Spatial Audio

I got the following e-mail from a producer/engineer:

“I just want to try and alert you to the potential seismic scam happening with this Atmos roll out.  Atmos catalog remixing is being done by the truckload in a handful of Nashville, LA, and NYC rooms right now and has been for a couple of years, and almost none of it is being overseen or approved by the artist or original producer or mixer.  And these versions- according to Apple- will be the new standard versions, superseding the original versions, now designated by Apple to the dustbin of history.

I have heard some Atmos mixes which were indeed an improvement.  However, most are not.  And I would like to steer you toward this demo from Apple to get a sense of their mindset

In the rush to make content for Apple, labels are jamming this crap out with little QC and -again- almost no input from artists.  This format has real potential but if they continue to try and tell us that shit like this ‘new’ version of ‘What’s Going On’ is better than then original, then it will be seen as a counterfeit and a fraud, and will go the way of the Home Pod.   I know how you feel about catalog being remixed and this has potential to be a worst case scenario.”

And then my inbox filled up with more, and iMessage started to ring from other professional engineers.

Now wait a second, this was supposed to be a breakthrough. But is it more of a marketing gimmick? A way for Apple to gain subscribers?

So I pulled it up.

You can hear it, it definitely sounds different, but is that a good thing?

And here’s where I venture out beyond the limits of my knowledge, to what these people are telling me.

There are over a hundred reference points in Dolby Atmos. As in this is far beyond conventional 5.1. Think of a movie theatre, where the sound moves around, now you get the idea.

But that’s movies. We’re talking about music, sans pictures.

Now the truth is almost all music today is ultimately released in stereo. You record it, someone mixes the multiple tracks down to two, and then a mastering engineer EQ’s it. The artist supervises the entire process. But when it comes to Atmos…

Let’s say you have the equipment and ability to make an Atmos mix. My understanding is right now, you send the end product to Dolby and they use their special sauce to create the final product. Furthermore, they have special sauce to turn the same Atmosfied music into two track stereo. So, in a business where how it sounds is critical, Dolby is the ultimate arbiter.

The writer at the top is right. It is sacrilegious to remix/Atmosfy classic tracks. They weren’t cut that way to begin with. It even bugs me that they’re using remixed tracks from “Abbey Road” to Atmosfy, now you’re multiple steps from the original.

Now if we look at the history here…

The big breakthrough came in the mid-sixties, when there were two formats, mono and stereo. At first albums came in both iterations, then stereo only. And the goal was to buy the best home stereo you could afford, so you could hear the end product the way it was made, so you could get closer to the music.

Then they introduced quad. There were two competing formats, they both failed.

And then, this century, there was surround sound, a lot of money was dropped and consumer adoption was extremely low. Once again, the albums were being bastardized, this is not how the band and producer and engineers envisioned the sound to be, this was an afterthought. And it also required a special system to hear, which most people didn’t own, the script had flipped, from buying ever better, more expensive stereos to boom boxes and then headphones. And right now the standard is AirPods/earbuds, which ironically don’t even work with Apple’s Spatial Sound/Dolby Atmos. But if you have a wired connection…

I fired up Apple Music last night on my iPad. There’s Zane Lowe’s dog and pony show linked to above, but there’s also 127 demo tracks, as in Apple is trotting these out to demonstrate the greatness of Spatial Audio. I pulled up ones I was familiar with.

Now I was listening on wired Sennheiser headphones, which retail for about $300, far better than what most punters are listening on, never mind the bass-heavy, distorting of the music Beats, talk about a marketing job.

And the tracks were, as I said, definitely different. Not radically different, but there was more space…

But then I started getting reviews e-mailed to me.

And just now I went back. Now I’m listening via my computer, with $700 Audeze headphones with a separate headphone amp. And what I’ve learned is…the Spatial Audio and stereo versions are not only different, the process affects the punch, the essence of the originals!

I compared Spatial Audio tracks to their HD equivalents on Amazon Music and I found exactly what one writer said: the vocal gets lost. Instead of being up front and in your face, it’s buried more in the mix.

Let’s start with Apple’s demo track, “What’s Going On.” In the stereo mix Marvin Gaye is up front, the band is backing him, in the Spatial Audio version, the band is surrounding him, on the fringe, background vocals popping up way up to the right, Marvin is just an element, not the essence, it’s a cornucopia of music, but it’s not the legendary track, it’s absolutely different, a sacrilege.

Same deal with the Doors’ “Riders On the Storm.” Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”

Let’s talk Bon Jovi’s legendary “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Listen to the stereo version and it’s like there’s a band on stage, the members are not all standing in the same place, but they’re definitely on stage, in front of you, you’ve got a cohesive sound. Now on the Spatial Audio take… It’s like you’re in the arena and sounds are not only coming from the stage, but off to the right and left of it, from other places in the arena. It’s an immersive experience akin to a…movie. But is music a movie? I don’t think so. And in this movie, the instruments dominate, Jon Bon Jovi is fighting for attention, and he’s losing the battle.

Wait, it gets worse. Forget the big budget records, more and more music is being made by individuals in bedrooms, home studios, on a budget. They have neither the equipment nor the skill to mix in Dolby Atmos. As for just sending the file to Dolby to be processed…that’s like finishing a painting and having an amateur come in and completely change it, make it 3-D.

Actually, the more I listen to these Spatial Audio cuts, the more offensive they become. Kind of like those Beatles remixes. These are not the original records, they’ve been messed with, they’re not even facsimiles, they’re bastardizations.

Now the truth is this is a headphone genre. Which at the moment doesn’t support Bluetooth, which is how most people listen to music on headphones today. So they can’t hear the space, but somehow they’re going to listen to two channel Atmosfied mix-downs. Oh, there could be two takes, like with mono and stereo in the sixties, but that’s far too confusing, we need one standard, the marketplace needs one standard.

So, maybe there’s a future for Spatial Audio…if it’s mixed that way to begin with. But as demonstrated now, it’s a hell-bent drive in the wrong direction.

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