Taking a chance on immersive music has paid off handsomely for producer Stan Kybert, who has reinvented himself as one of the UK’s busiest Atmos mixers.
As producer, engineer and programmer, Stan Kybert’s name is on some of the biggest albums of the last 30 years. Stan’s discography includes names such as Paul Weller, Oasis and the Verve, but two years ago, he decided to make a break away from production. Since then, he’s become a specialist in immersive music. Throughout 2021 and 2022, he’s been mixing Dolby Atmos, establishing himself as a first choice for labels and artists looking to explore the new format. Demand for his services is so great, he has recently opened a state‑of‑the‑art ATC 9.1.4 mix room at London’s Tileyard complex.
In effect, Stan Kybert has defined a new career role, which is different from and complementary to that of the stereo mix engineer. He will never start work on an Atmos mix until the stereo mix is signed off, and will always work from stems rather than the original multitrack or Pro Tools session.
“For the majority of projects, I need the stereo mastered WAV and I need the mix stems. And the reason I use the stereo master is to have that point of reference, but also to be locked in for timing. The Atmos mix has to be within one second of the stereo or it’ll be rejected.
“Another advantage I find with having a stereo mastered WAV is that it’s the closed-off stereo mix. The client has approved the mix, approved the mastering, so we’re not going to go back to the mix. With stereo mixing, everybody knows it’s fairly easy to reload the session and make a small change. Therefore, the number of changes has gone up. Atmos isn’t like that. Atmos is complicated.
“We have three stages to an Atmos mix. When the audio comes in, it’s previewed and then pre‑mixed. My engineer, Luke, checks that everything is there, and then it’s brought into my template and then it comes into my room. Luke is on pre‑mix and he does a brilliant job. I will get him the stereo mastered WAV mix stems and then he’ll check it all, tempo‑map it, colour‑code it. And then when I come in to hear, I press Play and then I’ve got that stereo running alongside. I’ve always got the stereo mix on a button. I’m always flicking between them. The Atmos mix has got to be an enhancement. It can’t be worse than the stereo, or what’s the point?
“When I mix albums, or even EPs, I mix them all in the same Pro Tools session. I feel it’s really important, I feel it’s immersive. It is important to be thinking about the piece, and the themes and the threads. If I find the spot for the piano, if it’s that sort of record, then that’ll be the spot throughout the whole album. And if I find that spot when I get to track eight, I’ll go back to tracks two and three.”
The same applies to his use of the LFE (low‑frequency effects) channel, which is meant to feed a dedicated subwoofer in a speaker‑based Atmos rig. “With the immersive experience, I won’t have an album where I’ve got one or two tracks with LFE on them. We’re going to be using LFE across the album or not at all.”
What’s In A Stem?
The word ‘stem’ means different things to different people. For some, creating stems might mean rendering stereo submixes of all the guitars, all the drums, all the backing vocals and so on. For others, it means exporting an entire multitrack. Stan is happy to trust the judgement of the engineer who mixed the stereo version; and where bus or subgroup processing is a key part of the stereo mix, he doesn’t want that to be unpicked. “Because I’ve made records, I understand, and I’ll take sound and vibe and feel over separation all day long. If you’re relying on a processor to create that sound, that smack, that hit, that feel, that vibe, then don’t separate it at all, because then all those separates are not the sound or feel or vibe of that stem.
“Atmos is complicated on so many levels, from creation to mix to how we all hear it. Stems are no different. There’s no one size fits all. There is genre, there’s where it’s been made, who’s mixed it. The stems that come from the top five percent of mixers are immaculate in separation, in sound, in feel — but they’re not the same every time as all songs are different.”
