Why Upgrade to Immersive Mixing?

Success in the music business requires a competitive edge. This truth holds for artists, producers, engineers, mixers, mastering engineers — anyone whose income depends on the number of listeners a song reaches. Even well-promoted songs need to be available on multiple streaming services and hosting sites to reach the widest audience. However, there is a new opportunity in the form of immersive music formats, which are being distributed and promoted on streaming platforms. Artists releasing in formats like Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio, or Sony 360 Reality Audio stand a better chance of being discovered, as the number of immersive mixes is still much smaller compared to the number of stereo mixes on these platforms.. 

The potential for immersive mixes to gain recognition holds true for both independent and major label artists, creating an opportunity for producers and engineers to market their skills in creating immersive mixes for both types of clients. Additionally, every artist’s or label’s existing music should be remixed in one or more immersive formats for maximum impact. This marketing fact alone may convince you to jump into immersive mixing!

Business aside, dipping into creating immersive mixes reveals how much creative freedom the formats offer, allowing for the creation of music in 3D. Immersive formats don’t eliminate the ability to create traditional stereo mixes but do provide an entirely new playing field. With this insight, many producers, mixers, and studios have expanded their monitoring systems to include the ability to produce immersive mixes. 

Immersive formats, such as Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio, and Sony 360 Reality Audio differ from traditional multichannel formats, like 5.1 and 7.1. If you currently have a 5.1 or 7.1 mix setup, upgrading to Atmos or Sony 360 will still allow you to monitor in those smaller formats and maintain compatibility. It’s not recommended to build a new 5.1 or 7.1 mix room as they are outdated. Instead, invest in an Atmos or Sony 360 system to better serve current and future clients.

Getting Into Multichannel 

As mentioned earlier, 5.1 or 7.1 multichannel setups are the minima for surround sound in film, TV, games, and some music releases. However, 5.1 and 7.1 have had only limited success as music formats, making Atmos and Sony 360 RA the better options for multichannel music. Although the sound result may be similar, these two formats require different hardware and software for creation and different playback systems for consumers. So, what should be your basis for choosing which format to use for your system?

Let’s take a look at how music is distributed. Music platforms are unevenly split on format support: Tidal supports stereo, Atmos, and Sony 360; Apple supports stereo and its proprietary Apple Spatial Audio codec, based on Dolby Atmos; Amazon supports stereo, Atmos, and Sony 360; Deezer supports Sony 360. Other services either don’t support immersive audio or their information is unclear. In 2023, Amazon announced a partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute to bring immersive audio to Audi vehicles via Amazon/Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Other premium vehicles, like Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo, already support Atmos playback. If you also work on film, consider Atmos a must.

Building a Room for Immersive Music Mixing

A jump to multichannel mixing from stereo or even from 5.1 is costly, so consider that Atmos is currently the dominant format in immersive music, but artists signed with Sony Records are likely to release their music in the Sony 360 RA format. Unless you already have clients or distribution for Sony 360, upgrading to Atmos would be the most profitable option at present. For a technical overview of how to set up a multichannel studio, check out our article Multichannel Audio Setup 1.0, but continue reading for an overview and plan for upgrading your room.

Note that while some surround or immersive work can be done with headphones, a proper speaker setup is essential for correctly mixing multichannel audio and hearing what your audience with speakers will experience. Although soundbars and smart speakers support immersive audio to some extent and are enjoyable for consumers, they serve only as a supplementary reference system for content creators. We should always check our mixes on headphones and consumer devices to ensure compatibility, but our best work will be done on speakers. 

The Room

Immersive music production and mixing require careful treatment and calibration of the listening room, even more so than stereo mixing. With speakers located around the room, including overhead, immersive systems demand attention to managing reflections and achieving uniform and rapid decay times across all frequencies. Speakers mounted near walls and ceilings require proper treatment for speaker boundary interference (SBIR) and equalization to counteract acoustic space loading.

The recommended size for an immersive music production room is based on the speaker layout dimensions. Dolby and Sony recognize that music mixing may take place in smaller environments and even on headphones, but these are the suggested minimum requirements. A well-treated room should have a minimum speaker layout dimension of 3.7m L x 3.4m W x 2.4m H, (12.1′ x 11.2′ x 7.9′). Larger rooms are also fine, as long as the speakers are within 4 meters (13′) from the listening position. 

