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Tom Petty: Creating The Atmos Mixes

Engineer Ryan Ulyate dives Into “Free Fallin’” and other Classic Tracks, bringing Tom Petty's best-known tracks into the Dolby Atmos immersive music realm.

Tom Petty, circa 1989. Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images
Tom Petty, circa 1989. Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

Los Angeles, CA (June 10, 2024)—Tom Petty came alive as I was seated right in the center of engineer Ryan Ulyate’s Dolby Atmos universe, listening to his immersive mix of “Free Fallin’.” Fortuitously, Ulyate lives close by, so I was able to hear Petty’s highest- and longest-charting single at the highest quality and fidelity. It was my first experience listening to Atmos in a real studio, and it moved me to tears. The presence of sound was overwhelming, and, of course, all of that was compounded by the iconic song’s relevance to this Valley girl. When Ulyate observed the emotion, he said it was because this was how music is intended to be heard.

Ulyate believes that Petty would have loved creating music with Dolby Atmos in mind. Alas the first Atmos Music release was not until R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People in 2017, the year Petty died. But, Ulyate says, Petty was always into musical progress if it served the sound.

Ryan Ulyate, left, with Tom Petty in 2015 during the 5.1 mixes of a 2014 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show at Fenway Park. Photo: Chase Simpson.
Ryan Ulyate, left, with Tom Petty in 2015 during the 5.1 mixes of a 2014 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show at Fenway Park. Photo: Chase Simpson.

When they worked together on Runnin’ Down a Dream, for example, the 2007 Peter Bogdanovich documentary on the artist, it was in 5.1 surround, and at the final mix, he and Petty said to each other, “It would be great if we could do that kind of thing [on records].” They then did just that with The Live Anthology, released in 2009, and the following year, Mojo was among the first albums to be released in 5.1 Blu-ray.

Ulyate initially hooked up with Petty via Jeff Lynne, whom he had met and begun working with around 1997. Through Lynne, he worked on George Harrison’s last album, Brainwashed, and subsequently Harrison’s memorial concert soundtrack, Concert for George. During the mix, Petty stopped in to listen to and approve of his performance with the Heartbreakers.

Shortly after, Lynne called and said Petty wanted to cut a song, could Ulyate make it? “I said, ‘Yeah, well, I think I can,’” he teased. They began working on music that became Highway Companion, released in 2006, followed by the Bogdanovich documentary, where Ulyate was tasked with going through the Petty music archives.

When Warner Bros. called Ulyate in 2020 to tell him Amazon wanted an Atmos version of Wildflowers & All the Rest and he was welcome to use Dolby’s studio, Ulyate said that if he could get an advance, he would simply refit his studio for Atmos and mix the album there. Warner agreed.

Today, Ulyate runs Pro Tools HDX on a Mac Pro and says about 90 percent of the plug-ins he uses are Massenburg DesignWorks EQ and UA 1176 emulations. For Atmos work, a Mac Studio hosts the latest version of Pro Tools with the Dolby Atmos Renderer, Avid MTRX Studio handles I/O, and it all runs on a Dante backbone.

The “lower” seven monitors (LCR, plus sides and rears) are all ATC SCM50. The four height speakers are ATC SCM12i. Bass management is handled by a Bag End Infrasub-18 Pro, with two more for the LFE channel. “Bryan Pennington from Dolby tuned the room and did an excellent job,” Ulyate says, adding that Zach Winterfeld at TransAudio Group was helpful in setting up the ATCs.


In 2022, following up on Wildflowers & All the Rest, Ulyate undertook the Atmos mix of Petty’s Greatest Hits, originally released in 1994 and consisting of 18 tracks. “Free Fallin’,” he notes, turned out to be an interesting song to mix for immersive playback.

