Nearly four years after Dolby Atmos music made its debut on the Tidal streaming service, it’s looking like the immersive format is here to stay for the foreseeable future. New albums continue to appear at a breakneck pace not only via streaming, but also on Blu-Ray disc and high-resolution digital download formats.
However, as has always been the case with surround and immersive music, the overall quality and approach to mixing music in the new format varies wildly. It quickly becomes apparent that every mixer has their own unique philosophy with regards to implementation of the expanded soundstage: some tend to opt for a more-conservative ‘expanded stereo’ presentation, while others prefer to really experiment with all the newfound possibilities that spatial audio affords.
If you’ve just invested in a Dolby Atmos system, the extensive choice of available material to test your system with might seem daunting. In the article below, we highlight ten Dolby Atmos music tracks that best showcase the variable mixing approaches to the format as well as offer a fully-immersive demonstration-quality experience for new listeners.
Artist: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Song: "Don’t Come Around Here No More” (from 1993’s Greatest Hits)
Mixed By: Ryan Ulyate
Newly-remixed by Ryan Ulyate to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Dolby Atmos mix of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 1993 Greatest Hits compilation is a shining example of how to treat classic material with reverence while also making full use of the immersive medium. After all, it was crowned winner by popular vote in the latest edition of our Listener’s Choice Awards.
Arguments could be made for the inclusion of all 18 songs in the compilation on this list, but I’d give highest honors to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” from 1985’s Southern Accents. One of the band’s most ambitious tunes ever sounds absolutely massive in Atmos, with the listener bombarded from all angles by a dense tapestry of guitars, keyboards, digital percussion, and layered harmony vocals.
The hardest song to [re]mix was definitely “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” At that time, you could slave multiple 24-track machines together with timecode. For that song, there was a master and maybe three slaves. They left pretty much all the decisions until the mix, so there’s all these bits and pieces on different tracks. For example, there’s a short fretless bass lick towards the beginning of the song. It turned out that part was tracked for the entire duration, but they only used that one piece. That one was a real head trip.Ryan Ulyate, October 2022
XTC’s The Big Express (1984) isn’t commonly rated among the band’s best works by fans, perhaps due in part to the dense, almost-claustrophobic nature of the original production and mix. However, the transformative Dolby Atmos mix from Steven Wilson makes it abundantly clear that a traditional stereo soundstage was simply inadequate to accurately express the band’s grandiose vision for this album.
I was particularly excited to see how the interlocking guitar lines throughout the energetic opening number “Wake Up” would be presented in Atmos, and the effect is even more impressive than I’d hoped: the guitars wildly rove around the room, ricocheting off the side, rear, and top speakers. Colin Moulding’s lead vocal is most prominent in the center speaker, countered by backing vocal chants of “who cares!” from behind. Andy Partridge's harmonies on key phrases (“another shift,” “the radio is blaring out,” etc) arc over the listener’s head from the rear height channels, while the whispered “wake up, wake up” chorus vocals move all around the top speakers.
“If it’s a record that already exists and people love it, which is probably true of about 80% of my remix work, then my approach is to be incredibly faithful to the original mix decisions: stereo placement, levels, reverbs, equalization, compression, etc. I try to keep to [those] same decisions, which then become a springboard for going on and doing the surround mixes. You can take a lot of cues and hints from the way the original mix was approached, but you can also be creative as there’s usually no precedent for a surround interpretation. It may sound very simple, but that really is my philosophy. Be super faithful in recreating the stereo, and then use that as a template for how you approach the surround.”Steven Wilson, July 2022
Bruce Soord’s Luminescence–The Pineapple frontman’s third solo record, released in September 2023–features some of his most beautiful compositions to date, accentuated by a brilliant six-piece string section recorded at London’s famous RAK studio. It really does sound like the album was composed with spatial audio in mind, rather than a 'retrofit' done after-the-fact.
“Never Ending Light” blends Soord’s acoustic sensibilities with some electronic elements to great effect. Lead vocals are suspended between the front, side, and front height speakers, as if they’re floating right in front of your face. The drums also fill the space between the fronts and sides, while acoustic guitars extend upwards from the sides into the height array. Backing vocals form a sort of ‘arc’ behind the listener’s head, appearing in the sides, rears, and rear heights. There’s even a fun bit of playful movement in this track, as the keyboard ‘pings’ during the intro bounce all around the room.