The minimum Atmos music speaker setup requires 7.1.4: 7 ear-level speakers, 1 subwoofer (LFE), and 4 overhead speakers. Sony 360 RA needs 5 horizontal speakers, 5 upper-layer speakers, and 3 floor-level speakers, but no sub or LFE channel. Both systems allow for bass-managed speakers that utilize subwoofers to supplement small speaker cabinets. It’s recommended to use all the same speakers and each speaker should produce a frequency response of 40 Hz to 18 kHz (±3 dB). 

Each speaker should be capable of generating 85 dB SPL at the listening position, and the subwoofer should reach down to 30 Hz. To save on cost and size, studios opt for larger front (left, right, and center) speakers but smaller surround and height speakers. In this case, it would be wise to choose speakers in the same model line to ensure a similar tonal balance across all the speakers. An example of this strategy would be to choose Genelec 8341s for the front speakers and 8331s for the others.

Two different Atmos music setups. Left 7.1.4 and right 9.1.4

The placement of immersive speakers varies but speakers may be placed on a circle equidistant around the listening position or along the walls of a rectangular room. Height channel placement differs between Atmos and Sony 360, but both allow for a range of placement options in consideration of room structures, such as doors. Additionally, all the speakers must be time-aligned for the mixer to hear a cohesive sound from all directions. Film mixers are familiar with the X-curve for monitor systems and Dolby specifies a music mixing EQ curve which is applied while calibrating the monitor system. Sony does not specify an EQ curve other than a flat system.

Dolby’s guidelines for speaker setup can be found in the  Dolby Atmos Music Room Best Practices document. Dolby offers a detailed guide on speaker placement and calibration for immersive systems and this calibration technique can be applied to other setups, like Sony 360 RA. A multichannel monitor controller is necessary In order to facilitate level control and calibration of a multichannel system. The monitor controller must provide level control for each speaker and onboard DSP for delay and EQ for each channel. Level control and calibration may be done through other means, such as with the Dolby Mastering Suite or SoundID Reference for Multichannel and then a hardware monitor controller may not be necessary. Genelec offers GLM, a scalable monitor controller with speaker calibration features that integrates with Genelec monitors. 

We can see that proper monitoring systems for Atmos or Sony 360 RA require a substantial investment, including at least 12 (Atmos) or 13 (360 RA) speakers, a monitor controller with DSP, wiring and installation of speakers, and proper acoustic treatment for accurate listening. A 7.1.4 professional system can cost around $10,000 (USD) including standard speakers and a monitor controller with built-in DSP. Alternatively, SoundID Reference for Multichannel is a cost-effective software solution that provides DSP calibration and monitor control for up to 16 speakers (9.1.6). For SoundID to work as a monitor controller, the outputs of your mix computer would route, most likely via Dante, to a second computer running the SoundID Reference for Multichannel software. The SoundID machine becomes the monitor controller and will require an audio interface capable of at least twelve outputs (7.1.4). The choice between a hardware monitor controller or a software-based solution depends on personal preference. Don’t forget to budget for cabling, stands, and ceiling mounts for the speakers.

Software for Immersive Audio

On the software side, a few DAWs support Atmos natively, while others require the Dolby Atmos Production Suite and an optional Dolby Atmos panner plugin. The more costly Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite, while not necessary for many content creators, can run on a separate computer to optimize CPU usage. The Mastering Suite provides enhanced features for editing and mastering Atmos ADM files, as well as room calibration with DSP, so the renderer will work as a monitor controller with EQ and delay calibration for each speaker, plus overall monitor control. Logic Pro and Cubase provide built-in authoring for Atmos ADM files, so they don’t require the Dolby Atmos Production or Mastering Suite. Dolby and other developers create plugins for all DAW platforms that help with immersive panning, upmixing, and effects. 

Sony 360 RA creation requires the use of Sony’s 360 Walkmix Creator software in conjunction with any DAW. Sony suggests that an immersive mix can be created simply on headphones, but the sense of height and front-to-back may not be represented the same way on headphones as on speakers. A 360 RA mix is rendered and distributed in the 360 Reality Audio Music Format, which is compliant with MPEG-H 3D audio, an open-source format used for video, games, and music. Many consumer audio systems, including smart speakers and soundbars, can play MPEG-H 3D audio with great results.

