My love for immersive audio only gets stronger as I hear more Atmos music. I've been listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller (40th anniversary) in Atmos for the past 24 hours, and loving every minute of it. The Atmos mix is great, and dare I say it, provides an experience with which no stereo format can compete, whether that's the 24/44.1 stereo digital version, or the digitally sourced Mobile Fidelity vinyl version.
I had several Atmos albums to talk about today, but thought I'd cover the fresh Grammy nominated albums in the Best Immersive Audio Album category instead. The field is very strong this year, and includes some engineers familiar to all of us in the Audiophile Style community.
Best Immersive Audio Album
"For vocal or instrumental albums in any genre. Must be commercially released on DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, SACD, Blu-Ray, or burned download-only/streaming-only copies and must provide a new immersive mix of four or more channels. Award to the immersive mix engineer, immersive producer (if any) and immersive mastering engineer (if any)."
Jaycen Joshua, immersive mix engineer
Jaycen Joshua, immersive mastering engineer
(Christina Aguilera) Apple Music Atmos
I've been a fan of Christina Aguilera since her second album Stripped was released twenty years ago. She is incredibly talented, and very different from many Pop stars in that she sings all the vocals live at her concerts. I've seen her twice, once from the fourth row at Xcel Energy Center here in Minnesota, and was blown away both times. Here's an interesting look into her version of A Song For you, recorded with Herbie Hancock - video.
This nominated album has a good mix that serves the music and provides a different experience from the stereo version, as I believe immersive music is meant to do. Christina's vocals are focussed in the front channels, but she appears on the side and rears for little vocal fills. Other backing vocalists enter specific tracks from the sides and rear, in support of the main vocal, in a conservative way that isn't overdone for most peoples' tastes.
Track three, Somos Nada, features Christina's vocal in the front with accompanying piano supporting her from the sides. It's beautifully done and enables the listener to easily separate the two musicians audibly and visually in one's head, while the sound comes together very well at the listening position. Track six, La Reina, has a very similar Atmos mix but with acoustic guitars and backing vocals filling in, instead of piano. Really nice.
Track five uses Atmos very freely, with vocals and instruments entering the soundstage from all around the listener. I love the discrete use of all the channels, but more traditional listeners may be overwhelmed with all that is going on.
As this album is in Spanish, it's harder for me to connect with the lyrics, given that I understand a few words here and there. The Atmos mix is consistent across all three "Discs," serving the music, staying fairly conservative, but supplying a bit more immersion here and there. Well done Jaycen Joshua.
Note: This album is in stark contrast to Christina Aguilera's Stripped album Atmos mix that was released in October 2022. I respect artistic decisions to make an albums sound how the artist and engineers see fit, but this one is probably my least favorite Atmos mix to date. Christina's powerful voice emanates from the rear channels 90% of the time, with the main beat coming from the front. It's awkward to say the least. I was excited for its release, but can't stand to listen to it, other than to demonstrate to visitors what a "bad" Atmos mix sounds like.
Eric Schilling, immersive mix engineer
Stewart Copeland, Ricky Kej & Herbert Waltl, immersive producers
(Stewart Copeland & Ricky Kej)
This nomination is interesting, to say the least. I can only find the recording available as a Sony 360 Reality Audio release, on Tidal and Amazon Music. Neither service can deliver this content to anything other than headphones, so I skipped listening to it. I don't believe the current headphone experience competes with a discrete 7.1.4 audio system.
Memories...Do Not Open
Mike Piacentini, immersive mix engineer
Mike Piacentini, immersive mastering engineer
Adam Alpert, Alex Pall, Jordan Stilwell & Andrew Taggart, immersive producers
(The Chainsmokers) Apple Music Atmos
I'd heard of The Chainsmokers for years, but had never spent time listening to the band's albums before I saw Memories...Do Not Open nominated for an immersive Grammy. I really like the music and the Atmos mix on this album. Each track ebbs and flows from a conservative mix to aggressive mix, and back again, all in roughly three minutes. This is a great use of immersive audio, without a touch of gimmickry, but tons of discrete content around the listener at ear level and overhead.