“It’s interesting figuring out how to approach [immersive mixing] when you’re used to just looking at two speakers. Some people try to make it sound natural, like you’re watching the band perform on stage with added space and depth. To cut a long story short, the way I approach it now is to imagine myself right in the middle of the song. Almost anything goes for me in terms of placement. The drums tend to stay in the front, and you can’t have too much coming from the back because many listeners use small satellite speakers. My goal is to make it an immersive experience, like literally dipping your head right into the music.”Bruce Soord, July 2022
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Song: “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” (from 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns)
Mixed By: Ken Caillat & Claus Trelby
As part of the ongoing Joni Mitchell Archives series of reissues from Warner/Rhino, the expert mixing of team of Ken Caillat & Claus Trelby at Marshmellow Skies Studios were tasked with remixing four of the singer-songwriter’s classic ‘70s albums–1972’s For The Roses, 1974’s Court and Spark (along with its accompanying live release Miles of Aisles from that same year), and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns–in Dolby Atmos.
1975’s jazz-tinged The Hissing of Summer Lawns, my personal favorite of the four albums, is arguably the most impressive and best suited to an immersive presentation. The Atmos mix really peels back all the layers: brass highlights often appear in the back corners–mixed partially to the heights for a more enveloping sound–while Mitchell’s ethereal vocals float out into the room. There are even some fun passages with movement in the surround field, such as when her voice hops from speaker-to-speaker during the transition to “Centerpiece.”
“The top speakers are great. I liked to put Joni’s voice a bit closer to the listener and slightly elevated, as if she was standing up and performing right in front of us. Having all those speakers working in tandem really helped give an almost-live quality to her voice.”Ken Caillat, December 2023
In November 2023, The Zappa Family Trust and Universal Music Group joined forces to bring fans a packed 50th anniversary release of the 1973 classic Over-Nite Sensation. The set not only included new 5.1 surround & Dolby Atmos mixes from the team of Karma Auger & Erich Gobel at Studio 1LA, but also a high-resolution digital transfer of Frank Zappa’s original four-channel quadraphonic mix from the ½-inch master tape.
The Dolby Atmos mix is truly an assault on the senses, with all 11 speakers in a 7.1.4 system getting their due. Frank Zappa’s lead vocal in “Montana” appears suspended in the middle of the room, appearing at near-equal level in the center channel, front heights, sides, and rear surrounds. Ralph Humphrey’s drum kit sounds absolutely massive, with the big fills wildly roving all around the room while keys percolate from the rear and horns pop up from above. The extended guitar solo at around the two-minute mark appears directly behind the listener’s head, while the crazy high-pitched backing vocals from The Ikettes seem divided mostly between the side right and front left height speakers.
With September 2023’s Act 3–his debut release as a solo artist–expert producer/engineer Ryan Ulyate (Tom Petty, George Harrison, ELO) proved that his talent wasn’t just limited to the mixing board. Inspired by the bands he listened to while growing up as well as artists he’s worked with, and produced especially for Dolby Atmos, it’s a compelling tapestry of classic British and California rock. The album additionally features incredible performances from drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Josh Jové.
“Dreamland” kicks the proceedings off in style with Ulyate’s layered vocals surrounding the listener, before blasting off into full immersion with the drums filling up the entire space at ear level, acoustic rhythm guitars upfront, an electric rhythm part in the side surrounds, and lead guitar fills popping out of the front heights. Lead vocals are loudest in the center speaker, but some additional dry signal spills over a bit into the front and side channels for a more cohesive experience.