Some engineers who specialise in immersive music come to it either from a post‑production background, or with a lot of experience mixing in older surround formats such as 5.1. Stan Kybert is not one of them. He has called his operation Music Immersive to reflect his belief that Atmos for music is not simply an extension of Atmos for film, or a refinement of 5.1. To him, it’s a new format that is in the process of crystallising its own rules and conventions, and one striking aspect of Stan’s approach is that it’s entirely object‑based. The Atmos format includes channel‑based surround ‘beds’ in up to 7.1.4, but he makes minimal use of these, and would probably ignore them altogether if it weren’t for the need to route audio to the LFE channel. “I am objects only. I use the bed only for LFE, because that’s the only way you can access it.”
This pure object‑based approach is partly down to the influence of engineer Steve Genewick, who Stan calls “the Godfather of Atmos music”. “At the beginning, I spent a month binaural headphone mixing 20 tracks and trying to work it out. And Steve was really, really supportive there. He got me going and his approach was predominantly object‑based.
“We were talking about it a lot, and he said that the spatialisation, which is another one of the powers of Atmos, is better out of the bed. And I agreed: the Atmos experience was stronger when you used objects as opposed to beds. And that’s been magnified with the Apple Music experience. They use that speaker object mix to create their Atmos ‘externalisation’, which is even stronger through objects.”
Stan doesn’t always use the LFE channel, and perhaps surprisingly, finds it least useful in some genres where you might expect it to be important. “There are many genres out there that don’t require sub‑bass, but for classical music, it’s really handy. You want size and weight and enormity, there you go. It’s when you get something uptempo and housey where you think ‘This is going to be great’ that it doesn’t always work. Suddenly you’ve got this sluggish bass and it takes away from the energy. And when you think about the spatialisation, that doesn’t happen on a domestic system when you overload volume and low frequencies.”
Stan Kybert: There are many genres out there that don’t require sub‑bass, but for classical music, it’s really handy. You want size and weight and enormity, there you go.
Translation is another key concern of Stan’s. The Atmos music mixes he puts out need to stand up not only in a world‑class monitoring environment like his own; they also need to work well on a variety of home playback systems, and in a binaural render for headphones. “The way I look at it now is that we’ve got one Atmos mix that serves, primarily, three formats: the speaker mix, the binaural headphone mix and the Apple Music headphone mix. When you print that mix, it’s got to translate across those three. And then when you think about the array of speakers there are, it runs from the Amazon Echo Studio up to Leicester Square’s 400‑speaker setup and everything in between. I won’t mix for one device. Atmos is evolving, and we’ve got some way to go.
“Take the LFE, again. Who does what with the LFE is still very undefined in the domestic range of Atmos devices. You’ve got to be filtering your LFE — just because it says LFE, you can’t assume it’ll do that for you. Many popular devices actually have a full‑range speaker [for LFE], so you put your kick drum in there thinking you’re going to get more low end out of it, and as they tend to be the smaller devices, that’s probably going to have the opposite effect of what you were trying to go for. Being aware of where this tech has come from, and what it was designed for, is really helpful when you’re thinking about how to apply music to it. Not thinking, ‘This has been made for music.’”
There are also multiple headphone playback formats that need to be checked and catered for. “The immersive experience on some formats can be dependent on the size of the listener’s head. The more their head differs from that standard model, the less externalisation they may experience.”
What’s more, says Stan, different formats do different things with the Dolby binaural metadata; and all of these represent a moving target for the mix engineer, as the binaural spatialisation settings sometimes change behind the scenes. On top of that, Apple Music now features head‑tracking with certain headphones, which Stan sees as a positive. “If you’ve got your head still, the mix is playing as it would without head tracking, but then you can lean into the sound. So, as you hear a backing vocal go across the top, you can look up and it gets louder. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but what I love about it is it’s very different to stereo. It isn’t like, Is it on? Is it off? Is that better?’ It’s not taste, I just love that it’s obvious. I remember being a kid and getting lost in music on headphones. If that experience was even more immersive, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
At the time of writing, Stan Kybert has just moved into his new mixing space in the Tileyard studio complex in King’s Cross. Formerly the live room of Mark Ronson’s studio, it’s been completely remodelled by Studio Creations, working from a design by acoustician Chris Walls. It’s larger than many Atmos mixing rooms, and features an impressive 9.1.4 ATC monitor setup, time‑aligned and equalised using Digital Audio Denmark’s DADman software. To emphasise that this is a purpose‑designed music mixing environment, it’s also refreshingly free of huge video screens.
