Atmos mixes, and I don’t like that. I don’t want to be distracted by Atmos. I just want you to get lost in the experience.“

Eyes Down

The lack of distraction is a big part of the appeal of the Atmos implementation in Logic to Greg. “Just open the panning box and look at the way that it looks. With Logic, it looks very simple, almost like a video game. And when you open Pro Tools, there’s a lot of information, it’s very technical. If you have a very technical mind, that’s going to feel like home, if you’re an engineer. If you are a kid making beats, it’s going to make your eyes cross. And if you’re a musician like me, who’s not naturally super technical, it will also make your eyes cross.

“With Logic, my eyes did not cross immediately. It just made perfect sense to me. I love how it deals with rotation. I love how it deals with the height. I love how it deals with the space in the room and how you can kind of all do that from just one mouse move. You don’t have to get down to tweak a bunch of different parameters down at the bottom of the box that gives you all of that information. It’s fast. I found that I was mixing much faster and I almost felt like I was cheating.”

The Receiving End

To Greg Wells, then, Atmos provides the most effective means yet of creating the kind of immersive experience he’s always sought to deliver in his productions. If there’s a frustration, it’s that audiences aren’t necessarily receiving those experiences exactly as intended. That’s partly because different streaming services employ different binaural renderers, partly because head‑tracking is not yet widely implemented, and partly because there are as yet no effective, affordable speaker‑based systems for home environments.

“I did my first Atmos mix on headphones, using the Dolby renderer in binaural mode. And I sent that mix to my clients in New York who listened on Dolby Atmos speakers at a Dolby certified playback room, and they flipped out. They loved it. They said it sounded incredible, and they just had a couple notes. So, that mix translated basically perfectly, and this was one of the first mixes I did. This was several months ago. But when I heard that mix playing back on spatial audio on my AirPod Pro Max headphones, it did not sound right to me. I called everybody the next morning and said, ‘What have I done wrong? What happened? I need to learn what’s going on here.’ Everyone was super responsive, and it has already improved quite a lot, and I want it to improve to the point where there’s zero hiccup.

Greg Wells’ LA mix room is equipped with a stunning PMC‑based Atmos monitoring setup.Greg Wells’ LA mix room is equipped with a stunning PMC‑based Atmos monitoring setup.Photo: Peter Grueneisen

“No‑one’s going to spend the kind of money that I have spent building a bespoke room to listen to this stuff. I don’t know who’s going to figure it out, but I am hopeful that at some point, people will to be able to hear music coming through speakers that do sound as good as what I’m listening to. I think there’s a way to do it. I don’t know how to do it. I just feel in my gut someone’s going to figure it out. Whether it’s a couple of soundbars, maybe it’s a circular soundbar, who knows what it is!

Greg Wells: Apple are very, very, very pro head-tracking, and the experience of spatial audio is going to explode when that starts happening.

“Apple are very, very, very pro head-tracking, and the experience of spatial audio is going to explode when that starts happening. The realism and the virtual reality factor is going to be on a whole other level. So, we don’t have that yet. And when that happens and you start hearing mixes that way, and perception is everything, and when your perception has that depth and separation, then we’re talking about a different kettle of fish.

“It’s not working the way it should be working yet, but it’s going to get better and better and better. And I think the good news is we are all excited about the exact same result. We all want the music to sound as mind‑blowing as it possibly can. And as a kid that grew up with crappy stereos and a family that had no money to afford anything better, that is very, very exciting to me.”