Track five, Something Like This, is the most popular track on the album, featuring Chris Martin of Coldplay. This is definitely a track that will get more "civilian" listeners interested in immersive HiFi because they've likely heard it many times in stereo, but never experienced it like this The track is far from an audiophile gem, but can sound pretty decent and very energetic on a good HiFi system.
Overall a really nice Atmos mix from Mike Piacentini.
Picturing The Invisible - Focus 1
Jim Anderson, immersive mix engineer
Morten Lindberg & Ulrike Schwarz, immersive mastering engineers
Jane Ira Bloom & Ulrike Schwarz, immersive producers
Now we enter audiophile territory with engineers and impeccable sound quality that many of us know and love.The music is really good, but perhaps a bit non-traditional for some mainstream listeners.
In Joe Whip's article (link) about the stereo version of this album he said:
"July 12, 2022 marks the formal release the latest recording by Jane Ira Bloom, Picturing The Invisible-focus 1. This is a special recording in many respects. First, it features Award winning jazz soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom on what else, soprano sax, drummer Allison Miller, Kato artist Miya Masaoka and bassist Mark Helias. Recorded in February 2022, it was performed in real time while connected remotely from each artists’ respective homes in New York City, and captured in 32 bit 384 kHz DXD by Ulrike Schwarz. Given that each performer was located in various locations, one could possibly expect a disjointed performance. Not here. The recording and performances are seamless, sounding like the musicians were recording together in the same real vs. virtual space. This is a testament to the talent of the musicians, modern technology and the engineering chops of Ms. Schwarz. The stereo and multichannel versions of the album are available on Native DSD in redbook (gulp) MQA and 24/192 and 24/384 and all flavors of DSD up to 1024. The stereo versions are available as well on Qobuz and Spotify."
Joe is right on and his overall assessment carries over to the immersive mix, available in Auro 3D and Atmos. The team of Schwarz, Anderson, and Lindberg created an immersive experience on this album that manages to use discrete immersive elements and use the surround channels for reverb and ambiance that places the listener in a recording venue that never existed. It's hard for me to verbalize this one. For example, there are percussive elements in the side channels at times, and the main percussion comes from the front channels. Meanwhile, the sense of space and reverb from the main front percussion emanates from around the listener, like it would in the real world.
Listening to the album, I feel like it was recorded live in a small church, and I'm sitting dead center, fairly close to the musicians in the front. But as we know, this was recorded pandemic style and mixed / mastered by incredibly talented engineers. This immersive release is a masterpiece in creating a whole that is far better than the sum of the parts.
Tuvayhun — Beatitudes For A Wounded World
Morten Lindberg, immersive mix engineer
Morten Lindberg, immersive mastering engineer
Morten Lindberg, immersive producer
Tuvayhun — Beatitudes For A Wounded World is absolutely stunning by any measure. Also, the recording process couldn't be more different from the aforementioned Jane Ira Bloom album. Neither style is "correct." They are both different. On Tuvayhun, Morten Lindberg placed microphones in the center of all the great musicians, capturing a live event in real space. When listening on an immersive system, it's possible to look at the recording layout (seen below), and hear exactly what was heard in Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway, in November 2020 and February 2021 during the recording.
There are no side or rear channel "fills" with different instruments or vocals that didn't exist at the live event. Everything is reproduced as captured, giving the listener an incredible view into the music and the experience of being immersed in the music.
Right now, I don't believe anybody is creating immersive recordings on the level of Morten Lindberg. He is creative, and not bound by traditional techniques, thought processes, or expectations. Tuvayhun is yet another example of fantastic musicianship and fantastic engineering, that brings this somewhat formal music to new heights, and new audiences.
I also have to commend Morten and 2L for making Tuvayhun available for people to stream, or purchase in Auro 3D, Atmos, and my absolute favorite format "DXD discrete channels WAV 7.1.4 immersive." These are 12 channel WAV files that can be played by any 7.1.4 system capable of handling the sample rate. No special Auro or Dolby decoder necessary. Bravo!
I honestly can't pick a favorite for the best immersive audio album. A wide range of music and recording styles are represented. I struggle with selecting a "best" of any single piece in a group of art. Each engineer was tasked with creating something unique so how can one be the best? If they all were tasked with creating the same thing, then I could possibly see selecting a best. Possibly.
Nonetheless, it's a fantastic field from which to choose or to cheer on.