NOVEMBER 9, 2020

3 Takeaways on Immersive Mixing with Grammy® Winner Darrell Thorp

Darrell Thorp Headshot

When a nine-time Grammy®-winning recording engineer, mixer, and producer gets access to all the sonic space that immersive music has to offer, you know you’re in for a treat.

Darrell Thorp has worked with some big names—Paul McCartney, Radiohead, and Beck, just to name a few. In 2017, he engineered and mixed the Foo Fighters album Concrete and Gold. Up to this point in his awarded career, he’s mainly engineered music in stereo, but he got a chance to remix a track in Dolby Atmos®, an immersive format, for this project. Foo Fighters band leader Dave Grohl wanted the video for the second single, “The Sky Is a Neighborhood,” produced in Dolby Vision™, and Dolby asked Grohl if he would like the audio remixed in Atmos.

Dolby Atmos uses up to 128 channels to transform the audio field into a 3-D space, creating more lifelike, immersive sound experience. Forget about cramming everything into two channels of stereo and carving out space for competing sonic sound elements with compression and EQ. In an immersive music mix, you can position and pan anything anywhere, at any time, and move in any direction, leading to a more dynamic experience and unlimited creative options.

Thorp leapt at the chance to remix his stereo version of “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” immersively. He’d worked on surround mixes at Ocean Way Recording, so immersive music seemed like an intriguing next step.

“I took the project on because it just sounded so interesting to me, and I’d had a fair amount of experience when I worked in my last paid staff position at Ocean Way,” Thorp says. “We had our own dedicated 5.1 setup on a Sony Oxford Console, which could do 9.1 at the time. A lot of the hi-fi guys were doing jazz records and mixing in surround sound, and a couple of indie film things were going on in there. When the opportunity came to go to Dolby in Burbank and mix on the stage, I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ I really wanted to learn about the whole Atmos situation.”

Darrell Thorp on Mixing Foo Fighters

It’s More than Just Surround Sound

Thorp had to reset his expectations about immersive audio as soon as he came in the door.

“I walked into Dolby Atmos when I thought it was just surround sound on steroids. That was the naive thing,” Thorp says. When he began remixing “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” immersively, it became obvious there was much more room for exploration.

Mixing immersively allows far greater flexibility and precision in positioning sounds in a soundscape. The 128 channels available are made up of a 7.1.2 bed of front left, front right, center, left side, right side, rear left, and rear right channels (7), plus a low-frequency effects channel (.1, LFE), and then the real game-changers—the height channels (.2) and up to 118 objects. This configuration does something neither stereo nor surround sound can: it creates a 3-D audio image. The real power lies with the objects, discrete channels that aren’t tied to a specific speaker. Whether mono or stereo, they can be positioned and moved anywhere in the 3-D space for a truly immersive experience.

Ceri Thomas, the chief engineer over at Dolby, went, ‘Hey dude, I see what you’re doing, but you know you can do this!’ He pushed me to experiment more with the individuality of what Atmos is, where it can be very specific,” Thorp says. “You can say, ‘I want sound out of that freakin’ speaker right there,’ which I thought was amazing. So I started really developing into that.”

The Foo Fighters single is Thorp’s first experience with immersive audio, but it won’t be the last. “I’d love to do a bunch more,” he says. “I’m scheduled to do a project in immersive audio . . . It’s a big, big, big record that I recorded a year ago. I said, rather than having another engineer try and recreate what I did, why don’t I just do it? I’ll just take my stereo and split it out.”

Darrell Thorp in studio
Darrell Thorp in studio

Throw Your Stereo Bus Away

As part of Thorp’s foray into immersive, he had to let go of some of his favorite toys. “The first thing I said to Ceri when I started mixing the Foos was: ‘So what can I use for stereo bus compression?’

“That is a big part of my mixing style, and quite honestly it’s a big part of a lot of engineers’ mixing styles,” he says. “When I get to a certain point or process where I feel the mix is starting to settle in, then I start adding my mix bus chain, which is compression, a little bit of EQ and, in some cases, some sort of tape emulation.”

The channels and objects in Atmos enable a different approach from the typical stereo mixing process, as Thorp explains. “Don’t be afraid to throw away your stereo bus and forget about how you work normally with [it]. When you’re working in immersive audio, you don’t have to think that way anymore,” he says. “As I started mixing, at that point it was mostly level balancing and making panning choices. I knew the song really well—I tracked it and mixed it from the start. There were a few automation rides here and there, but I found out quickly that you don’t need compression or tape emulation to make this work. It’s not the same beast as far as the stereo thing goes. So I really kept my core mix of parallel compression or compression and EQ on vocals, or on the stack for the backing vocals. The strings and stuff I pretty much kept the same. The only thing I changed was my routing for panning purposes in the immersive experience.”

Although the stereo bus processing was a big part of the sound on the original mix, the change wasn’t an issue as the new enhancements of the immersive mix came into play. “I don’t know if Dave really noticed,” Thorp says. “The one thing he did say was, ‘Oh my god, it sounds crazy, it sounds incredible!’ He also said thanks for turning his guitar solo really loud. I made it right over the center and just loud as loud, so it felt even more insane because it sounds like this guitar amp is going to fall on your head at any second.”

Shift into the Immersive Mindset

Mixing in immersive requires more than a shift in technology and workflow. It takes thinking differently too.

“Stereo, to me, is all about having so little sonic space to work with,” Thorp explains. “It’s pretty easy to take a song and make it feel very aggressive because we’re forcing a bunch of information down this narrow bandwidth, so to speak. But when you get to immersive audio, that whole game changes. Trying to carve out this guitar part over here so it doesn’t fight with this keyboard over here—you don’t have to do that when mixing in an immersive format like Dolby Atmos. It’s all about spread and how big can you make it. It’s really cool.”

He had to reconfigure where to position sound in a whole new way. “With Atmos, you can pan not only from center but high or low, all the way across the spectrum,” Thorp says. He used multiple reverbs with increasing predelay times for front-to-back motion with strings panned high, backing vocals panned low, and lead vocals in the center of the vertical axis of the Foo Fighters mix.

Immersive music is already available on streaming services like TIDAL HiFi and Amazon Music Unlimited, and the stage is set as independent labels, artists, and engineers are now able to distribute Dolby Atmos music themselves. And thanks to affordable software to create immersive mixes, thousands of songs are being remixed in this cutting-edge format—offering audio professionals an incredible opportunity.

As Thorp says, “It’s so much fun. It’s worth learning and quite honestly, it’s not that difficult of a learning curve.”

  • James O'Toole headshot

    A musician and graphic designer, James freelances from his home studio on a range of audio and creative projects.

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