Do We Need Speakers?

Atmos mixes could theoretically be produced on headphones, but the spatial representation will not match the experience of a speaker system. Consumers can listen to Atmos and Sony 360 mixes on headphones on many streaming services, and soundbars, smart speakers, and some automobiles support Atmos playback. Currently, Apple uses a modified codec to stream Atmos over headphones that creates a different spatial impression than Dolby’s own binaural codec. While this difference will not affect playback over speakers, it forces mixers to create a mix that will sound different on headphones when played on Apple Music compared to other streaming services. Apple is continually improving the playback experience and adding features like head-tracking, providing a different listening experience for consumers. For these reasons, it is highly recommended that speakers should be the primary tool for creating immersive music, followed by checking compatibility on headphones and soundbars.

Producing Multichannel Music

Two situations arise when producing immersive audio content. First, many distribution companies want to re-mix or convert existing stereo music releases into immersive formats to provide an enhanced listening experience (and a new product to distribute). Second, producers can compose and arrange music to take advantage of the 3D soundstage of immersive formats. As a mixer, each of these must be approached thoughtfully.

When re-mixing or converting existing stereo music into Atmos or 360 RA, the mixer may be supplied with either processed stems from the stereo mix session or the original multitrack files. The first step is to recreate and match the original stereo mix so that its integrity remains intact. Then, the mix can be expanded to include immersive ambiences, movements, and soundfield adjustments that enhance the 3D impression of the mix. The mixer must be cautious not to lose the impact or essence of the stereo mix by over-modifying the original mix. The main groove of a mix will likely require only slight adjustments in 3D space, while spatial effects and discrete sounds may provide an opportunity for experimenting with spatial placement and motion. The mix should be compared to the original stereo mix to ensure that it has been enhanced while retaining the original musical feeling and intention.

When mixing music that has been arranged for Atmos mixing, anything goes! A stereo mix that resembles the Atmos version must also be created, as many or most listeners will only hear the stereo version. Immersive mixing requires checking a mix on a fully compliant speaker system, headphones, and even some consumer playback devices like soundbars, to ensure that a mix will translate well to most listeners. The lack of consumer acceptance of 5.1 music mixes was largely due to the fact that playback systems were not portable and difficult to set up properly, and headphone playback was not even supported. Atmos and Sony 360 aim to bring immersive audio to all audiences, whether they are listening on headphones or speaker systems

Learning to Mix in Immersive Formats

If you desire to become fluent in mixing multichannel audio, you must invest a considerable amount of time in learning the technology and techniques. Additionally, spend time listening to immersive mixes on a calibrated speaker system and on headphones. Compare great stereo mixes to their immersive versions to see what other mixers have tried and what you like and dislike about the mixes. Experiment and engage in conversations with other immersive mixers to shorten your learning curve. We have been mixing music in stereo for approximately 75 years and mastering that craft requires a lot of effort. Don’t expect immersive mixing to be easier than stereo – we are creating the rules as we work!

Be warned: mixing immersive music requires a new approach to loudness. Atmos music mixes for distribution must not exceed -18 LUFS for the loudest song on an album. While that may seem low, we must remember that Atmos mixes routinely downmix to only two channels, which requires extra headroom. Most mixers don’t find -18 LUFS to limit the impact of a good mix, especially immersive audio produces a 3D soundfield. Immersive mixes tend to feel very dynamic and full without the need for as much bus compression as stereo mixes. Below are some suggested titles where you can compare great-sounding stereo mixes to great-sounding immersive mixes. 

Suggested Listening

01. Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia  (Atmos, stereo)

02. Dua Lipa 360 RA playlist on Tidal 

03. Lorde Solar Power   (Atmos, stereo)

04. SZA SOS    (360 RA, stereo)

05. Billie Eilish Happier Than Ever   (Atmos, stereo)

06. Miles Davis Kind of Blue   (Atmos, 360 RA, stereo)

07. Herbie Hancock Headhunters   (Atmos, 360 RA, stereo)

08. Sam Smith Gloria  (Atmos, stereo)

09. Blink 182  Edging (Atmos, stereo)

Continue reading about how to listen to immersive audio and how to set up a multichannel studio.