Dolby Atmos for Noah music mix

Grammy award-winning engineer Geoff Foster recently completed the first-ever Dolby Atmos-specific music mix for Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah with the mix of the 60-piece triple tracked orchestra taking place at the Manhattan Music Centre’s Log Cabin studio. Audio Media chatted with the man himself about the challenges and rewards of bringing Atmos to the world of film music.

First off, tell me how you got involved in the project.

Clint Mansell [composer for Noah] and I have worked together for a good 10 years now and we’ve done most of Aronofsky’s films together, so when this one came up I got the call.

What were the main challenges of doing a music mix in Atmos?

The most obvious thing is that there’s not yet an established ‘here’s how you do it’ kind of thing. Because Atmos can be up to 60-odd speakers, we had to find a way to hang a meaningful number of speakers above the console. I had the guys from Dolby come in and I’ve been to see a few Atmos demos in London and New York with a view to working out what it might entail and how the algorithm works. Having established a mechanism for hanging the speakers above the console, it was then a matter of voicing them to make sure they were at a suitable volume and would translate to an Atmos system.

What did you end up using for your monitoring system?

I ended up getting some Unity Audio Rocks and suspending them because they are self-powered, I like the way they sound, and they’re relatively small and light so it wasn’t a huge drama coming up with a way to actually hang them above me.

So how did you end up utilising Atmos during the actual mix process?

One of the things that I was very aware of was that a lot of theatres don’t yet have Dolby Atmos so we had to come up with a way of either folding it down into a 5.1 in a way that didn’t upset the balance too much, or making sure anything that went up into Atmos was not crucial if it did get lost when it was folded down. We spent a couple of days just mucking about with volumes and trying different levels and listening to it in surround and then stereo and just generally trying to find a relationship between the Atmos and what I was doing that made a valid working compromise between all the working formats. We settled on basically a 10dB fold down front back and into the surrounds which actually worked really well so the material that went up there was generally more ambience and then we did a few special effects for special moments.

Were there any concerns with fitting the music with sound effects or dialogue?

After the first few mixes I went down to the dubbing stage, which had been specifically constructed for this project at Deluxe in New York, to listen with the music mixer Skip [Livesay]. We mucked around with positioning and what sounded closest to what I thought it should sound like. Having done that they were then able to weave that into the sound effects.

One of the things about Atmos is that it assumes each element can be panned around and that panning information is included in the Atmos metadata whereas what I actually did was I said ‘right, that front left Atmos will always be front left Atmos’, so any clever panning I did, as you would in a stereo environment, within my four Atmos channels. With Dolby Atmos itself, in theory, the sound effects move in their own right and the software pans them when you get to the theatre. I said ‘you know what, let’s assume my speakers are fixed and there will always be at least four and we will work a relationship around that’ and that worked very well.

I think music and sound effects are very different in that sound effects tend to be very short term – they are very see-it-hear-it. You rarely get a sound effect that lasts 4:30, but you do quite often get music that lasts that long. That difference makes sense to me to just say pan it here and leave it here.

Were there any other special considerations you had to address?

[During recording] we hung specific mics way, way above the orchestra, far higher than one would normally hang them with the sole purpose of them being atmosphere mics. Darren had said from the start that he wanted this to be an Atmos music mix.

I wanted to present something to the dubbing stage that I felt was another notch up from what most other scores are and I think we did a fantastic job. Certainly when I heard the score in Atmos it sounded very special.