During the pandemic shutdown, Brad Smalling and his wife, Jenny, managed to stay busy at Evergroove Studio in Colorado, where they offer recording, mixing and mastering services, onsite and on location. Still, they wondered if they might have attracted more business if they had been able to offer immersive audio capabilities, says Smalling, who had heard his first Dolby Atmos demo shortly before lockdown at the 2020 NAMM Show.
Soon, there were signs that an immersive upgrade was indeed the way to go at the studio, which opened in 2003 in Evergreen, 20 miles west of Denver—“but maybe it’s because we were looking for them!” Smalling laughs.
Colombian singer J Balvin, for instance, who enthusiastically promoted Atmos Music in one of Dolby’s first commercials for the format, visited Evergroove in early 2021 to record some vocals for his Grammy-nominated Jose album. Not long after, Apple Music and Dolby announced the launch of Spatial Audio, the immersive music streaming platform. Then, Itchy-O, a band that Smalling mixes live and with whom he has worked on three albums, told him that they wanted their next release to be in Atmos. “We thought we’d better do this,” Smalling says, “because all the signs were pointing that way.”
Smalling then contacted Lewis Ticknor at PMT Audio in Denver and arranged a Focal speaker demo. Ticknor looped in Josh Estock, Focal’s director of pro sales. “Everything came together very quickly,” Smalling recalls. “They were amazing with us, just so accommodating.”
Smalling and Estock also spoke with the manufacturer in France to identify a speaker configuration that would appropriately position the drivers for the height of the Wes Lachot-designed control room’s front-wall soffits. The solution involved flipping the tweeter/mid baffles through 180 degrees: “That’s why our Focal logos are upside down,” Smalling explains.
Evergroove now sports a 7.1.4 setup with soffited Trio11 Be speakers at left and right, five Trio6 Be monitors for the center, sides and rear surrounds and four overhead Solo6 Be models. A pair of Rythmik F18 subwoofers support LFE and bass management.
The console anchoring the main control room looks more like a mastering desk, but there’s a reason why the outboard gear, including quite a few Warm Audio pieces, is close at hand, not racked. “It’s workflow and ease of use,” Smalling explains. “I didn’t want everything stacked right in front of me with this wall of gear. We contacted Shawn [Kramer] at Fortissimo Custom Works [in Denver], showed him some ideas, and we came up with a desk design together.”
One word that comes up again and again with Smalling is “community.” Just like the early days of 5.1 surround, he says, engineers, mixers and clients have been sharing experiences as they come to grips with the relatively new immersive formats. “As engineers and as music lovers, things just feel even more community-oriented now. Having Atmos is allowing us to have conversations that we might not have had before: ‘What are you doing with this? What do you do with that?’ Because there’s no manual, right?”
While some studio owners have upgraded for immersive mixing to help meet the demand for catalog tracks on the streaming platforms, Smalling has jumped in at the deep end, recording projects in-house and elsewhere for immersive playback. “As soon as some of the artists that I’m working with heard Atmos, their immediate response was, ‘How do we do this right now?’ They got really excited about it,” he reports.
To help spark that enthusiasm, Smalling finds himself evangelizing for immersive music, sitting artists and managers down in front of his Focal rig. “The bands that are getting onboard are hearing it in my room, but if you just approach a band about it, they say, ‘That doesn’t sound like something that I should be concerned about.’ Well, you probably should be, because that’s where things are headed.”
Longtime Evergroove client Itchy-O, a Denver-based, percussion-heavy troupe of 50-plus musicians and performers, has already begun tracking its next album for release in Dolby Atmos. Michael Patterson, who has mixed a couple of film soundtracks for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and has worked with Beck, BRMC, The Notorious BIG and many others, is producing.
“We recorded an instrument at a time— marching drums, Japanese taiko drums, guitar, bass,” Smalling recalls. “We ended up with what we called ‘the box,’ with a mic in each corner of the room—small-diaphragm condensers, pointing up, in cardioid—just to see what that would do.
“Monitoring through the renderer has too much latency, but in Pro Tools, you can do a 7.1.2 bed so you can get most of the way there. We were monitoring 7.1.2, and it just felt like you were right there in the room. Michael would say, ‘Let’s bring the box a bit louder,’ or, ‘Let’s put it up there,’ and you could start to get a feel for how the song was going to translate into Atmos.”
Athena Wilkinson, Evergroove’s assistant engineer and project manager, recently recorded Igor Pikayzen, an award-winning Russian-American violinist who is a professor at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, for an immersive release. “I’m the tracking and editing engineer, Brad and I are both mixing engineers, and Brad will be the mastering engineer,” says Wilkinson, who captured the performances with an immersive array of microphones in the school auditorium’s seating area.
“Athena brought the tracks back, brought up the faders and it sounded like I was right there,” Smalling says. “My jaw hit the floor. It’s such a fantastic format.”
Having a Dolby Atmos room has certainly presented new business opportunities, Smalling confirms. “I’m having conversations with mastering engineers that are being asked to do Atmos, but they don’t have an Atmos room. Being able to collaborate with engineers—they do the stereo master; I master it in Atmos—is tremendous. That’s where things are feeling even more like a community.”
Carly Simon’s manager, Larry Ciancia, needed somewhere to hear some Atmos mixes Frank Filipetti had done for his client and swung by. “Now I’m mastering the Atmos mixes for Carly Simon’s 50th-anniversary release of No Secrets, plus a handful of select tracks from other albums,” Smalling says.
Artists and labels need to embrace Atmos mastering more, he believes. “The label might ask the mix engineer to do their best and match the EQ to the stereo master, but now, you have Atmos, a 2.0 re-render, a binaural render and all these different fold-downs that need to be paid attention to.”
Mastering in Atmos is challenging without bus processing, he admits, “but we all know about side-chaining, so there’s some tricks we can do, and you’ve got plug-in manufacturers like HoRNet coming out with SAMP, which is bus processing you can strap across all your channels.”
Evergroove’s Atmos upgrade is proving to be a great decision, Smalling says, and not just for business: “We’re having a great time in the format. It’s fun to explore music in a completely different way. I feel like creativity, that fire, has been rekindled.”