“A big part of the draw of coming to Tileyard was that Chris Walls was involved. I can do things in here that you don’t do in other rooms because it sounds crazy or weird or not strong. Front or back, up and down, the phase correlation in here is amazing. To really feel the powers of Atmos, I feel like you need something of this size. The nine [speakers] is about the detail and that’s all about how it translates. I’ve been here for two weeks and I’m using the headphones less and less and less, whereas many of the rooms I’ve worked in, I’ll be halfway through a mix and check it on the headphones and I’m like ‘The lead vocal is quiet in the second verse but it doesn’t sound like that in the speakers!’ You’re compensating for the room all the time. What you hear in here is what it sounds like on the headphones.
“And the other thing about this room as well is it sounds very impressive and detailed loud, but when I’m working on dim [ie. quietly], you still hear that detail around the room. In a few Atmos studios, when you hit dim it’s hard to tell whether you’re in Atmos or stereo. That doesn’t happen in here. So I honestly couldn’t be happier with the ATCs, Chris and his team — Matt Ward, from LAD, is a genius.”
Betting The House
You only need to see the photos to realise that the Music Immersive studio is a huge investment on Stan’s part. But it’s one that is already paying for itself. “Am I betting the house on Atmos music? Yes, I am. I feel like the format will grow over time plus I’ve got an understanding of the role and the job. What I do is going down well with my clients and that’s a vast, wide range of music. I love it, it is interesting, it’s different. I’m not tied into a record for six months, as I was when I was producing and mixing. Project turnaround is quicker in comparison and I love that. I’ve been doing this for two years now, and I didn’t work on a stereo mix last year. I haven’t worked on anything stereo this year!”
Once an Atmos mix leaves Stan Kybert’s Music Immersive studio, it doesn’t usually get adjusted further down the line; there is not a separate process that could be called mastering. At the same time, though, Stan himself is sometimes called on to carry out work that would otherwise fall into a mastering engineer’s remit. “There are words that we are using in Atmos that we are familiar with because they’ve come from stereo, but they mean different things. And Atmos mastering is definitely one of them. You say Atmos mastering and people say, ‘Oh you’re going to EQ it and put a limiter on it.’ Well, why would you put a limiter on it? We work to a loudness regulation, so if you’ve done your Atmos mix correctly, why would it need limiting?”
When Stan does feel the need to carry out Atmos mastering is when his immersive mixes need to sit side by side with those done by other engineers. “I’ve done a couple of projects where half the record was mixed in Atmos, and they needed the remaining tracks in Atmos. I mixed those other tracks ‘in the style of’ so it was cohesive and immersive and I mastered the first six, because they were all mixed a couple of years ago when the loudness regulations were different. So people would mix at ‑14 LUFS and then somewhere turn it down to ‑18 [the current standard].
“So I’m offering mixing and mastering, and I do see mastering coming to the fore more. Now that you’ve got Atmos capabilities in Logic, you’re going to have people creating Atmos mixes in rooms not to spec, or across many different skill sets. They’re producing one week, mixing another week, recording one week and then they throw out an Atmos mix. They’re probably going to need mastering.”
And, as Stan points out, taking the loudness regulations too literally can be just as problematic as ignoring them. “The loudness reg is there as a guide. But if you’re doing an album and you mix every track to the loudness reg, your dynamic journey in that album is not going to match the stereo dynamic journey of that album. All your acoustic and vocal songs are going to be significantly louder than your loudest stereo songs.”