When we started working on what became “Dreamland,” I didn’t even have a lyric yet. There was a pretty basic backing track of me just playing chords on keyboards and bass. Josh came in and started playing all these surf guitar riffs, with the whammy bar and all that stuff. He also came up with that cool little Hawaiian-sounding coda at the end. I’m sitting there thinking “this is great! We’ll make it a ridiculous surf rock track.” It ended up being my California story, which is so fun, but in the end it was the guitar that really inspired the lyric.Ryan Ulyate, November 2023
Steven Wilson released his much-hyped seventh studio album, The Harmony Codex, in September 2023 and–as longtime fans of his would no doubt expect–it marks yet another evolution in the groundbreaking artist’s storied career. Though Wilson's catalog is known for its variety, I can't recall another example of such diverse musical styles co-existing in a coherent way within a single record.
Each song is its own self-contained audio adventure with unique twists and turns, but perhaps none more so than the nearly ten-minute concluding number “Staircase.” It's a propulsive blend of live & programmed drums, analog synths, electric guitar, and–perhaps coolest of all–an awesome Chapman Stick solo from veteran collaboration Nick Beggs. All speakers gets their due, with electric rhythm guitar in the sides, backing vocals in the rears, keys moving around overhead, and the rhythm section seemingly everywhere at once.
Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited tenth studio album finally hit shelves in December 2023, after nearly three decades of development. Hans-Martin Buff’s Dolby Atmos ‘In-Side Mix’ is a completely unique interpretation of the album, not modeled after either the ‘Bright-Side’ or ‘Dark-Side’ stereo versions. It even includes unique instrumentation recorded explicitly for the purpose of enhancing the immersive experience, such as additional acoustic guitars in “Panopticom” and extra percussion in “The Court.”
“And Still,” a moving tribute to Gabriel’s mother Irene, is certainly a highlight of the immersive presentation. The track begins with chimes moving overhead, as the lush orchestration wraps all around the room and shakers rotate around the listener. There’s a particularly great moment at the beginning of the second verse (“I wander around the house…”) where the entire soundfield suddenly seems to shrink–with much of the instrumentation dropping out and a filter applied to Gabriel’s voice, creating the impression it’s coming out of an old transistor radio–and then expands back out again.
“With Peter’s songs, I sometimes add things to the In-Side Mixes that aren’t in the stereo versions. This is done not because I see myself as a producer-in-waiting and he needs my input, but to make sure that his musical intention in the stereo mix works as impressively if not more so in Atmos. i/o is definitely closer to [the] idea of a record made specifically for the immersive format, as I can augment the recording to the point where it’s more effective and better than stereo.”Hans-Martin Buff, September 2023
Just over a year after the release of 2022’s X, singer-songwriter Michael Marquart impressively managed to write, record & produce an entirely new 12-track album entitled Short St. Much like his prior three releases, Short St. covers a lot of ground genre-wise with elements of country/western, more mainstream ‘feel-good' pop/rock, progressive rock, and various other styles in between.
As with most Bob Clearmountain 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos mixes, the separation of the instruments is extreme. The center channel once again acts as the focal point of the surround presentation, featuring not only dry lead vocals but also bass guitar, kick drum, lead guitar, and percussion. “Passion Play” opens with the muscular bass line in the center speaker, underpinning Marquart’s lead vocal while acoustic guitars percolate from the sides and falsetto vocals pop up in the rear heights.
Artist: Daft Punk
Song: “The Game Of Love” (from 2013’s Random Access Memories)
Mixed By: ?
The French electronic duo’s fourth and ultimately final studio album effectively paid tribute to the classic R&B/funk music of the 1970s & 80s, with key contributions from Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes and Chic frontman Nile Rodgers elevating it to the top of their discography. Random Access Memories has undoubtedly appeared on many immersive music fans’ wishlists since it debuted in 2013, and the new Dolby Atmos mix–created as part of celebrations surrounding the album’s tenth anniversary–doesn’t disappoint.
The ethereal “The Game Of Love” is among the many highlights of the Atmos presentation, with the Fender Rhodes and choppy guitar patterns gently floating above and behind the main listening position. Dry lead vocals are almost entirely isolated in the center speaker, with reverbs and delays hitting off the height array.
Credits for the Dolby Atmos remix appear to be unavailable at this time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if original mixing engineer Mick Guzauski (Chuck Mangione, Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, etc) was responsible. Guzauski remixed a number of classic albums in 5.1 surround sound throughout the early-2000s, including Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) and Derek & The Dominos’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970).