“The challenging thing about this track, or any track that people have known and loved for a long, long time, is you have to be really diligent in making sure that you’ve captured the essence of that song,” Ulyate maintains. “When you’re looking at the multitrack and a bunch of unmixed tracks, you’ve really got to go back and make sure that what you’re putting in that mix is what is in that original mix, because a lot of times there are things that aren’t. Sometimes a vocal will start on one track and end up on another track.

“You have to spend more of your time really capturing the original mix before you can move it into Atmos. What makes a good Atmos mix of a classic track is how much diligence you put into recapturing that original mix and making sure that all the elements that are in that mix are in your mix as well.”

To begin an Atmos mix, Ulyate finds the highest-resolution stereo mix of the song that he can and puts that in the timeline above the multitrack. He listens to both to make sure they are the same speed. “If they get out of sync, I have to change the timing of the multitrack to make it match the stereo,” he says. “That’s important to me because even if it’s off a little bit, it doesn’t feel the same.”

Then he gets a rough mix of the multitrack that is fairly close to the stereo master so that he can go back and forth between them. “At that point, it’s putting up the vocal to make sure they’re the same,” Ulyate explains. “You have to go through every track to make sure every one of those tracks that you’re putting in there is, in fact, in the master— guitars, percussion, everything. Sometimes stuff is mixed really quietly in the master.

“Once all the elements are identified, the effects are examined,” he continues, “Is there reverb on the vocal? Is there a slap on the vocal? ‘Okay, that sounds like a reverb, but it sounds like an EMT 140 with a 100-millisecond pre-delay.’ Or, ‘Ya know what? Maybe it’s more like an EMT 250 because this was 1982 and everyone had EMT 250s.’ Then I play with all my various reverbs until I get it to feel like it feels on the master. Of course, when I’m remixing a track that Jeff Lynne produced, like ‘Free Fallin”,’ it’s a bit easier. He hated reverb! After that, it’s about EQing stuff and getting it to sound pretty much the same, and then fine-tuning the mix.”


“I print my own stems, and I have a separate machine that I do all my Atmos in, so I will start playing around in that space, knowing all the instruments and relationships are baked into the mix,” Ulyate explains, noting that certain elements lend themselves to being in front and others lend themselves to being around you. “It’s just not going to work if you put the vocal behind you. I still look at it as if I’m facing the music, looking at it on stage—the vocal, the bass, the kick drum, the snare drum, the main guitars are toward the front. The riff of [“Free Fallin’”] is so interesting. There are three guitars. You’ve got Tom playing guitar on the left and Jeff on the right and Mike in the middle.”

With the LCR of “Free Fallin’” in a good place, Ulyate placed the synth pad that plays throughout the song in the rear, to support the music but not draw attention. He placed an eight-string bass that enters in the chorus into the rear height speakers, along with the delay echoes of the vocals on the words “Free” and “Fallin’.” One of the coolest things, he says, is the way that the big background vocals fill up the heights.

RE-MIX: Tom Petty on Recording His Hits

“The way they [originally] recorded it was on a separate 24-track, and they flew them in on two tracks on the 24-track master,” Ulyate explains. “They’re only in stereo on the 24-track master, but I went back to the work tape, where they recorded them individually, and grabbed them from there, then synced them up in Pro Tools, so now you hear the 16-tracks of ‘Ventura Blvd.,’ of Tom and Jeff singing the four-part harmony. So, on the four low notes, you get eight voices, and on the next note up, you have eight more voices, and the next note up, eight more, and the next note up, eight more, so there are 32 voices on ‘Ventura Blvd.’

“It’s beautiful to listen to how this song is constructed. You realize that you don’t really hear a lot of these sounds as individual things in the stereo mix and you see how they all come together. The thing I love about Atmos is that rather than coming together in the speakers, it comes together in your head.”

Pondering what Tom Petty would think about all this, Ulyate remembers the moment it hit him—while working on the Atmos version of Wildflowers & All the Rest: “When I was mixing ‘It’s Good to Be King,’ I got really choked up and thought, ‘If he were around, he would just have loved this.’”